A scientific study initiated at the Institute of Advanced Learning, Princeton, shows that racism has been undone in Rwanda much more profoundly than is often assumed abroad. The lessons for South Africa are stark and illuminating.

As a child I had this perverse idea that Rwanda and South Africa were a little bit like identical twins discreetly separated at birth by Dr Mengele in an evil experiment. The mad scientist wanted to see how differently they would respond; one to the end of apartheid, the other to genocide. At least that is how it seemed to me as an odd boy.

I partly got the idea from a story that my mother would retell at dinners about the night she danced amidst the ANC’s celebration of its 1994 victory, at the Carlton Centre, in central Joburg. Someone called it the jol of the century and I can see why. At the top floor of the tallest building in Africa she looked over her newly feted hometown, but before she could find the end of the rainbow her friend stopped gazing at the stars and said goodbye. ‘I fly in a couple of hours. To the genocide.’

As family legend has it, one could almost see the puffy clouds clear from Joburg’s skies that night and gather northwards, swelling, hurtling away, bursting beyond the horizon, raining death on Rwanda.

According to Herodotus the second ancient ‘law of history’ is that ‘happiness never remains long in the same place’ and the corollary applied to misery that night. As one country ululated another choked in blood. If Herodotus gazed from Joburg onto Kigali in April 1994 he would have recognized history’s mirror, and I reckon he would have shuddered too.

But then what? As a child it made sense to me that we would prosper while Rwanda would keep spiralling down. In 1994 we South Africans were defined by love, while Rwandese were beset by hate.

Herodotus’s first ancient law of history is ‘the eternal law of revenge, the law of reprisal, an eye for an eye’. This made sense to me, especially as a boy. Generations down the line, ‘however many years after the fact’, Tutsis would seek revenge against Hutus because they had suffered the worst thing I ever heard of happening in my lifetime and revenge is what humiliated men seek by nature.

Anywhere on the planet

Upon reflection in 1994 both South Africa and Rwanda could have been prey to the ‘eternal law of revenge’ but Rwanda more so than anywhere on the planet. As many as a million Tutsis were murdered in the genocide, 70% of the minority population. In the ‘victim Olympics’ of my lifetime no group comes close to the Tsutis, so if being victimized guarantees race fixation and revenge then Rwanda should have been the heart of global ‘woke’ politics.

And yet, at least superficially, there has been little by way of revenge against generic Hutus in Rwanda. Rather than get stuck in Shakespearean or Sophoclean or Schicklegruberian rounds of blut und boden resentment, the illiberal democracy of Rwanda has become a champion of slog, toil, and quality coffee.

Kigali has long been the safest capital in Africa, whereas South Africa suffered over half a million murders in the last 24 years. Since the genocide real Rwandese GDP per capita has grown sevenfold, while South Africa’s has not even doubled. Rwanda remains eight times poorer than South Africa, but their economy has been growing consistently for the last twenty years while ours has been shrinking, in real GDP per capita terms, for the last eleven. Corruption comparisons are day and night.

One of the strangest differences between Rwanda and South Africa, however, is how they appear on professional and social media. There one never hears a Hutu saying she was fired because the Tutsi boss is racist, or visa versa. One never hears that there are too many Tutsis in the faculty or too many Hutus in the civil service. One never hears complaints about inequality between the races, or almost anything about Hutus and Tutsis at all.

Who knows what people really think

A report in The New York Times noted that ‘[Rwandan President Paul] Kagame has created a nation that is orderly but repressive…Against this backdrop, it is difficult to gauge sentiment about the effectiveness of reconciliation efforts’. This is true. It is illegal to identify oneself, or any else, as Hutu or Tutsi, so who knows what people really think.

But others go further, claiming that Rwanda’s reconciliation is both forced and fake. Canadian professor Susan Thomson of Colgate University claimed that nation-building in Rwanda amounts to ‘ritualized dissimulation and strategic compliance’, which creates the false impression of reconciliation to hide resentment. The University of Antwerp’s professor Bert Inglaere claims that Rwandese reconciliation is cosmetic at best.

The ancient ‘eternal law of revenge’ is apparently still widely believed by the ‘peasants’ these academics write on behalf of, but is it really true?

Sharun Mukand is a social scientist who worked at the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS), the Princeton research facility where Einstein made his home. A decade ago Mukand thought it was time to reconsider the ‘eternal law of revenge’ scientifically, in Rwanda.

