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Genocide happens when democracy is absent

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Genocide happens when democracy is absent

—Tali Nates, Founder and Executive Director of the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre
Kingsley Ighobor
From Africa Renewal: 
18 August 2020
Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre
JHGC, Johannesburg
The Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre sheds light on the holocaust and the genocide in Rwanda

Tali Nates founded the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre (JHGC) in 2008 to foster an understanding of the history of genocide, which happened between 1939 and 1945 and the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda during which Hutu and others who opposed the genocide were also killed. With a mission to prevent a recurrence of such extreme human rights abuses, Ms. Nates has taken her advocacy to several countries in Africa and beyond. She spoke with Africa Renewal’s Kingsley Ighobor on JHGC’s work, UN partnership, and why Africans must nourish and safeguard democracy. These are excerpts from the interview:

Tali Nates, Executive Director of the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre
Tali Nates, Founder and Executive Director of the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre

What motivated you to establish the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre?

The vision to open a centre of education, memory, and of lessons for humanity started about 12 years ago. My dream was to connect history to today's world. I am a daughter of a Holocaust survivor. My father [Moses Turner] survived four concentration camps; he was saved by Oskar Schindler [Schindler was the German industrialist who saved some 1,200 Jews]. I grew up listening to stories of the Holocaust. I grew up with my father's voice saying, “People, government and communities have choices they must make; we need to learn from history.” He died when I was young but I carried on his message. I studied history, lectured in a university and worked with NGOs [non-governmental organisations].  

How did Johannesburg come into the picture?

The city of Johannesburg partnered with us in 2010 and turned my dream into reality. I wanted a genocide centre in South Africa because the country is still struggling with a difficult and painful history of oppression and colonialism. Racism is still a huge issue here. It's an entry point to the other histories of suffering, of oppression, or struggles that have happened or are happening in faraway places—across the world. From that entry point one can learn about, say, the history of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

Learning about past extreme human rights abuses is important so that such abuses may be avoided in the future. How do you explain xenophobia perpetrated by some people in South Africa?

If you look at the genocide in Europe, between 1939 and 1945, which we call the Holocaust of the Jews, you learn about the stages of genocide, which include stereotyping, discrimination, dehumanization and perpetration and you learn about the consequences of bad laws, or propaganda, of a totalitarian state, which happen when a democracy fails.

You can learn lessons from the history of the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, or of colonialism. You are then able to connect such history to today's reality. So, we try to create an understanding to prevent us from being bystanders. Rather, we must be social activists for change.

What motivated you to establish the Centre?

What impact are you making with your awareness-raising activities?

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of people, including students, visited the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre. Schools used to bring their students and teachers daily for exhibitions, discussions, conferences, and plays and films.

When people come to the Centre, they feel they are in a safe space to raise human rights issues, issues regarding, for example, people with disabilities, specifically in South Africa. We had a disaster a few years ago when 144 mentally ill patients died in our [South Africa’s] facilities. That was a tragedy. What did we do? We created a safe space for the families of the 144 individuals to commemorate their loved ones, to learn about the rights of people with disabilities and to connect with history regarding what happened to people with disabilities during Nazi Germany—how they were targeted, treated and murdered. More than 200,000 were murdered by the Nazis.

Why is it important to learn the history of the Holocaust and the genocide in Rwanda?

How are you able to work amid the pandemic?

South Africa went into a strict lockdown on 26th March for five weeks. Our centre was immediately closed to the public. We have moved to the digital world. We are organizing webinars weekly that attract diverse communities from around the world but also from South Africa. We are offering online teaching through Zoom, Google or Microsoft Teams, or other formats. Many people lack access to the internet in South Africa. Therefore, we are recording audio notes, short stories—three minutes, two minutes—and sending them on WhatsApp to students in more than 200 schools in the country. We are using podcasts to speak about refugees, xenophobia, vulnerable children, gender-based violence and other things.

We want those engaging with our lessons to understand that they cannot be bystanders, that there are issues in our societies that need all of us to stand up and do something. For example, although we are a museum, because people are currently hungry, we opened our centre to collect food and toiletries for distribution to those in need.  

Abuses often result from a desire by some to protect identities—religion, race, tribe, and so on. Do you see any fault lines in Africa today?

In our beloved continent we see growing tensions around religion and language. We see other fault lines around political views, ethnic identities and gender—gender-based violence is on the rise with the lockdowns. All of us must play a role in safeguarding Africa’s values of ubuntu, of peace and tolerance.

We are working with our sister centres in Cape Town and Durban, and with partners at the Kigali Genocide Memorial [Rwanda]— to promote these values around Africa. We have a youth leadership programme called the Change Makers Leadership Programme in many countries, which is aimed at strengthening our youth to stand up against violent extremism and the other fault lines we recognize. We train youth leaders and we also train the trainers such as teachers, facilitators, professors, librarians, and so on, to teach our values in schools.

We worked, for example, in Yola, Nigeria, in the north east, with UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] and the American University of Nigeria to train facilitators to look at role models, at our values, at our own difficult history in Africa and in Nigeria, and learn lessons so as not to repeat the mistakes that were made.

How are you working with the United Nations?

Do you target individuals who foment troubles in countries?

As an educational non-political NGO, we cannot reach all the key players such as the politicians and those who are already extreme. But we work with people who escaped from rebel groups. For example, in Yola, Nigeria, we had the honour to work with some of the girls who were released from Boko Haram captivity in 2018. In other places, we worked with former child soldiers who needed rehabilitation.

Do you partner with governments or pan-African institutions such as the Africa Union?

Absolutely. We should not ever try to work alone. In each country, we work with different partners. In the Gambia, for example, we worked with the Ministry of Education. In Mozambique, we were fortunate to partner with the Ministry of Youth and Sports. In Mauritius, we worked with the ministry responsible for children. We work with international and continental organizations. For example, we work with Aegis Trust [which works to prevent genocide] in Rwanda and in Central African Republic, Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya, and so on.

Do you engage with the United Nations too?

Yes, we do. We collaborate with the UN Information Centre in Pretoria [South Africa] on commemorative events and information dissemination projects. And the relationship is wonderful. We also work with the UN headquarters in New York and with different UN offices in Africa—the UN in Dakar, for example. We also work on different projects with UNESCO and other UN agencies.

What is your message to Africans?

How have international instruments such as the Convention for the Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights helped your advocacy?

These are very important instruments, just like the Responsibility to Protect. We also have the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, which is marked on 27th January every year and is a very important day to teach and learn lessons from history.

What are your views on the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States and other parts of the world?

Our institute came out with a statement of support for Black Lives Matter. Not only is it time for black lives to matter, it is hundreds of years too late. We must deeply reflect on how to root out systemic racism in the United States and around the world.

What message do you have for countries in conflict or where democracy may be fragile?

If we learn anything from genocide—please, African countries, listen to this: genocide never happens in a democracy. Never! Genocide always happens when democracy fails or is threatened.  It happens in totalitarian or authoritarian regimes, which abuse the state, the laws and use propaganda, fear, terror, and everything else to target minorities. My message is, safeguard and nourish your democracies.

To learn more about the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre, click here.

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