Learn a lesson from Rwanda

File photo of a Rwandan refugee girl staring at a mass grave where dozens of bodies

File photo of a Rwandan refugee girl staring at a mass grave where dozens of bodies

Some estimates put the genocide toll as high as 1 million people.

It was 25 years ago this week that an executive jet carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, and his counterpart Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi, was shot down by a missile as it came in to land in Burundi.

All on board were killed and the incident sparked one of the worst genocides in the history of the African continent. Both the dead men were Hutus, the majority ethnic grouping in Rwanda and Burundi. In Rwanda, Hutus led by the infamous Interahamwe militia embarked on an orgy of murder. For 100 bloody days, they hacked, shot and burnt 800,000 members of the Tutsi minority in Rwanda.

Some estimates put the genocide toll as high as 1 million people. The slaughter went unhindered by the United Nations or by the Western powers.

It only ended when a Tutsi rebel army, led by Paul Kagame, the man who is now president of Rwanda, forced the Hutus out into the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (then known as Zaire).

Rwanda-sponsored rebels eventually ousted Zairean dictator Mobutu Seso Seko, replacing him with Laurent Kabila. Many, including French investigators, blamed Kagame for shooting down the plane, something he has vehemently denied.

He and others claim it was done as a pretext for the Hutu attack on Tutsis.

For many in South Africa, there is little concern for events elsewhere on the continent.

Yet, there are lessons we should learn from what happened in Rwanda, not least the populist incitement ahead of the genocide, including Hutu leaders and media which characterised Tutsis as “cockroaches” who should be eradicated.

Similar things have been said in this country and brushed aside as being covered by the principle of “freedom of speech” or even “taken out of context”.

It takes little to spark an ethnic or racial conflagration.

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