Arts and Culture 2007-2015


HALF ART: Germany and South Africa - Past and Present

First appeared
Friday, 17 April 2015


Citizens of the “global South” spending time in the “global North” are torn between nostalgia (in the original sense – longing to return home) and a form of colonial cringe. We miss familiarity, even as we are thrilled by novelty; pride in the places we come from is matched by a nagging suspicion that things actually are better in the places to which we have come.

We should, of course, guard against such value judgments. They are emotive rather than rational, they tend to be based on generalisations and they stem from an ahistorical impulse: the desire to ignore how and why societies differ, and to assume that difference implies hierarchy.

As a South African in Germany, I am constantly tempted to identify parallels and points of convergence between the two countries (the points of divergence are obvious). Germany, like South Africa, is a country coming to terms with the legacy of twentieth-century fascism and persecution. Its people have also had to learn the art of integration after long years of segregation.

Both countries experienced celebrated transitions after the watershed years of 1989-1990. But there is something in the rather understated enthusiasm with which Germans have subsequently viewed this period that South Africans are only now beginning to learn.

Earlier this week I visited the Haus der Geschichte in Bonn – literally, the “House of History” – which covers German history from the Second World War to the present. Like our own Apartheid Museum, it makes generous use of archival material to immerse visitors in a past from which we are glad to have emerged. The permanent exhibition closes on a rather triumphant note, emphasising Germany’s position within the European Union.

Yet it struck me that the section of the museum covering the reunification of East and West Germany is the briefest. There is video footage of jubilant crowds near Brandenburg Gate, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” echoing in the background. There is a thin section of the Berlin Wall. There are a few facts and figures. On the whole, however, it is a modest display.

Perhaps this is based on a recognition that November 1989 – itself a culmination of geopolitical events too numerous to calculate – was only the beginning; all the hard work lay ahead. Perhaps South Africans, too, knew this in the heady days after Nelson Mandela was released from prison. Certainly, the early 1990s were tough going. But somehow, the 1994 elections became an over-determined marker in the national narrative. We were now “post-apartheid”.

That belief has been whittled away over the last two decades. Those who clung to it at the beginning of 2015 have had to acknowledge – following #RhodesMustFall, EFF land invasions and any number of headline news stories – that there are a lot of South Africans who are very angry, and often justifiably so, because we are not yet post-apartheid.

It is understandable that this anger should be directed at statues, at under-transformed institutions, at a state that continues to fail in the services it is mandated to deliver to citizens. Sometimes, tragically, anger turns into madness, to burning libraries and to barring learners from schools. And often, unacceptably, it turns into xenophobic violence.

The recent attacks on foreign nationals in and around Durban can be viewed in crude materialist terms: conflict over resources, over jobs, over housing. But they were spurred by the reckless comments of King Goodwill Zwelethini (however much he may disavow this connection or blame inaccurate translation by reporters). Edward Zuma’s brazen anti-foreign rhetoric is only fanning the flames.

Jacob Zuma may distance himself from his son’s remarks, but the fact is that our senior politicians are not condemning xenophobia loudly and clearly enough. A cynic might suggest that they are happy for poor communities to vent their rage on foreigners as long as they continue voting for the ANC.

Here, South Africa’s leaders can certainly learn from their German counterparts. A new exhibition at the Haus der Geschichte, titled “More and More Colour”, signals Germany’s pro-immigration stance. The empty bravado of right-wing demonstrators withers against a firm governmental line: Germany will grow more and more ethnically diverse. It’s good for the economy. It’s good for the EU. It’s good for its own sake. 



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