White people must own their complicity
As genocide and concentration camps have re-entered our lives through what is happening to the Rohingya people in Myanmar and the internment of immigrant children in President Donald Trump’s United States, I have reflected even more on humanity’s tenuous relationship with progress, and how it ebbs and flows with time, space, place, race and gender.
Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa dwell in my mind as I try to understand our histories, our now and our possible futures. The individual and collective human mind, spirit, morality and decency, and what that means for truth, justice and remembrance, is ever present.
In addition, how those things mean different things in different places with different peoples, especially as this is being contested all over the world.
With all this in mind, it shocked me to hear second- and third-generation Germans during the course of my exposure to a seminar on German past and present talk about their intergenerational familial conversations on perpetrators, victims, bystanders and complicity.
In South Africa, our post-conflict narrative now is where, as I learned, Germany was in the 1960s and 1970s — it’s over, forget about it and let’s move on. That doesn’t sit well with a number of black and brown South Africans. So it was pleasantly shocking to hear Germans talk in this way. It gave me hope.
I would love for there to be dialogue among white South Africans about their role in apartheid. You didn’t have to be a government minister or a military general or a homeland police officer to be complicit. By the structure of the apartheid state, being white meant you benefited. Being white means you still do.
As a country working on a democracy and justice project, we need this self-interrogation from white people. To own it. Then act in a way that makes a positive difference from their position of privilege.
But something kept gnawing at me at the conference: the temporal proximity between the fall of the Third Reich in 1945 and the rise of apartheid South Africa in 1948. That the Nazis were defeated in 1945, out of which post-war norms on human rights and dignity and the right to self-determination were created and reinforced as people came to grips with the Holocaust. But apartheid, a system built on the mass oppression and dehumanisation of black people, was allowed by the world community to come into being in 1948.
The question bouncing around my mind was about how black people, African people and persons of colour are treated with violent, overt oppression. The global response to the mechanised industrial horror of the Holocaust was right and just. But for some in Africa we believe that similar outrage and actual action to stop such atrocities are lacking.
Whether Belgium’s Leopold killed more Congolese than Hitler killed Jews is a “controversial debate” but that not many know about Congo relative to the Holocaust is an indication, to me, of how white supremacy creates a narrative that elides African pain, dignity, memory and justice.
In South Africa we are discussing and debating decolonisation in a vigorous way, especially how it relates to the oppression of our minds and souls and how it manifests itself in an exclusionary economy in which capitalism relies on racism and gendered oppression.
It is my contention that, as we here are coming to grips not only with post-apartheid and post-colonial narratives to find shared truth and remembrance, so too do European powers need to confront its colonial heritage. A heritage whose great cities were enriched by the plunder of Africa’s resources. A heritage that coalesced into post-war alliance with United States hegemony. A heritage that has now resulted in significant numbers of Middle Eastern refugees seeking safety in Germany and surrounds, and its subsequent challenges and tensions, not least of which is Islamophobia and how that rhymes, historically, with anti-Semitism.
Our fight against oppression cannot be piecemeal and stop at a place where it reaches our discomfort. It must include race and gender and queerness and mental health and any other aspect that the demarcations of society exclude. It must challenge our ingrained assumptions about life and being. We mustn’t ignore or erase pain and suffering even if until now that has been the case. There is no going around. Only through.
Ayesha Fakie heads the Sustained Dialogues programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation