Durban - The Rwandan genocide - in which between 800 000 and 1 000 000 people were butchered - was preceded by "hate speech" on national radio which characterised Tutsi people as "snakes" and not fit to be part of society.
"This is the lesson to be learnt... hate speech can lead to massive confrontation," South African Human Rights Commission chairperson Bongani Majola said on Thursday.
Majola - a lawyer and constitutional law expert - is a key witness in a Durban Equality Court trial in which two members of the African-consciousness movement Mazibuye African Forum are accused of inciting hatred against Indian people.
The commission and the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation laid the complaint against Zweli Sangweni and Phumlani Mfeka after they made statements in newspaper articles and a newsletter to the effect that Indians - including Mahatma Gandhi - were racist and were responsible for exploiting Africans, and for their poor economic conditions.
They want Equality Court Magistrate John Sanders to find the two men guilty and order them to apologise and pay a fine of R50 000, possibly to an orphanage.
The trial has been stalled twice before but got underway this morning with the evidence of Majola, who took up office in July this year.
'They are intended to cultivate a sense of hatred'
Prior to this, he was the deputy chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court’s tribunal which probed the Rwandan genocide which took place between April and July 1994.
"From the evidence presented, the genocide was preceded by hate speech which mobilised those who were not Tutsi to eliminate them. Two-month-old babies and 97-year-old men and women were killed. As long as they were Tutsi, related to them, or tried to protect them, they were killed," he said in his evidence.
Majola said, while the Constitution provided for the right of freedom of expression, this did not extend to "advocacy of hatred".
"The objective of the Constitution is to heal the divisions of the past and build a united South Africa... this vision would be undermined if hate speech were permitted.
"Advocacy of hatred is also incompatible with human dignity which is a founding value of the Constitution,” he said.
Advocate Karthy Govender, who is representing the commission and the foundation, pointed to each statement made by the two men and asked Majola for his opinion.
To each one, he replied that they were "incitement and provocation".
"They are intended to cultivate a sense of hatred for all Indian people, starting with Gandhi," he said.
'Issue is one of interpretation'
At the beginning of the hearing, Govender said the commission and the foundation could have simply asked for a default judgment when, on one occasion, Sangweni and Mfeka had not arrived at court.
"But, given the nature of the matter, we wanted it to be heard fully in court."
He said, at a directions hearing, that it had been agreed that the statements were not in dispute, "so the only issue is whether they amount to hate speech".
He said, apart from Majola, Neeshan Balton - a director of the foundation - would also testify.
Mbongeleni Mchunu, for Sangweni and Mfeka, agreed that the statements were admitted to, "and the issue is one of interpretation".
He said the forum had been established to deal with issues "which pertain to Africans flowing from the past apartheid laws and post democracy".
He said he both his clients would testify.
In previous correspondence with the commission, they denied that their utterances were hate speech, saying they should be seen in historical and present context.
"We are just voicing what people are saying," they said.
The matter has been set down for two days and judgment is expected to be reserved.