Oscar Wilde’s quote, which I like to qualify with Mark Twain’s “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.”
Expedience, however, usually dictates that we follow that which we perceive to be in our own self-interest. The masses are swept along, being driven by the few, unwilling to change in case it disturbs their comfort zone.
Examine closely this article that appeared in the Daily Mail (UK).
It’s entitled “Day off from Auschwitz” and has photographs taken during the death camp’s “heyday”; that is, when it was gassing tens of thousands of people every month.
Study the faces of the men and women in those pictures. Try to see if they resemble people you know, living now. Look closely because you are studying the human beings who inflicted the most barbaric torture and murder of the 20th century.
Remove the uniforms, subtract the Auschwitz component and I’ll bet you anything that these were normal people conscripted into the army. Happy conscripts, no doubt, but in the main doing national service along the lines of that carried on by South Africans during apartheid.
Once there, they set about performing their daily tasks, all the while consoling themselves with the thought that it was something their country and government expected, even demanded from them. Of course what their country demanded was genocide — lest we forget.
There are your monsters, for what they carried out ranks among the worst, if not the worst, atrocities in the history of mankind.
Yet, to look at them they are the kind of people you would find at a company picnic or an office function. To deny this is to delude yourself into believing that we are incapable of becoming them. We are them! Each and every one of us is capable of inflicting or ignoring what they did.
Not South Africans per se, but human beings — them and capable of worse. Capable of watching Rwandans being subjected to genocide knowing, beyond any measure of a doubt, that this is what was going on. Capable of watching Sudan and Eastern Europe descend into these depths and doing nothing.
The Holocaust, during its occurrence, was not as well known as the latter genocides and yet geo-political and economic factors prescribe inaction.
What possible considerations can there be for not intervening in Darfur?
Spare me any answers.
While most white South Africans are Afrikaans speaking, there is a very substantial English minority as well.
In order for apartheid to have been implemented and then continued, it needed the majority support of all white South Africans. I get very angry when I see apartheid being classified as an Afrikaner thing; it’s a white thing.
It is irrelevant that the term was coined by Jan Smuts, had its origins in British colonial rule and developed as a direct result of ongoing negotiations between the British and Boers at the turn of the 20th century.
It is relevant that it stayed in place until the birth of a multiracial democracy in 1994.
It was continued despite sanctions, two-year military service, censorship, the hardships it inflicted on black and coloured people and the fact that educated people should have known and did know that the system was evil.
Take a normal South African (well, I’m not well but I do take the tablets). I went to school and the army, and pursued a legal career. All of it within that system. My cousin Joel Bolnick bucked the system and had to flee the country after being placed under house arrest, and my other cousin, Professor Stanley Trapido (Lincoln College, Oxford, England) attacked the government at every turn (husband of Barbara — the author).
They were morally braver than I ever would be. For me to do what they did would have meant risking my life and, for most of us even worse, the comfort zone we all fall into.
The fact that many whites subscribed to it, who classified it as unacceptable, can be seen from the scale of the number and category of those who have left for pastures new. They can’t bring children up in a “crime-riddled” country, yet were happy to stay and bring them up when faced with a potential Mau Mau.
Apartheid flourished because it suited those who benefited from it to retain it.
Effects of apartheid
Unlike the pictures of the camp at Auschwitz, which are scarce, you can source billions of reminders of the people of apartheid; like the monsters from the camp, normal human beings, the likes of which you’ll find the world over.
This is why the Holocaust deniers are so dangerous. If we try to ignore what mankind is capable of, we will repeatedly be reminded.
Apartheid was not a holocaust but it has left millions of victims. Like a holocaust we must forgive but never forget, lest we be confronted with it again.
What is the legacy we have left to ourselves and future generations?
Millions of uneducated people who, in the main are unable to find suitable employment, if at all, and a number of who have turned to crime as a solution. Millions of people without proper housing, water, electricity, clothing, medicines or even food. In tandem with the education problem we have a breeding ground for Aids and other illnesses, many of which could be controlled but for the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
We have left the suffering of those who died as a result of a barbaric system, along with the mistrust between races that decades of division has occasioned; the anger that comes with missed opportunity, flowing from race discrimination. Many whites are now feeling a fraction of the pain and humiliation that was suffered by their black counterparts during apartheid.
Apartheid’s effects on South Africa and beyond will be felt for centuries, rather than decades, to come.
While we are capable of terrible acts and horrendous deeds, so too are we capable of great acts of kindness and forgiveness.
Madiba emerged from 27 years of prison and bridged the great divide — a divide that cost him a quarter of his life and subjected him to unbelievable hardship. President Mbeki has continued to build on this start and kept us on the road to transformation.
Blacks and whites have begun the long process of cementing the jigsaw puzzle into a single unit. It will be a long, agonising marathon rather than a short sprint, but all things being equal, of great benefit to us all.
It might also stand us all in good stead to recall the words of Ambrose Bierce: “‘My country right or wrong’ is a thing no patriot would think of saying, except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother drunk or sober.’”