Recently, constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos wrote an important piece on the controversy surrounding the old South African flag that was hung in a Sea Point bar.
He was clear; the old South African flag should be destroyed for good 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 the familiar red Nazi flag with its chilling black swastika. I must admit that I understand why he steers clear of this association. However, as I consider it more, it seems that it would be justified on the basis that both images represent the beliefs of one group of people who believed they were superior to another group of people and acted on that belief.
So why do we skirt this comparison when debating apartheid and its iconography? Perhaps it is out of a deep and justified respect for the millions that lost their lives during the holocaust. Perhaps we conclude that fewer black people died during apartheid than during the holocaust and therefore the link between these two criminal regimes is unjustified (does fewer lives lost make evil less evil?). Perhaps as a white South African I just can’t stomach the link.
But such a link needs to be made and discussed 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 an event beyond compare, then we run the risk of using it to lessen and even dismiss other evils and our complicity – silent or active – therein.
Of course, at this point we must question why the world knows much more about the holocaust than, say, the 1994 Rwanda genocide 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 more valuable than the black life lost during apartheid? Was the displacement of the Jewish family during the holocaust more wicked 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 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 because we have brought both atrocities down to their most basic level; individual human pain and suffering. Now, evil is evil .
Now things take on a different perspective: I dare not avoid the comparison in case I diminish people’s suffering – in this case, our own people. Now the comparison becomes useful and even necessary if we are to begin the process of taking full responsibility – at the soul level, not just the head level. Because let’s face it, Germany has not built itself up from post-world war nothingness into a great powerhouse by asking: can’t we just move on from all that holocaust business? They face their demons – with humility and dignity – through the many museums and memorials they themselves have erected – on the sites of the concentration camps themselves – so that they never allow themselves to forget what they did and their capacity for evil. We have not done that yet because we still don’t truly believe that what we did was evil; not holocaust evil anyway.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.