The trouble is that these stories are so unspeakable that many people's first reaction is fear, and they don't ask themselves whether the stories are believable. Politicians all over the world use this kind of scaremongering to fan up literal or metaphorical witch-hunts – and there lies the danger.
Some older people will remember ZANLA coming to their villages offering to cleanse them of witches and sell-outs. Those two words switch off reason and open the taps to a flood of fear. People accused being sell-outs or witches were not considered innocent till proved guilty. They right to defend yourself against accusations, demanding that the accuser proves his charge, is denied to these people, though we grant it to every mere murderer or thief. A lot of people ceased to see them as human, as people who have a right to defend themselves against accusations. This gave the experts at sniffing out such allegedly diabolical creatures a special power.
Zanu (PF) knew this and still do. We have always had wandering witch-hunters. Many claimed to have political support but if the press noticed them, they disappeared like dew at sunrise. That changed in the mid-1990s. One example was a “Nyamagweta” who “cleansed” Mashonaland West, district by district. Kwayedza ran a series of stories about the way his troop of private 'police' beat and robbed people and abused women, but that did not stop him. Nobody stopped him. Something similar happened a bit later in Mashonaland Central, but by then we were into the “Third Chimurenga”; mass hysteria was becoming common, and we know whose interests it served.
And it's all done by using a magic trigger word that switches people's reason off and puts them into a panic. “Witch” and “sell-out” are words that still work here. As we heard during the Archbishop of Canterbury's visit, “homosexual” is another.
There's nothing specially African about this. In Europe for centuries, “witches” (usually toothless old women who went around talking to themselves because they had nobody else to talk to) and homosexuals were burned alive in public. Now Europe uses different trigger words, but they work the same way. The trigger words in modern Britain are “terrorist” and “paedophile”.
Anyone accused of either of those offences will be lucky if they are only locked away for life, without a trial. The former accusation carries the added risk that over-zealous police might shoot you on sight; the latter that any bunch of aggressive drunks might beat you to a pulp for fun or because their football team has just lost a match.
I'm not trying to say we are better or worse than anyone else. We are all human and I've described one way that people with sinister agendas can manipulate any of us if we are not alert and careful.Post published in: Opinions & Analysis