A Jewish woman who is concealing her face sits on a park bench marked Only for Jews, Austria, 1938 ernest-cole-picture-2

The apology that never came

It has been almost 80 years since the Holocaust happened, but German society, albeit after 20 years of avoiding the issue, has completely acknowledged their role in the Holocaust, and what they had done to the Jewish people and those that were deemed the “backwash of society.” The Nazi’s had to undergo the Nuremberg trials and face accountability for what they had done. Germany still pays reparations to all Holocaust survivors, and there are strong laws within Germany that condemns any hate speech or Nazi memorabilia or idolisation. Germany holds annual memorials for the people that were murdered during the Holocaust on the 27th of January each year. There are both physical, intellectual and cultural products that memorialise the Holocaust, in Germany and throughout the world.

On Tuesday the 11th of May, the Western Cape cohort went to the Holocaust Museum, there we were given a comprehensive presentation about the Holocaust, and we were given a tour of the museum. What struck me throughout this presentation was the hurt that the Jewish people must have gone through, and how can one truly forgive or heal from such a grave event. How can you go back to a place where the rest of your countrymen do not see your full humanity? How does a country heal from such an inhumane experience?

Whilst sitting there, I thought about South Africa, people of colour experienced the brutality and inhumanity of the Apartheid regime, and as a country, we have not yet healed. But how can we?

This article was written by Sean Spencer for the New York Times in 1991,

“In the more than four decades that apartheid has been the law in South Africa, the toll it has exacted on victims of color might begin something like this: Seventeen million arrests of blacks found in areas reserved for whites. The dispossession of 3.5 million people from their homes. Eighty thousand detentions without trial. Up to 40,000 South Africans driven into foreign exile. But it is harder to measure the destruction of families torn apart by racial reclassification, the ravages of inferior education, deprivation of job skills and the attendant suffocation of self-worth.”

This excerpt does not account for the kidnappings, the torture, the imprisonment and murder of so many South Africans. There was an unwillingness by the Nats to apologise for what they had done, and the responsibility was placed on the ANC to address the wrongs of the past, to recognise the injustices and insure that it would never happen again. There was also a lack of recognition by white South Africans of their complicity in an unjust system. South Africa, 23 years after the demise of Apartheid, has not undergone a process of healing. Even though we have had a­ Truth and Reconciliation Commission process to address and unearth the injustices of the past, but also to allow for a process of healing – we can see today, that the TRC was not enough. How can there be healing with no acknowledgement? How can there be justice without accountability?

The fruits of a society that has not gotten over a generational trauma are coming to bear. For years we have painted our country with rainbownationisms and messages of reconciliation, but how can we reconcile a country and a people where no meaningful apology was ever granted to the people who deserved it most? It is what Rosemary Nagy (2012) calls ‘settler denial’ – in post-Apartheid South Africa, you cannot find one white person that supported Apartheid or voted for the National Party. Nagy goes on to say that the South African TRC treated the perpetrators of violence during Apartheid as outliers or ‘bad apples’ rather than forming part of a system of oppression and violence.

We must learn from the lessons from the Holocaust, one: that an injustice like that must never happen again – we must also learn from the German example, it is 80 years later, but the German people remember, and they acknowledge the wrongs that have been done. This is not to say that the atrocities must be forgiven or forgotten, however, there must be accountability, justice and redress. Through meaningful apology, a recognition for one’s complicity in the past, but also an acknowledgement by white South Africans that they are still benefiting from a system that was set up to favour them, and a commitment to redress, can we only have meaningful reconciliation and integration.


Reading list:

How Germany Remembers the Holocaust

South Africa and Apartheid: No Apologies

Rosemary, N. 2012. Truth Reconciliation and Settler Denial: Specifying the Candada-South Africa Analogy. Human Rights Review. Vol. 13, No. 3: 349 – 367.