Dressed in pink uniforms, Rwandan prison labourers, held for their participation in the 1994 genocide, build homes near the grounds of Remera Prison in Kigali. Since the genocide, President Paul Kagame has imposed peaceful reconciliation by decree. Picture: AP / Brennan Linsley

Since the genocide in 1994, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame has imposed peaceful reconciliation by decree with severe penalies for dissent, writes Ufrieda Ho.

The problem with Rwanda is that it makes dictatorship look so sexy. What the East African country puts on show is very seductive to a South African like me - it offers much of what I feel is missing in our own backyard.

Democracy wears me down sometimes.

I’m tired of seeing buses in the capital on fire, of schools gutted in Vuwani.

I’m worn down by protests outside the ANC’s headquarters every week now that elections roll around.

Protesting is a civil right, a cornerstone of democracy, I get that.

But the ubiquity of protests in South Africa has blurred the point of marching in the first place. I’m irritated that police resources are wasted to marshal crowds rather than to fight crime. And when protests get ugly, and they do, I’m left feeling defeated by violence, looting and destruction as the new normal.

The Star’s building is directly opposite the ANC’s Luthuli House; a number of windows are shattered where rocks lobbed from angry protesters have landed. These are pockmarks of impunity and licence for random targeting. When the wind whistles through those cracked windows, a chill runs down my spine that we have a busted democracy, not a robust democracy.

So arriving at Kigali International Airport for the first time at the end of May was a seduction by law and order, peacefulness, cleanliness and efficiency.

Visa processing is handing over $30 (R430) and basic paperwork - done and dusted in about 15 minutes. It’s a country that declares itself open for business, not strangled by red tape.

It ranks in the top five of Transparency International’s 2015 five least corrupt countries in Africa. It comes in at 44 among 168 countries; South Africa is at 61. It achieves economic growth rates of between 6 and 7 percent each year. Rwanda’s emphasis on education and health has meant investment in building schools and clinics and it can claim to have over 90 percent of its children enrolled in education.

I’m even more impressed that Rwandans take seriously their zero-tolerance policy on plastic bags - a ban adopted in 2004 already.

All plastic is confiscated at the airport.

Traffic flows in the capital, you drive past manicured gardens and architectural gems like the Rwandan Convention Centre that in June hosted the AU Summit. The streets are spotless.

This after all is the country that shuts down for a compulsory street cleaning till 10am each last Saturday of the month.

It’s called Umuganda. During that period there’s no business or trade and no cars are allowed on the road. Even Paul Kagame, the president in office for the past 16 years and de facto leader for about 20 years, is expected to pick up a broom.

But in the apocalyptic eeriness of a city at standstill to sweep and clean, the gloss of my infatuation started to lose its shine.

It becomes clear quickly that people are not cleaning because it’s good for the country or for the official line of together and taking personal responsibility for beautification of this land of a thousand hills.

This is a programme that works because it’s enforced by law and penalties.

We need special permission to be on the road during Umuganda and our vehicle is indeed stopped twice and police officers check the paperwork.

Failure to clean up comes with a fine, the equivalent of about $10.

Most unnerving is that it’s neighbours who rat on you to a local cell block leader who issues a fine. Communities who have slacked on cleaning make headlines in a press that is anything but free.

This adherence to a social structure of cells and cell leaders emanates from a time when working the hilly terrain successfully relied on mutualism and reciprocity. Now this structure of cohesion can be leant on to enforce ideals of unity, collectivism and co-operation. But it was also this social structure that allowed the genocide that started on April 7, 1994, to ignite and spread, and for the command to kill from Hutu cell leaders to be obeyed.

An estimated 800 000 died - possibly thousands more in retaliation killings as the Rwandan Patriotic Front, led by Kagame, fought back after the 100 days of terror.

Now, each year starting April 7 there are 100 days of remembrance for genocide victims. Across the city are banners declaring Kwibura - remembrance. The genocide memorial, which is also the resting place of the remains of least 200 000 people, sees a steady stream of visitors. The past is invoked so the present stability can be more deeply cherished.

By co-incidence of history, Rwanda and South Africa have twinned milestone time lines. That April while we were birthing a miracle, Rwandans were spilling each other’s blood. While the world’s media shone a spotlight on the promise and possibility of slaying apartheid, they largely ignored the machetes exacting massacre in Rwanda.

I feel some guilt and sadness that maybe if South African hadn’t hogged the limelight the uprisings could have been quelled sooner; many more lives could have been spared in Rwanda.

But ultimately it wasn’t just the lack of international intervention that fuelled the killings. Neither was it just the entrenched social structure of cells and the command of a cell leader, or a shot down plane, political agendas, the propagandist media or the resource and land squeeze at the time. It was all of these reasons and more.

For Rwandans, it seems that untangling these threads isn’t the goal; remembering tragic loss is and so is forcing itself to move forward regardless. Since the genocide there has been power sharing and trials both in international courts and at village level to bring genocide perpetrators to book. After pleading and showing remorse at village courts, called gacacas, perpetrators were allowed back into their communities. The government encouraged peaceful reconciliation. Or rather, the government imposed peaceful reconciliation by decree, by Kagame’s decree. It’s made Kagame toxic glue that holds together the mirage of a utopia.

Kagame’s argument is that the structure of governance in Rwanda works for Rwandans. “Why must we live according to your rules?” he declared in 2015, after an annual national dialogue held in the wake of referendum on the constitution to remove presidential term limits.

He also addressed journalists at the time stating: “I read a story in Time magazine saying that the majority of Rwandans have voted for dictatorship. I think that is giving dictatorship a good name. If a dictatorship means the choice of the people; if producing security, stability, women’s empowerment, peace and progress and food security amounts to dictatorship, what can I say?”

But in being the glue, Kagame has also become stuck in not planning for succession, for not making room for dissent and differing views. It’s on South Africa’s own soil that Kagame’s former spy chief Patrick Karegeya was found strangled in the Michelangelo Hotel in January 2014. Karegeya was just one of a number of former Kagame loyalists who have turned up dead or have disappeared. Their demise is always linked to Kagame.

It’s Kagame’s price for peace and prosperity in Rwanda - too high a price. Like how even Idris Elba seems unsexy when you think of having to pick up his dirty socks.

I return to South Africa, to our unelectable leaders at each other’s throats, to state capture, to protests against censorship, to headlines about another service delivery riot. This is a corrupted democracy: we must fix it. At least I won’t be thrown into prison for saying so.

* Ufrieda Ho was in Rwanda as part of the Bloomberg / African Leadership Initiative media fellowship programme

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