The Centre for Human Rights feels compelled to comment on recent remarks by the South African Speaker of the House of Assembly, when she said "If we don't work we will continue to have cockroaches like Malema roaming all over the place," at the Mmabatho Civic Centre in Mafikeng.
We are saddened and alarmed by the use of the term 'cockroach' to dehumanise a political adversary. Let it be clearly stated: Our concern is not about the personalities involved, but about the principle at stake.
The Speaker is not only a prominent public figure. She is also, above all, the symbol of fair play in the primary space for democratic deliberation in our country. According to Parliament’s web page, she is the ‘leader’ of the National Assembly and should ensure that its processes are in accordance with the Constitution. Her remark can therefore not be brushed aside as a thoughtless utterance in the heat of political debate.
The remark can also not in any way be justified as having been made in her capacity as ANC Chairperson. On the contrary, holding this position adds to her profile, and exacerbates the noxious impact of her remark. In any event, when the ANC Chairperson makes remarks related directly to her function as Speaker, she can hardly hide behind the duality of functions. If anything, the controversy highlights the real potential for conflict arising from the same person holding the offices of both ANC Chairperson and Speaker.
The Speaker must know, as many South Africans do, that the word 'cockroach' evokes the worst in humanity. It reminds us of the prelude to the genocide in Rwanda. Through a process of de-individuation, ordinary Rwandans lost their humanity and acted in ways that were only possible because their minds have been blunted by political leaders engaging in a public discourse of hatred and dehumanisation. Public figures referred to the Tutsi people as ‘inyenzi’ (Kinyarwanda for ‘cockroach’) to denote vermin to be exterminated and removed from Rwandan households. Stripping those one disagrees with of their humanity is a crucial step in the direction of rendering them legitimate targets of violence.
At the very least, the Speaker should unconditionally and unequivocally apologise, and retract her statement. The ANC and Parliament itself should explicitly distance themselves from these remarks, and rebuke the Speaker for having uttered them. Such a rebuke must place a huge question mark over her suitability to hold the office of Speaker. Having set out to demean a foe, the Speaker has succeeded in demeaning not only herself, but also her party, and Parliament. Regretfully, this development comes at a time when Parliament has increasingly come to be viewed as a space where meaningful democratic deliberation is the exception rather than the rule.