Recently, constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos wrote a typically informed and important piece on the issues surrounding the controversy of the old South African flag being displayed in a Sea Point bar.

The cogency of his argument was matched by the passion of his plea; that the old South African flag should be obliterated without trace along with other relics of apartheid such as the inclusion of Die Stem in the national anthem.

De Vos stopped just short of comparing the old South African flag with another infamous icon of supremacy and tyranny; the familiar red Nazi flag with its chilling black swastika. I must admit that I understand why he steers clear of this association; as a white South African working to make sense of my place in our history, I react viscerally to the thought of such a comparison. However, as I consider it more, I must acknowledge that it would be justified on the simple basis that both images represent the ideologies of one group of people who believed they were superior to another group of people and acted on that belief.

So why do we seem to skirt this comparison when debating apartheid and its iconography? Perhaps it is out of a deep and very justified respect for the millions that lost their lives during the holocaust. Perhaps we surmise that fewer black people died during apartheid than during the holocaust and therefore the link between these two criminal regimes is unjustified (as if fewer lives lost somehow makes evil less evil). Perhaps as a white South African I simply cannot stomach the link and all that it implies about me.

But as hard as it may be, such a link needs to be made and discussed bravely and openly simply because we hold the holocaust up as an ultimate low point in humanity’s recent history (as we undoubtedly must).  Yet if we hold it so lightly that it becomes a sacrosanct and incomparable event, then we run the risk of eternally using it to diminish and even exonerate other evils and our complicity – silent or active – therein.

Of course, at this point it would be remis not to question why the world in general knows infinitely more about the holocaust than, say, the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 that saw eight hundred thousand people slaughtered in just 100 days. African genocide and other human rights atrocities on the continent go comparatively unremembered and un-immortalised in art, film and literature.

And coming back home, was the Jewish life lost during the holocaust of more value than the black life lost during apartheid? Was the displacement of the Jewish family during the holocaust more atrocious than the displacement of the Black South African family? Was the physical and psychological torture of the Jewish person ‘eviller’ than the torture of the Black person?

If we can put ourselves into the shoes of either oppressed person – the Jewish holocaust victim or the black apartheid victim – the answer must surely be ‘no’. This is so because – without diminishing the horrifying scale of the holocaust – we have brought both atrocities down to their most basic level; individual human pain and suffering. This should not remove our mental images of the barbaric means of mass murder and torture of the holocaust or the unimaginable numbers of lives lost. But the simple fact is that if you reduce atrocities to my life, your life, your child’s life; lost; forever traumatised; stripped of all dignity, then evil is evil.

Now the matter takes on a very different perspective: I dare not avoid the comparison for fear that I may diminish anyone’s suffering – in this case, our own people. Such a comparison is not only useful but utterly essential if we are to begin the necessary process of taking collective responsibility – at the soul level, not just the head level. It is essential if we are to properly understand the magnitude of what we were – and still are, complicit in – so that we can weep over our people’s pain as we weep when we watch holocaust movies or read the tomes that have been written about it. Only then will we begin to truly and humbly ask for forgiveness and change our hearts and minds. Only then will real healing and growth take place in South Africa. Because let’s face it, Germany has not built itself up from post-world war nothingness into the great powerhouse of Europe by asking questions like: can’t we just move on from all that holocaust business? They face their demons daily – with humility and dignity – through the countless museums and memorials they themselves erected – even on the very sites of the concentration camps themselves – so that they never allow themselves to forget what they collectively did and their own capacity – and the capacity of future generations – for evil.

We have not done that yet because we still don’t intrinsically believe that what we did was evil; not holocaust evil anyway. Which is why we are still debating whether the old flag should be displayed, and hiding ourselves behind arguments of whether we have the right to do so. It is why we are still defending the place of Die Stem in our national anthem; why we still can’t understand the tearing down of monuments celebrating our past evils or why land should be returned to its rightful owners.

I am acutely aware of how painful this is to talk about and how hard it is to face; I feel the pain very deeply myself. But whatever pain we may experience as we face the demons of our past, is not a fraction of what was – and still is experienced – as a result of the horrors of the holocaust or apartheid. 

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency

His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.