Mukand teamed up with Arthur Blouin, a PhD from the University of Warwick where Mukand usually teaches, and they both conducted a deep, sceptical inquiry into Rwandese race relations. They noticed that while other studies famously showed the power of radio to increase racial tensions in Rwanda (and Serbia) none had tested whether radio could seriously decrease racial tensions. If words have the power to harm, do they also have the power to heal racial divisions?

‘We are Rwandans’

Rwanda is a good place to take this question because its government’s official line is that ‘we are no longer Hutu, Tsutsi or Twa – we are Rwandans’. This is about as far from the analogous EFF-ANC line as can be imagined. The Rwandese government also has its own version of SABC radio, called Radio Rwanda, which carries the government’s heavy non-racial line into millions of homes. But there is a catch, and it is not just that Radio Rwanda bends the truth to suit the government’s interests.

Rwanda is the hilliest country on earth and some of those hills create ‘radio shadows’ where the signal from certain radio towers becomes too weak to be picked up. Radio Rwanda’s ‘we are no longer Hutu or Tsutsi…we are Rwandans’ message therefore fails to reach thousands of villages because they lie in the ‘shadow’.

Other radio stations do reach these villages from separate private towers, which sometimes carry a significantly different message. This means conditions are primed for an experiment. Do villages that listen to aggressively non-racial radio actually become less revanchist, or is it all just ‘cosmetic’?

This is the kind of question I probably could barely have understood as a child – but Mukand and Blouin appreciated its significance and so identified 52 villages, half getting the strong non-racial message and half in the ‘shadow’, to test. They applied all the best-practice scientific tools to control for differences in average income, trade, education and so on. They offered money to villagers to participate in psychological experiments to see whether the consistent promotion of non-racialism could improve trust between races that had just gone through the hell of genocidal hostility.

Radio Rwanda villages

In one test on ‘social salience’ people in Radio Rwanda villages were 13% less likely to even be able to remember if a stranger was Hutu or Tsutsi. In another they were 17% more likely to collaboratively engage a stranger from another race, Hutu or Tsutsi, if they were in a Radio Rwanda village. In the villages that received Radio Rwanda people trusted strangers of the opposite racial group, Hutu or Tsutsi, 47% more than those in the ‘shadow’. In fact intra- and inter-racial trust was basically equivalent in these villages, despite a full-blown genocide in recent living memory.

I think that is amazing and I think all South Africans should know this, especially those politicians who falsely claim there is currently a ‘black genocide‘ in South Africa.

For some context in the wicked experiment of history in 1994, on April 21 IFP stickers were being pasted on the ballots for South Africa’s first all-race national election, a poll that ended the People’s War which had cost 25 000 lives between 1986 and 1994, and brought a new hope. On the same day, over 50 000 Tutsis were being slaughtered on the hillside campus of Murambi Technical School. Soon after, the roughly 10 000 who escaped were massacred too, in a church.

The sheer volume of rotting flesh presented so great a pollution risk to the water supply that most of the cadavers were chalked by lime and then dumped in mass graves to stop decay.

It was double the casualties of the People’s War in a single day, in a single abandoned high school. Mostly by machete, another 900 000 would be killed in a hundred days.

Most vivid ‘classrooms’ of human history

The Murambi bodies have been exhumed, preserved by re-chalking, and displayed in the most vivid ‘classrooms’ of human history that I ever entered. One of the guides has a fractured skull, a wound sustained when he was shot. The other dusts all the cadavers with chalk because somewhere in there lies every single person he ever knew. I tried to keep up with them, going from one room to the next of vivid death. The moment that I saw, preserved for all time, a mother and her infant, their hands still clasped together, I could not go on.

But ordinary people in Rwanda go on. Every day. Their families dead in the ground or chalked in the memorial, the people of Rwanda go on and their government says ‘we are not Hutus, Tutsis or Twa – we are Rwandans’ and that makes a demonstrable difference.

Herodotus was wrong, revenge is not inevitable. For more evidence see here.

[Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/adam_jones/7706057822/in/photostream/]

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Gabriel Crouse is a writer and analyst at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR). His journalism is based on fieldwork and quantitative analysis, with a focus on land reform. Gabriel holds a degree in Philosophy from Princeton University.