Are we drawing the right reasons from the past?

24.04.2019 - Article

It's crucial to address the many facets of one's history: to not accept the easy answers, but to take a closer look; to debate our past openly and controversially. Even if that is painful, writes Martin Schäfer for News24.com.

“Memory Against Forgetting.”

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That's a Leitmotif of Liliesleaf, the heritage site in Rivonia, which played a vital role in the struggle against apartheid.

Remembering the past is crucial for understanding the present. But remembering one's past can also be a complex, painful and puzzling exercise. That's what crossed my mind when I was at Liliesleaf earlier this month. I had the honour of co-opening a new permanent exhibition there on “The German Democratic solidarity with the liberation movement in its struggle against apartheid”, a collaboration between Liliesleaf and Germany's Rosa-Luxemburg-Foundation.

It is an exhibition well worth seeing. And it is an exhibition reminding us that it's not always easy to draw obvious lessons from our past.

During apartheid, numerous countries provided support to South Africa's liberation movement – East Germany was one of them, and way upfront. It provided the ANC with what it needed and wanted, including robust military training for guerilla warfare, without any strings attached, or as Pallo Jordan put it “on our (the ANC's) terms”.

International support – of both governments and civil society movements – was a significant factor in overthrowing the apartheid state.

When walking through the new exhibition space, it is striking and moving to see how South Africans praised the friendship and solidarity they received in East Germany and how fondly they recall their encounters with East Germans. There, they found a life free from harassment, three proper meals a day and – unimaginably – served by men and women of white skin. They found means to produce ANC publications and opportunity to study and receive military training.

In supporting the anti-apartheid struggle, East Germans certainly found themselves on the right side of history.

But one cannot look at this period of history without viewing the full picture.

While the German Democratic Republic (GDR) wholeheartedly supported anti-colonial liberation movements abroad and in particular in Southern Africa, it was the very same state – and maybe also the very same people of the infamous “Staatssicherheit” – that denied its citizens democratic and human rights at home. Eventually, it was this denial of fundamental freedoms that led to the GDR's downfall. It spurred the peaceful East German revolution 30 years ago and the reunification of our country in 1990.

What happened in West Germany at the same time? At home, the Federal Republic of Germany guaranteed the democratic rights and political freedoms of its citizens. It was and it is to this date a state that acts according to the wonderful first sentence of our constitution: “Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar” – Human dignity shall be inviolable.

But in its stance on South Africa, Cold War allegiances long prevailed over the just cause of the freedom struggle. It was only in the mid-1980s when the tidal wave of support for the ANC's 'Free Mandela'-campaign – arguably the most successful political PR campaign of all times – eventually led the government to change sides. Together with its European partners, it imposed harsh sanctions on apartheid South Africa and eventually played an important, instrumental role in bringing about change.

If the new Liliesleaf exhibition teaches us one thing, it is the awareness that history is never just one or the other. It is almost always more complicated.

I believe it's crucial to address the many facets of one's history: to not accept the easy answers, but to take a closer look; to debate our past openly and controversially. Even if that is painful. I believe that's the best way to keep memory alive and to actually learn from it. For the sake of a better future.

That's true in South Africa – a country that has been admired across the world for the way it confronted the past, its efforts to heal and reconcile, to find truth and transformation.

And that's also true in Germany – where the lessons we have drawn from our troubled past are crucially shaping our identity as Germans and Europeans today.

Both our countries are commemorating particular moments of our history this year. South Africans are celebrating 25 years of democracy. Germans are celebrating 30 years since the peaceful revolution and the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

Have we drawn the right lessons from the past?

This year's joint anniversaries of freedom and democracy seem to suggest we're on the right track.

“Memory Against Forgetting.”

To me, “not forgetting” is not something static. Remembering and dealing with one's past is an evolving process. That implies that when we learn new aspects of our history, when we are challenged in our long-held assumptions, we should face and discuss them.

Numerous examples could be found for this, both here in South Africa and in Germany. In Berlin, a new exhibition is currently sparking a fierce debate. It is dealing with the conflicted history of acclaimed German painter Emil Nolde. It is asking whether the artist, whose work was once labeled “degenerate” by the Nazis in the 1930s, was himself a staunch Nazi. Does this mean we must not and should no longer appreciate Nolde's great art?

Good? Bad? Right? Wrong?

It's complicated. And it is good to be dealing with complications: to untangle the arguments, to have a debate about them. That's why we must fund and support historic research, arts projects and critical thinking.

“Memory Against Forgetting.”

To me, that means: Learning from the past: from the good, the bad and – most of all – from the complicated.

- Martin Schäfer is German ambassador to South Africa.

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