Evil is Evil

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.

Colonialism: The Rape of Africa

As I write this I am sat – for the second time in 10-hours – in seat 22C on Fastjet’s flight from Dar es Salaam to a smallish Tanzanian town called Mbeya. Now you may or may not have heard of Fastjet – depending on whether you travel much in sub-Saharan Africa, but the thing with Fastjet is that it isn’t terribly fast. It also isn’t very communicative.

Having sat on the runway for quite some time watching the sunrise, we were all off-loaded because of a technical problem that apparently had something to do with the communication system between the pilot in the cock-pit and the crew in the cabin. This really was the last time anyone at Fastjet concerned themselves with accuracy of communication – for the next 10-hours. For the length of the day, we all sat in the small and unedifying Dar airport.  We drank cups of tea, ate airport food and talked endlessly about nothing much; as you do when you are killing an indefinite period of time. The only thing anyone told us over the course of the day was that the problem would take 5 – 10 minutes to fix (this is when we were still on the plane) but this was adjusted to an hour to two hours when we were being off-loaded. Oh, and around 3 hours in, a tinny Tannoy announcement told us that the flight had been cancelled altogether and we should all go back to our homes and hotels. This was followed immediately by an announcement in Kiswahili proudly telling us that the plane was fixed up and we would board shortly. Both announcements were wrong. We eventually scrummed our way back onto the plane, elbowing one another out of the way in a desperate attempt to beat the irate passengers of a later flight that had also been delayed. We eventually took off in the late afternoon. “For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water,” recent Tweet from former DA leader, Helen Zille. The previous day we had landed at Dar airport from OR Tambo. As a foreigner working in Tanzania you need a temporary Visa. This must be re-purchased every time you enter the country (regularly in my case) for 200USD. Acquiring this Visa can only be done on arrival at the Dar airport and it is damn nearly impossible to do so. In summary: it takes around 3 hours for 2 hapless immigration officials   to handwrite – no computers, not even an ink stamp – over 100 Visas. 35 degrees Celsius. No chairs. No water. Again, no communication. During both of these airport experiences it was clear that systems, procedures and an understanding of the critical importance of good communication, were non-existent. I would say it was organised chaos but there wasn’t any organisation at all. It was just chaos. I travelled to Tanzania with Helen Zille’s now infamous Tweet about colonialism fresh in my mind. In fact, it occupied much of my thinking during all the many hours we spent in the Dar airport (and later, the extreme Dar traffic). I condemn what she said with contempt but more, with great sadness. I assume that Zille has travelled extensively to places like Dar es Salaam and other former- colony’s; that she has experienced life in countries that are years even decades behind non-former colony’s. So, the issue should not be whether she believes that colonialism had some good points.  The issue is whether – over years of doing battle as the official opposition to the ANC – she has become so hardened, so cynical, so insensitive that she has lost all perspective and indeed – heart. One can only assume that she is so jaded that she has forgotten what it is that she has been fighting for; a free and equal society under-scored by a total loathing for all that is and was unjust, oppressive, violent and dehumanising. She has effectively made herself one of the utterly heartless and brain-dead: “Things were better under apartheid” brigade. You do not even need to move out of Dar airport to get the picture; to know just how despicable, how crippling colonialism was. And the denial of this fact is alive and well far beyond Helen Zille; all-too-often I hear people opining about how Africa (they try to hide their bigotry by making it a continental indictment rather than a racist statement) lacks innovation or how uncreative Africa is or how backward. And I don’t know why Singapore works well as Zille referenced; maybe because it’s so small you can cover its length on your morning jog. All I know after spending some time in Tanzania and indeed around other parts of Africa, is that colonialism’s negative impact on Africa and her people was beyond measure. So, let us travel our continent, viewing its unequalled beauty and meeting its superb people. But let’s be forgiving of her faults and her failings because the big white boss gang-raped her and left her for dead. It is a miracle that she has come as far as she has. Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.  His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens and Emmanuel Josias Sithole