The Star (South Africa)
May 20, 2017 Saturday
The high cost of Hatred … "I'M HATING IT"… PAGE 17
Understanding genocide helps unpack SA's own most difficult past
THE BUILDING, as you travel up Joburg's Jan Smuts Avenue, is stark. It's drastically different from the ultra-luxurious Four Seasons hotel across the road, a world away from the ducks on Zoo Lake and light years from the mansions around the zoo itself.
The sides have lines that run the height of the walls that guard the perimeter and hold up the roof.
They're not straight, but might ultimately converge somewhere in the sky.
The symbolism is deliberate. This is the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre and the lines are railway lines because, when you murder people on an industrial scale, you need to transport them en masse – by train, mostly.
The brickwork too is European, the same pattern that was used at Auschwitz, one of the most notorious death camps that slew an estimated 1.1â€…million Jews; a sixth of the total number killed during Adolf Hitler's notorious 'final solution' to rid Europe and the world of Jews.
But it's also the same brickwork that you'll find in Joburg's Old Fort, back over a couple of ridges due south overlooking the Joburg CBD, the same brick that built the women's jail alongside it, long a site of repression and oppression – today an integral part of the Constitutional Court precinct where the nation's top jurists sit as a last legal defence against any abuse of our human rights.
The symbolism is deliberate, explains Tali Nates, the centre's director. The building was designed by architect Louis Lewin, who was part of the team that designed the Constitutional Court and the Soweto Theatre, among many other highly lauded Johannesburg projects.
"It was sheer genius how he blended the symbolism of progress and modernity with the prejudice and oppression that goes hand-in-hand with so much of it," she enthuses.
"This is not a museum where you come once and then say 'goodbye'; this is a place where you keep coming back. It's a centre of dialogue."
Inside, the centre is open and airy, a compelling blend of wood, steel, brick, rock and granite that is as much modern and European as it is African.
It isn't finished yet, it hasn't even been officially opened – that's only slated for early next year – but the centre is alive; there are school tours in the halls, staff are cleaning the seminar rooms as a US documentary-maker inspects the main auditorium for her film that is to be shown that night.
The week before, the centre had hosted the Joburg leg of 175 years of Jewish life in South Africa, a travelling exhibition from the SA Jewish Museum in Cape Town. On Thursday, it was hosting the commemoration of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
It's been like this since the change in the national education curriculum in 2007 to incorporate the Holocaust into the Grade 9 and Grade 11 Curriculum as part and parcel of understanding the nature and scope of human rights.
"We started the idea in 2007. We didn't know whether we wanted to do an outreach to schools or to be an archive of memory. We were following the example of the Holocaust centres in Cape Town and Durban."
The City of Johannesburg suggested a private/public partnership, leasing the land on which the centre stands, with the centre having to raise the funds itself for the building. Construction began in 2012 and the staff finally moved in last March.
There are three Holocaust Centres in South Africa under the umbrella of the South African Holocaust and Genocide Foundation, in Durban and Cape Town, with Johannesburg being the third. The Joburg Centre is deliberately different. It doesn't just focus on the Holocaust but on genocide, too.
"You know, no one cared about the Hereros (85â€…000 murdered in Namibia between 1904 and 1907) or the Armenians by the Ottoman Empire (1.5â€…million between 1915 and 1923) during World War I, but in 1948 the United Nations passed its Universal Declaration of Human Rights and convention for the prevention and punishment of genocide," Nates said.
"South Africa didn't sign," she notes wryly. "They couldn't, they were implementing apartheid; indeed the country only accepted it in 1998 with the promulgation of its own Bill of Rights."
Nates is well qualified, personally and professionally, to teach and proselytise about the horrors of genocide and the need to inculcate a respect for human rights.
The daughter of Holocaust survivors from Poland, her father and uncle were saved by the legendary Oskar Schindler. She has worked in the killing fields of Rwanda from the 1990s, after completing a BA at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a BA (Hons) and MA in history at Wits in Joburg.
Having a centre to study the Holocaust and genocide, to debate the causes and identify the signs of incipient catastrophe, makes it easier for South Africans, in particular, to come to terms with their own different and difficult pasts.
"It's easier to start discussing these issues if we start looking at it from a global perspective, where we can look at the Holocaust, which was essentially white-on-white, and moving to Rwanda, which was black-on-black, to understand the deeper concept of racism beyond colour."
In August, the centre will be hosting an exhibition with the Japanese government about the atomic bomb and its impact, from a human rights perspective. There have already been seminars on child soldiers in war, and exhibitions showing Germany confronting its painful past.
One of those led to the centre facilitating a trip for 39 Student Representative Council members from the University of the Free State's three campuses, with some of their lecturers. They travelled to Germany in the wake of the #RhodesMustFall movement to try to understand how a country can come to terms with its painful past, confronting issues like racism and fascism.
The key, she says, is to forever be a place of learning about human rights, not – she stresses – to be an advocacy group. Documentary films, seminars, school outreach programmes, young leader fellowships are all part of this process, in a blur of activity, even though the centre is still raising funds to be able to finish the building and officially open it next year.
She refused then to wait until the centre was built; she refuses now to stop with the different programmes. Top of her mind is how fast a functioning democracy can fall into fascism – and from there into genocide, as Weimar Germany did in the 1930s.
The other thing that compels her is the Rwandan experience, where more than 1â€…million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered in 100 days – while South Africa was celebrating its rainbow miracle and birth as a non-racial democracy.
"It's the same continent, the same year, the same month; two different countries taking vastly different routes. It comes down to the choices exercised by the leaders, by the communities, by the people themselves. What do we learn from that? There's very little different from Jew hatred to minority hatred, as happened in Rwanda."
She mentions the 10 stages of a genocide: classification, symbolisation, discrimination, dehumanisation, organisation, polarisation, preparation, persecution, extermination and, finally, denial.
In Rwanda it was 'cockroaches', in Germany untermensch or 'vermin'. Germany built camps and created industrial-grade means to commit mass murder; in Rwanda people were bludgeoned to death in their houses with medieval savagery, using household implements, or herded into churches and stadiums, grenaded, machine-gunned and bayonetted.
In both societies, there was a theme of obeying orders, being conditioned not to question the status quo – indeed being punished for even having the temerity to do so.
At the centre, the emphasis is on teaching everyone who comes through not to be bystanders but to be upstanders.
Cohorts of young leaders are schooled on the importance of creating plurality in society, of accepting and encouraging different points of view, creating a fundamental resilience in their societies – much like is happening in South Africa at the moment, she notes, citing the rise of popular dissent and the roles that the courts are playing to ensure that there is space for all the disparate parts under one roof.
Walking through into the first permanent exhibition which begins with a display of the Herero genocide, before moving to Armenia, Germany and then Rwanda, Nates points at the windows set high in the wall facing Jan Smuts Avenue.
"There's light. Most museums don't have natural light in their display areas. We do. We insist that the exhibition is seen in daylight, because genocide occurs in daylight. Neighbours watch it happen. Look at the girls in Nigeria, look at the situation in Syria… "
Outside, a group of excited schoolgirls chatter as they cross through the reception area. As they enter the exhibition, they hush.
Nates stands in the vast triple-volumed reception area filled by warm mid-morning Highveld autumn sun. She's dwarfed by the railway lines that veer apart, stretching to the roof and the emptiness that engulfs her. The space is called the void. It symbolises the loss of all those killed by the Holocaust and through genocide.