Why we must never forget.

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.

12 responses

  1. Very thought provoking, Sydney. Yes, we must remember the personal stories of the past, the collective memories of injustice, or they will be repeated. No German should forget the holocaust, and no South African should forget Apartheid. The most important lesson is that prejudice and cruelty can come in many different disguises and be justified in many ways.


    1. Thanks for reading Heidi. You are quite right, injustice comes in all shapes and sizes and it’s our responsibility to ensure that those who did not experience it first-hand must know about it.


  2. Interesting piece, Sydney. What is going on right now in C.A.R shows clearly that we have not learnt any bitter lessons from the Holocaust, Apartheid as well as the Rwandan Genocide. Humanity is far important than the elements of Race, Religion and Politics. We must learn to coexist and progress as human, besides we claim we are Higher animals not animals.


    1. Mcdonald, thank you for reading. The situation in the Central African Republic pains me very much because it’s not as if the world does not see what’s going on, we do but are busy with our own lives, leaving a tragedy to unfold unhindered.


  3. I guess the question now is to how make the younger generation remember. 🙂 How to make us understand the gravity of these situations when we have no first hand experience and memory.

    Here, for example, younger people are led to believe that the Martial Law period was good. Stories of the Martial Law horrors like torturing, forced disappearances and the like are filtered and the rise of numerous infrastructures are highlighted. When I was in primary school, the vox pop was never again to Martial Law; it’s quite the opposite now.


    1. Thank you for reading Ker. You are so right, how do we make the current generation know about the past instead of us labelling them the ‘lost’ generation? I truly think we must follow the Jewish example and not give people a choice in the matter. It’s very easy to glorify Martial Law when you don’t know the personal stories an the pain of those who lived through it.


  4. The moment the truth is minimized a lie sets in. It happened in Kenya after independence and the victory was stolen by collaborators who did not care a thing about equality and democracy. Beware, South Africa


  5. How to keep alive those personal stories, that is the question. A museum or exhibit, something that tells the history of South Africa, good and bad, would be good, do you think? That costs money and is difficult to set up without arguments and politics getting involved. How about an online museum, recording some of those personal stories and commenting on them? That would only take a few people to start it and could gather its own momentum, especially if some prominent, respected people became involved. It could include many different people, ordinary and extraordinary, of every colour and creed. Just an idea and easy for me to suggest, since I am not the one who would set it in motion!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. PS if such a website was to be set up, it could incorporate educational material for teachers of different age groups. Teachers are always hungry for useful, thought-provoking ideas.


  7. Don’t give a damn about forgetting or remembering, justice should have been served. Whites made accumulated wealth through apartheid and will not give back what they gained unfairly, unlike Jews, Africans never demanded what was rightfully theirs. Mandela sold out Africans for a place in history, he was originally a freedom fighter but was labelled a terrorist by white countries.

    Despite the fact that Europeans never funded his groups war against the apartheid regime, at the same time as funding the wars in black countries around South Africa (Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, Angola but not South Africa), Mandela still sat with these same people and agreed to allow them to continue injustice, as they own and maintain the wealth they have accumulated, blacks still have to go to work for the same white, beg the same whites, live under their economic system, make money for the same white people ect.


    1. I am a White who has hugely benefitted by my white ancestors doing what Whites do: they moved onto land that was being used by someone else, without permission, disrupted the other people’s activities, and considered those other people as rude. While my ancestors settled into one place a few hours from here, I have the privilege to live on a different piece of land that was likewise settled. I own and maintain it how I like. I choose to honor the ways of the people who lived here 200 years ago, and have the freedom and power to disregard their poverty instead.

      What can you and I do to resolve these issues?

      How can we resolve this injustice? You and I were born into this mess. How can you and I work together to fix it?

      I learned in school that history repeats when it is not remembered. Thank you for being one who speaks out to remind us what happened.


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