Germany And South Africa: Humanity’s Tenuous Relationship With Progress

As genocide and concentration camps have entered our lives through what is happening to the Rohingya people and the internment of immigrant children in Trump’s America, I have reflected even more on humanity’s tenuous relationship with progress. And how it ebbs and flows with time, space, place, race and gender, writes AYESHA FAKIE.

Nazi Germany and Apartheid South Africa dwells in my mind, a never-ending dance of horror as I try to understand, try to make sense, try to come to grips with our histories, our now and our many possible futures. The individual and collective human mind, spirit, morality, decency and what that means for truth, justice and remembrance, how that stands or falls is ever-present. In addition, how those things mean different things in different places with different peoples. Especially so as, all over the world, agreed norms and consensus on what is human and humane are being contested.

All this in mind, it shocked me to hear 2nd and 3rd generation Germans during the course of my exposure to a seminar on German past and present talk about their inter-generational familial conversations on perpetrators, victims, bystanders and complicity. I tweeted about it because it felt like a fresh wind. It was a shock in a good way.

The tweet caught a relatively small bit of attention and it is not surprising why. In South Africa, our post conflict narrative now, 24 years after Apartheid is where, as I learned, Germany was in the 60s and 70s: It is over, forget about it and let’s move on. That doesn’t sit well with a number of black and brown South Africans, for reasons that are obvious. So it was refreshing and surprising and pleasantly shocking to hear Germans talk this way. It gave me hope. And as I said in the tweet, I would love for there to be dialogue, real discussion and deliberation, among White South Africans about their role in Apartheid. You didn’t have to be a government minister or a military general or a homeland police officer to be complicit. By the structure of the Apartheid state, being white meant you benefitted. Moreover, being white means you still do. In addition, as someone pointed out to me, even those white people who were credible and successful anti-Apartheid activists still benefited from being white. They could go home to safety, to education, to career opportunities, free from oppression.

As a country working on a democracy and justice project, we need this self-interrogation from South African white people, and we need them to own and deliberate on this topic, in depth. To own it. Then act in a way that makes a positive difference from their position of privilege.

But despite this positive reflection, something kept gnawing at me as I experienced the conference: the temporal proximity between the fall of the Third Reich in 1945 and the rise of Apartheid South Africa in 1948. That the Nazis were defeated in 1945, out of which post-war norms on human rights and dignity and the right to self-determination were created and reinforced as people came to grips with the Holocaust. Yet Apartheid, a system built on the mass oppression and dehumanisation of black people was allowed by the world community – through its inaction in response – to come, formally, into being in 1948.

The question bouncing around my mind was around how black people, African people and persons of colour are treated when it comes to violent, overt oppression. The global response to the industrial mechanised horror of the Holocaust was right and just. But for some in Africa we feel that similar outrage and actual action to stop such atrocities are lacking when it comes to African bodies, brown bodies, non-European bodies.

We don’t need to rank horrors. That is not my aim. Yet colonialism in Africa doesn’t evoke in people the same horrors that Nazi Germany and its swastika does. But colonialism was a system of mass genocide, slaughter, rape, dehumanisation, expropriation, resource theft on a scale that, some say, given enough time we will accord it the same horror we ascribe the Mongol Horde. And even today, as seen in the Herero and Nama case, the fight for real reparations remains a struggle.

Whether Belgium’s Leopold killed more Congolese than Hitler killed Jews is a “controversial debate yet that not many people know about it relative to the Holocaust is an indication, to me, of how white supremacy creates a narrative that elides African pain, dignity, memory and justice. More recently, in Rwanda, the international community abandoned the country when a genocide was unfolding, saving white westerners and leaving ordinary Rwandans at the mercy of genocidal militias. The exchange in the film Hotel Rwanda, when the UN colonel breaks the news to Paul Rusesabagina (the man who sheltered many from harm) that an international intervention force won’t be coming, he shares the news in despair. Although the acting is a bit heavy-handed, the scene catches my breath:

Colonel Oliver: You should spit in my face.

Paul: Excuse me, Colonel?

Colonel Oliver: You’re dirt. We think you’re dirt, Paul.

Paul: Who is we?

Colonel Oliver: The West. All the super powers. Everything you believe in, Paul. They think you’re dirt. They think you’re dumb. You’re worthless.

Paul: I am afraid I don’t understand what you are saying.

Colonel Oliver: Oh, come on, don’t bullshit me, Paul. You’re the smartest man here. You got ’em all eating out of your hands. You could own this frigging hotel, except for one thing: you’re black. You’re not even a n****r. You’re an African. They’re not gonna stay, Paul. They’re not gonna stop this slaughter.

Based on Africa’s experiences in the world – the rape and plunder of people and riches – , itâ’s hard not to see various truths in that statement.

In South Africa we are discussing and debating decolonisation in a vigorous way, especially in how it relates to oppression of our minds, souls and the very air we breathe, and how it manifests itself through an exclusionary economy where capitalism relies on racism and gendered oppression. It is happening at a time when people here try to normalise or minimise the effects and legacies of Apartheid. Especially the far right engaging in denialism and co-option of freedom movement discourse to muddy waters in an attempt to make tolerance for intolerance a norm, a tactic meant to trap progressives in a debate that perpetuates hateful views. The need to hold onto norms and rights of freedom and justice has perhaps never been as important as it is now. As is the need to push back to create a more just and more equal country. A country based on radical and deep equality.

It is my contention that as we here are coming to grips not only with post-Apartheid and post-Colonial narratives to find shared truth and remembrance, so too do European powers, then and now, need to confront its colonial heritage. A heritage whose great cities were enriched by the plunder of Africa’s resources. A heritage that coalesced into post-war allyship with USA hegemony (not that the USSR and now Russia were or are saints). A heritage that has now resulted in significant numbers of Middle Eastern refugees seeking peace and safety in Germany and surrounds, and its subsequent challenges and tensions, not least of which is Islamophobia and how that rhymes, historically, with anti-Semitism.

Our fight against oppression cannot be piecemeal and stop at a place it reaches our discomfort. It must include race and gender and queerness and mental health and ableism and any other aspect where the demarcations of society exclude. It must challenge our ingrained assumptions about life and being. We mustn’t ignore or erase pain and suffering even if until now that has been the case. There is no going around. Only through.

Ayesha Fakie is the Head of Sustained Dialogues programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The Daily Vox.

Featured image via the Wikimedia Commons