The 11th of February has come and gone. There were a couple of one-liners on radio news-bulletins and a few paragraphs in some newspapers on the significance of the day. One or two social commentators highlighted its significance on social networks, but that was it. No, I’m not talking about “The Day We Fight Back” campaign aimed at the National Security Agency (NSA) in the United States. Although that’s a worthy campaign, I’m not referring to it. Nelson Mandela was released from 27 years of incarceration on the 11th day of February 1990. Since then so much has happened that people feel justified in forgetting the significance of the day.
Even worse, one gets the feeling that we are entering into the dangerous territory of denialists. Where the majority of the people of this country are constantly told: “Come on, it wasn’t that bad, get over it”, ” Stop playing the race card, it’s so old”, “How long are we going to go on blaming apartheid?” Or my personal favourite “People need to stop being lazy and blaming everything on apartheid”. One is left with the feeling that “apartheid” is a swear word, that mention of past events is not always welcome. And that’s dangerous because populists will come along and play on the suppressed emotions of the marginalised, recreating history to suit their own selfish agendas.
So what must happen on the day, the 11th of February. Another holiday, you might ask. No, we already have enough holidays as it is. The people of this country need to own their history, good and bad. An eNCA study of 4000 people last year revealed that up to 40% of white South Africans denied apartheid negatively affected black people. Give it another couple of years and you will have people who deny apartheid ever existed.
Let me digress a little bit just to make my point. I did history in high school, so I knew a little bit about what is referred to as European History and World history by the time I decided science was more intriguing at tertiary level. I knew about World War Two (WW2), I knew about Auschwitz and other concentration camps. But nothing could have prepared me for the kind of remembrance that The South African Union of Jewish Students put up on each anniversary of the war when I got to varsity.
I could not believe the detail of the gas chambers, the unpalatable photos of concentration camp corpses and survivors. The recounting, each year, by camp survivors of the horrors of the camps. Some were still photos and others videos of the emaciated and disoriented camp survivors when freedom came. It was difficult to even want to rejoice with the survivors in the face of the brutality that they had endured and survived. This remembrance happened every year. I remember asking myself why Jewish people chose to subject themselves to these never-ending re-runs of an era that was aimed at their total removal from the face of the earth.
I watched Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and a great many other movies about the war and Jewish suffering. I can’t remember when I read Anne Frank’s diary but I did. It eventually dawned on me that Jewish people were not about to stop this simply because it gave me an uncomfortable feeling, the kind of helplessness that goes with watching barbaric acts visited on other human beings. Yes it makes some people hot under the collar and has spawned what are referred to as Holocaust denialists. Associations and organizations that will outlive the last survivors of the camps have been set up to facilitate the remembering of the gruesome events of that war.
School syllabi in Jewish communities incorporate lessons on the Holocaust. Tertiary institutions as well.
And what have we set up to remember our history through the apartheid years. Oh, the apartheid museum? In Johannesburg. What about a kid born on some farm in the North West, what are the chances of him ever discovering the truth about apartheid? What about all the young people who see only the effects of the past but have no understanding of why things are as they are. Why are we making it optional for people to remember the past?
I finally figured that Jewish people don’t really care that the memories of Auschwitz are painful, or that they are demeaning or humiliating. It is precisely because they are painful, humiliating, hurtful, harrowing and demeaning that they want those events remembered. See, human beings have very short memories. The genocide in Rwanda occurred in 1994, yet twenty short years later we have watched indecisively as the Central African Republic (CAR) ‘plots its own parameters of a genocide’. We have forgotten Rwanda in twenty short years. Jewish people are not about to let the world forget the concentration camps, not by a long shot. And that’s almost seventy years later.
If you like, you can visit the wall of remembrance at Auschwitz and see the name of each and every single person who perished in the camps. Every single person. The apartheid museum does not even begin to have a go at such a thorough recording of our history. Down to the stories of individuals.
Go onto any online site that has a mention of race on it in this country and you will be entirely disgusted at the level of vitriol that is spewed by both black and white people as we all attempt to claim the moral high ground. Kids born in the 90s seem to have no clue of what went on and all they want is ‘to forget what happened and move on’. According to most of them, “black people and white people just hated each other”. And we are all surprised at why we can’t genuinely start reading from the same page.
A major part of the reason Jewish people have meticulously documented their suffering and humiliation is to ensure that it never happens again. That should any denial come up, they have the evidence of what happened ready.
What if on the 11th of February we had seen the launch of a nationwide campaign of remembrance. A campaign that not only set out to celebrate the release of Nelson Mandela, but one that sought to educate. Why was Mandela there in first place? How was he treated in jail? Let’s take our people through these events in detail so that when Freedom Day comes, the 27th of April has more more meaning.
Part of the reason this does not happen is because “the wounds are too raw” on the black side of the equation and “white guilt” would set the white section of our population into defensive mode.But that need not be. Khaya Dlanga puts it so well in his 2012 blog, “why we still talk about race and apartheid”. “When we blame the legacy of apartheid most white people take it as a personal attack on them for having benefited from the system. Or they accuse blacks of refusing to take responsibility for whatever is going wrong in the country. This is not the case. Blaming the legacy of apartheid is an attack on the system. We are not asking you to feel guilty. If anyone needs to get over anything, it is white people who walk around carrying guilt. This guilt might paralyse or even make them unwitting racists”.
But that’s not all, there are people who seem to wake up each day preparing to hunt down anybody who even hints at apartheid having been a reality in this country. What they don’t realize is they are the ones setting this country back. I was never in favour of a blanket apology for the atrocities of apartheid, but I feel the Truth and Reconciliation Commission should have been set up with a mandate to ensure that the institutional memory required to make us never forget be set in place. And by us I mean every citizen of this country.
If that does not happen you will still have idiots who respond to any mention of race or apartheid in this way: “I have a huge problem with your “facts”. You and every other apartheid-blaming coward forget that as white Afrikaners in South Africa were fighting for our freedom against the British until 1911. We also had inferior schools. You are right when you say we are not the same. Instead of burning our English schools we thrived in them. Instead of blaming the British empire for the over 1,200,000 women and children they killed in their concentration camps we prospered. You were not oppressed for generations. Your culture of hate, rape, theft and violence has been holding you back for thousands of years”.
Given a whiff of power, how do you suppose the person who wrote that response to Khaya Dlanga’s blog would act? No wonder there is continued suspicion that given a chance, some people would give apartheid another go.
Nelson Mandela said “We think of those whom apartheid sought to imprison in the jails of hate and fear. We think, too, of those it infused with a false sense of superiority to justify their inhumanity to others, as well as those it conscripted into the machines of destruction, exacting a heavy toll among them in life and limb and giving them a warped disregard for life. We think of the millions of South Africans who still live in poverty because of apartheid, disadvantaged and excluded from opportunity by the discrimination of the past. We recall our terrible past so that we can deal with it, forgiving where forgiveness is necessary – but not forgetting. By remembering, we can ensure that never again will such inhumanity tear us apart, and we can eradicate a dangerous legacy that still lurks as a threat to our democracy.”
Like Jewish people we must strive to remember. Always. So that we can deal with the hate, and the vitriol and sadly those in denial. I remember 11 January so that I do not forget what led to it. So should everybody else.