When the train pulls up at the small Dachau railway station in Bavaria, Germany, you are greeted by the sight of flowers.
Boxes and hanging pots all containing a wild and vibrant array of spectacularly colourful blooms adorn the platform. They seem out of place and yet so poignant. A message from the town’s Mayor hangs above the exit. It is more than two decades since I visited the place, but it reads along the lines of: “This village was the site of horrific atrocities committed by the Nazis. Now it is our home and a place of friendship and peace. We the townsfolk are committed to never allowing the memory of the horrors committed in this place to fade. Welcome to Dachau.”
Over the years I have been profoundly moved by experiences of the many concentration camps in both Germany and Poland. I have visited Auschwitz, Birkenau and of course Dachau. You can never un-see what you see at these places; you can never un-feel the feelings. You may ask why one would visit such morbid places; stand inside gas chambers and tiny huts in which dozens of people suffered, starved and died. This may not be a thing for everyone, but my freedom somehow compels me to do it. I believe that by standing in solidarity with all of humanity that has suffered we never allow ourselves to forget what was done to them. In this way we ensure that such depths of evil and depravity are never arrived at again.
The Germans have paid much attention to never allowing the memory of the holocaust to fade. Have we done as much in South Africa regarding apartheid? Should we even be asking such a question?
Either way, the answer would seem to be that we have almost gone the other way: “Can’t we just move on?”, we ask; “It’s been 25 years – must we still keep being reminded of apartheid?” “When will we stop blaming apartheid?” Are these questions valid or do we ask them because the memory has been allowed to fade? Or perhaps some of us don’t really believe it was such an atrocity at all? “Aren’t we over all that now?” Or the worst denial of all: “We were better off then!”
We removed the icons of apartheid: the flag, the racist signs, the architect’s names on our street signs and airports (as we should have). But in doing this we seemed to remove virtually all trace of the regime itself. If you were to visit South Africa and not visit say Robben Island or the Apartheid Museum (the two big attractions for anti-apartheid pilgrims) you would be hard pressed to find any physical evidence of the apartheid regime at all. Have we denied ourselves an opportunity to remember; to continuously seek healing; to make restitution on an ongoing basis? I think we have – and hence – whilst few physical remnants of apartheid remain – there are social and economic remnants everywhere. The memory of apartheid is virtually nowhere, yet everywhere.
By erasing history, we run the risk of repeating it. Isn’t this what is terrifying people about political killings, book burning, land redistribution, attempts to muzzle the press, large scale corruption, incitement of racial hatred etc? What is stopping us from rewinding the tape 25 years we might ask? Is it just our Constitution (which very few of us have even read) or is there something more day-to-day; more accessible – something we can all get involved with?
We must create spaces and opportunities for recollection to happen whenever we can (as the media did with the 40th anniversary of Solomon Mahlangu’s murder); where people can tell and retell the stories.
Not to foster guilt, but to keep the memories alive.