Opinionista Yonela Diko 28 May 2018

Apartheid denialism must be punishable with imprisonment

If we legislate against apartheid denialism, it cushions the country from future mistakes in the absence of lived memory.

On 15 May 2018, South Africa’s last “extremist” organisation, AfriForum, through its henchman CEO Kallie Kriel, denied that apartheid was a crime against humanity, claiming that there were not enough people killed during apartheid to justify it being called a crime against humanity.

Naturally, a backlash ensued against Kriel and AfriForum, as predictable as they have become in their racist and anti-black rumblings, their going against the United Nations declaration of apartheid as a crime against humanity (resolution 2202 A (XXI) of 16 December 1966) and endorsement (resolution 556 (1984) of 23 October 1984) was crossing the line.

Kriel does not seem to appreciate the magnitude of what he has said, not only as a great insult to black South Africans but as a risk to Afrikaner nationalism itself and the future of Afrikaners.

Kriel contrasts the six million Jews who were killed in Europe for their Jewish heritage and claims that his own record puts black deaths at 600 during apartheid. Therefore apartheid and the Holocaust could never be both classified as “crimes against humanity”. One is reluctant to spend valuable time disabusing airheads like Kriel, who clearly have no appreciation of history.

First, Europeans, through the Nuremberg court, as would be expected, did not want to recognise the Holocaust as a crime against humanity or genocide, especially parts that did not happen during war time. So the idea that six million is a good number to declare something a “crime against humanity” or “genocide” has never impressed Europeans whose only interest was to preserve themselves from the blame for genocide. Whether it’s one life or six million lives, denialism on the classification of a crime has always depended on the self interest of those who want to exonerate themselves. A European could dismiss six million deaths the same way Kriel is dismissing 600 lives just because they don’t want to shoulder any blame for it.

It took Rafał Lemkin, a man whose entire family had perished in the Holocaust and the man who first used the term “genocide” to label what he called a new crime which must be recognised outside wars, to go to the United Nations to fight for the Holocaust to be included as a crime against humanity. He described genocide as the destruction of an “ethnic group, an old practice in its modern development”.

This meant that before Lemkin got the UN to expand its “crimes against humanity” or genocide to both wartime and peacetime genocide, ethnic killings that happened outside an official outbreak of war, like the killing of Jews before 1939 and after 1945, could not be declared crimes against humanity or genocide. This was obviously a slippery slope that resulted in a lot of countries and people getting away with crimes of great proportion.

One can imagine that such thinking is partly the reason the international community did not get involved in Rwanda, leaving over 500,000 people killing one another. It’s possible that there was no official recognition because the international military tribunal only referred to killings as genocide or crimes against humanity only subsequent to the official outbreak of the conflict.

Today, however, not only is the Holocaust a crime against humanity, Holocaust denialism is illegal in 16 European countries and, naturally, in Israel. Many countries also ban many elements associated with Nazism, such as the expression of Nazi symbols. The German justice minister has proposed that all EU states should criminalise Holocaust denial and ban the public display of Nazi insignia, as Germany itself does. The fundamental aims of the EU banning Holocaust denial is trying to ensure that nothing like that ever happens again in Europe, even when those who were directly affected have long disappeared from the face of the earth.

Under German law, Holocaust denial constitutes a crime and carries a sentence of up to five years in jail. In November 2017, A German court sentenced an 89-year-old woman to 14 months in prison for Holocaust denial. This is amazing considering that Europe presents itself as a standard-bearer of freedom of speech and freedom of association.

This need to uphold freedom of speech on one hand and prevent harms caused by speech, such as denying the tragedy of the Holocaust or any other killings, shows how serious we consider such mass violations of humanity and how democracy remains a human endeavour that we must shape with our values and with truth.

Of course it is easier for the white community to find apartheid a little inconvenience that was visited on barbarians. According to the 2014 SA Reconciliation Barometer, white citizens are less likely to remember the oppressive nature of apartheid than other citizens. Only 53% of whites who took part in the survey agreed with the statement that apartheid was a crime against humanity, compared to 80% of black people, 77% of Indians, and 70% of coloured citizens.

The barometer, published by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), analysed 10 years of data collected between 2003 and 2013. Furthermore, the report found that white South Africans were half as likely as black South Africans to agree with redressing the injustice of the past.

No one has really been held accountable for apartheid, despite the UN recognising it as a crime way back in the 1970s.

In SA, every black person, wherever they were, was gravely affected by apartheid simply because of the colour of his or her skin. Apartheid did not have to kill every black South African, it was enough to kill and hang the leaders, Solomon Mahlangu, Steve Biko, Ahmed Timol and many others, in order to send shivers to the rest of the population as to just what awaited them were they to resist white domination. Every inch of black lives was determined by white rule and white interest. Many black people died of hunger, pain and suffering, because in the land of their forefathers they remained pariahs, animals to be whipped.

What is clear is that the black benevolence of choosing to forget the past has not led to white people changing how they feel in the deeper recesses of their senses about black people. The risk of this is that in future, however long that will be, we may well see the oppression of one by another happening, especially when the current generation that knows exactly how bad things were during apartheid are no longer around.

If, however, we legislate apartheid denialism, it cushions the country from future mistakes in the absence of lived memory. It also ensures that the seriousness of apartheid is never lost or left to the whims of realists and denialists of the future.

Our national Parliament should pass a bill now. DM

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