Songs of hate

Artist Mbongeni Ngema’s controversial AmaNdiya song about South African Indians brings to mind another song—by a Rwandan musician, Simon Bikindi. It was released just before the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

Bikindi is of the Hutu people; the larger of Rwanda’s two main ethnic groups. Hutus were incited to turn on their Tutsi compatriots in an atavistic massacre intended to exterminate all Tutsis in the country.
This came about after Rwandan exiles—driven abroad by earlier massacres—organised themselves into a government in exile and formed an armed group to force their return.

Extremist politicians and military men in the then-majority Hutu government—led by the late president Juvenal Habyarimana—had decided that one of the ways to “deal” with the “Tutsi problem” was through a Nazi-style final solution. To achieve this, all able-bodied Hutus had to be mobilised.

Music was one of the handy instruments used to convey their message, and to whip hundreds of thousands of Hutus wielding clubs, sticks, stones and machetes into a frenzied attack on their Tutsi neighbours, or any moderate Hutu who opposed them.

What is interesting (or, from a Rwandan’s point of view, disturbing) are the striking similarities in the lyrics of AmaNdiya and those of one of Bikindi’s songs, Bene Sebahinzi.

In this song, which was given extensive air time on radio RTLM—the hate radio station that played a very important role in disseminating the genocide message—Bikindi sang about the Tutsi enemies, who had never been true Rwandans anyway. This was apparently an allusion to the wild theorising of European historians in past centuries that Tutsis “due to certain somatic features” peculiar to “Semitic”, or “Aryan” groups “could only have originated elsewhere”.

The Tutsis, sang Bikindi, were wicked; did not want to share with Hutus, and only wanted to conquer and subjugate them. Therefore, strong, patriotic Hutus should take up arms to confront them.

Likewise, Ngema sings of the need for brave and strong men to face and confront Indians because the situation has become very difficult in Durban. He laments that Indians do not want to change, and as the song progresses, one notices a certain subtle alienation of the target group. “They speak Fanagalo, the airport is full of them, and they keep coming from India ... oh brothers, oh fellow brothers!”

One should not underestimate the power of music. Rwandan genocide survivors describe the effect of Bikindi’s song, and particularly the lines about the solidarity of Hutu brothers against the Tutsi enemy: “Hutu men (who had been organised into the infamous interahamwe militia) began behaving as if the devil had got into them ... They descended on Tutsi homes or hiding places in howling mobs baying for blood, cutting down with machetes every Tutsi they could find, clubbing them with masus [spiked clubs], raping and pillaging.”

Bikindi has been charged with five counts of genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, sitting in the Tanzanian town of Arusha. He has been placed in category one, that of instigators, up there with the Hutu politicians, military men and planners of one of the worst massacres of the past century.

Ngema has been at pains to explain that his is not a message of hate, and that AmaNdiya is not meant to incite blacks against their Indian neighbours. Rather, he says, he is only opening a dialogue on “the inescapable reality of Indian racism”, and a number of their other negative traits. He also asserts that he is opening a way for reconciliation between blacks and Indians.

This has not stopped the authorities from banning the song, saying it amounts to hate speech, in turn kicking off a debate that has polarised South Africans. Many maintain that a ban on AmaNdiya amounts to depriving Ngema of his constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression, and is a dangerous precedent for the censorship of all forms of expression the authorities might find unpalatable.

South Africa is not Rwanda. First, and most importantly, its political leadership is notplanning or instigating massacres of sections of the country’s people. By Rwandan standards it is relatively prosperous—the deeper the economic distress, the stronger the likelihood of sectarian violence. Its people have the protection of a democratic Constitution and democratic institutions.

While Ngema was hauled before the Broadcast Complaints Commission, which banned his song from the airwaves, Bikindi had official sanction to propagate his musical poison. He was even given a post in the ministry of youth and culture.

Only after the fall of the Hutu government were his songs banned in Rwanda. Most Rwandans now feel that if his music had been banned earlier, the tragedy would not have assumed such catastrophic proportions.

Bikindi was driven by pure ideological hatred, while some have suggested that Ngema’s motives have more to do with self- promotion and an opportunistic desire to drive up sales.

That said, there is a long history of anti-Indian feeling in KwaZulu-Natal, going back to the terrible Cato Manor riots of the early 1950s. It is a continuous background to race relations in that province. Who knows what could happen if economic conditions continue to worsen?

Take it from a Rwandan: in the right circumstances, a song intended to call on one ethnic group to confront another can be extremely effective in driving home the message of genocide.

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