I write in response to Madoda Sitshange’s opinion piece of 29 May (‘Comparing Holocaust atrocities to Dudula is racist and an attempt to brainwash’).
In his article, Sitshange takes issue with a report by Lwazi Hlangu concerning learner workshops conducted in Howick by the Durban Holocaust & Genocide Centre (DHGC) and which appeared on SowetanLive on 22 May.
The DHGC is primarily a place of remembrance for the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust and all other victims of Nazism but also engages in outreach programmes about contemporary human rights abuses and genocide.
The title chosen for Hlangu’s article, viz. ‘SA’s xenophobic attacks bear similarities to Holocaust, say experts’, is misleading since those DHGC spokespeople quoted do not, in fact, compare xenophobic attacks in South Africa to the Holocaust.
Rather, they point out the dangers of the kind of inflammatory language that characterises much of the xenophobic rhetoric in South Africa today, in which African refugees, migrants and asylum seekers are blamed for the country’s social and economic problems.
Such ‘othering’ language and scapegoating, they argue, is reminiscent of how the regime of Nazi Germany went about vilifying Jews and other minorities it wished to persecute in the years leading up to World War II.
In its educational programmes, the DHGC emphasises that the road to genocide begins not with actions but with words. When people are continually demonised and dehumanised on account of the group they belong to, be it based on race, religion, nationality or other such grounds, it can all too easily lead to violence and other hate crimes against them. In extreme cases, as the examples of the Holocaust and the genocide in Rwanda show, they can culminate in mass murder.
It is evident from Sitshange’s response that he has not properly read the piece he is responding too but rather appears to have based his reply entirely on its (admittedly ill-chosen) headline.
A much bigger problem, however, is that he devotes more than half of his article to ranting against Israel. Since that subject self-evidently has nothing to do with the issues at hand, one can only conclude that his reason for doing so is that the DHGC is a Jewish organisation, and on a number of levels, that is simply unacceptable.
By refusing to engage with the points raised by the DHGC and instead responding with an extended piece of irrelevant anti-Israel vitriol, Sitshange clearly intimates that before they can presume to express a view on human rights issues pertaining to their own country, Jews must first sign on to the radical anti-Israel agenda he espouses. Apart from imposing outrageous conditions on the right of Jews to exercise their freedom of expression, this feeds into one of the staples of anti-Semitic bigotry, namely that Jews are not truly South African but should be regarded rather as part and parcel of a greater, global Jewish entity. This is both discriminatory and racist.
It is likewise racist and discriminatory to hold a Holocaust and Genocide Centre accountable for what Jews on another continent are alleged to be doing. Such thinking only reinforces toxic notions of collective guilt, in which people are judged and condemned not on the basis of who they are and what they do but as members of an impugned group. That indeed is how prejudice works; it negates the individual and engages instead in negative stereotyping.
Mary Kluk, founder and director of the DHGC, sums up the purpose of her organisation as being to help learners of all ages to understand what CAN happen if prejudice is allowed to continue unchecked. We learn this from what happened in the Holocaust in Europe, the genocide in Rwanda and many more instances of man’s inhumanity to man throughout history.
Freedom of expression is a fundamental democratic right, but as South Africans, we all need also to remember that words have consequences. They can spread goodness and kindness, inspire and build bridges, but if ill-chosen and especially when delivered with malevolent intent, they can cause serious harm to both individuals and societies.
David Saks is the Associate Director of the SAJBD