Please, mind your language

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Human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms.

This is a core value on which the Constitution is founded. Who doesn’t want to live in a country founded on such a noble base? It sounds like the Promised Land after all — especially to as many as 80 000 new asylum seekers a year.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that 330 000 refugees and asylum seekers will call SA home by the end of 2015, drawn by the shining ray of hope emanating from SA’s constitutional groundwork. Yet, instead of open arms, they find hands clenched in fists, clutching stones, sticks, machetes, and petrol bombs.

South Africa also sounds like the Promised Land to us, the holders of the green barcoded ID document which says that we have a right to claim the dignity, equality, rights and freedoms underpinned by the Constitution. But according to Statistics SA, many of our citizens earn less than R900 a month. Where is the sense of equality in scrounging for survival while watching those charged with our welfare amass unimaginable wealth? What is dignified about having little choice but to live in overcrowded townships, where the infrastructure fails dismally to provide even the most basic of human rights?

The people of South Africa are angry because they were promised hope and yet they are starving. Their pleas for change fall on seemingly deaf ears and they have no way of venting their frustration at this. Is it any wonder then that they turn their impotent rage on those perceived to benefit unjustly from our country’s charity?

I can understand the disenfranchisement, frustration, and powerlessness that feeds the anger of our people. In essence what we are seeing is no more than a collective temper tantrum, an expression of powerful feelings that have no other outlet. But the manifestation of this anger leaves my mind reeling: rage so all-consuming that it burns as unbridled hatred, needing only the tiniest spark to ignite a firestorm aimed at the only target within range, namely those who are deemed “foreign”.

That tiny spark is rhetoric: the language that we all use every day. Not English, or isiZulu, but the flammable language of bigotry. The culturally embedded little embers of denigration that have become socially acceptable, expressions like “Nigerians are drug dealers”, or “foreigners are bringing crime into the country”. This rhetoric is a slow poison seeping into the fabric of our consciousness over time, ultimately telling us that it is okay to treat others as if they do not deserve to live. And it’s a deadly poison, because sanctioned defamation gives licence to hate speech, and hate speech breeds hate crime.

Whose responsibility is it to protect the rights of all who live in South Africa? That responsibility rests not with our government, but with me and with you. We have the responsibility to mind our language. We have the responsibility to speak a language of love and hope, if we want to live in a country that enshrines “human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms”. So please, mind your language, and the next time you hear someone casually saying something that sounds like a slur, ask them to please mind their language.

As Elie Wiesel said: “I swore never to be silent whenever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Yolanda Mitchell is a researcher concerned with bringing about positive, sustainable social change. She is affiliated with the PsySSA Sexuality and Gender division, and is currently contracted as research project manager for the Hate Crimes Working Group.