Don't underestimate the pain of others - Rand Daily Mail, 29 June 2017

'There is no monopoly on pain visited on a people from prejudice and hate: the Rwandans, Cambodians and Armenians, to name but a few, can attest to that'


By Sara Gon 

Political commentator Ralph Mathekga has done exactly what he accuses Helen Zille of doing with her tweet on colonialism.

In a News24 video on 14 June, 2017, Mathekga displayed both disingenuousness and a woeful knowledge of history. The interviewer, whose own prejudices were clearly on display, asked Mathekga about Zille’s comparison of apartheid and the Holocaust. I presumed that the interviewer was referring to Zille’s formal apology on Tuesday, 13 June, 2017. But she wasn’t.

The interviewer was evidently referring back to Zille’s last comment on the issue, which appears to have been on 7 June, 2017. On this occasion, Zille said in response to a question that she refused to be drawn into comparing colonialism and the Holocaust‚ as the two were different. “There is a big difference between genocide and colonialism,” she said. “The Holocaust was a deliberate attempt to murder 11 million people. There is a difference between colonialism and a deliberate genocidal project.” (Zille says colonialism can't be compared to holocaust, by Nomahlubi Jordaan, TimesLIVE, 7 June, 2017).

In response, Mathekga said: “The Holocaust took place within a short space of time. Colonialism was very massive, followed people where they lived, divided societies to a point where even today we still have the legacy, inequality that continues to ravage former colonial countries.” Zille was “try(ing) to be a scholar on something that she apparently has no clue about … because her statements are indicating that she has no clue about the history and what has happened”.

He went on: “(She) seems to believe that the lives of black people are actually worth less, hence, for her, the Holocaust is the biggest problem that has ever happened to humanity; colonialism is just a secondary offence. But I think that is very unfair; it is going to offend people.”

Mathekga appears to be arguing for a monopoly on suffering. That is absurd.

For him to go on to say that Zille knows “nothing” and has “no clue about history” is both offensive and wrong. To say that Zille knows nothing about apartheid or the Holocaust (I’m not sure what he meant) is an untruth bordering on defamation. To consider the issue of knowledge and history, let’s consider Mathekga’s failings.

The persecution of the Jews didn’t begin and end with the Holocaust. Jews were subjected to prejudice, hatred and, at times, death for nearly two millennia. It followed them to wherever they fled. There are many periods in history where the Jews could not live out their lives in the country in which they were born.

Religious bigotry morphed into biological anti-Semitism, and, in Hitler’s Germany, most significantly from 1933 onwards, Jews were denied the rights afforded to other Germans. Jews were excluded from employment in the civil service. Jews were not allowed to own farms. Jewish lawyers were disbarred and doctors were forbidden to work in non-Jewish hospitals. Jews were excluded from schools and universities. Jews were not allowed to be owners or editors of newspapers.

Then, in many cities, the Nazis dispossessed Jews of their homes and possessions, forcibly removed them and shoved them into ghettos. These were usually walled-in parts of a city that held up to 30 times as many people as they were designed to accommodate. Disease and starvation took a tremendous toll. Ultimately the ghettos were emptied as the Nazis deported Jews to the concentration and death camps.

Nazi Germany took their hatred of Jews (and Communists, homosexuals and gypsies) to its unthinkable but logical extreme. In January 1941, at the infamous Wannsee Conference, the Nazis took the decision to liquidate these people by constructing death camps where people were worked or gassed to death and then cremated.

This decision was taken because from 1939 until 1941 the Germans had relied, largely but not exclusively, on shooting their victims. This method was deemed to be too slow and inefficient. So a more efficient, industrial method for carrying out genocide had to be found.

Until recently the accepted number of Jews murdered by the Nazis was 6 million, including 1.5 million children. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, however, archives reveal that the figure may have been as high as 8 million.

In the “short space of time” from 1939 to 1945 the Nazis murdered between 6 and 8 million Jews. In 1939 the European Jewish population was 9.5 million. The world population was about 15.3 million. At least two out of every three Jews in Europe had been murdered by the end of the war. That left a world population of Jewry of roughly half its original size.

Professor Sergio Della Pergola, the Shlomo Argov Professor Emeritus of Israel-Diaspora Relations and the director of the Division of Jewish Demography and Statistics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, attempted in 2009 to estimate the demographic damage to Jews of the Holocaust. Prof. Pergola estimated that instead of the 13 million Jews alive in 2009 there would have been 32 million.

So, Mr Mathekga, the Holocaust did not take place over a “short space of time”. It’s just that the unabashed genocide that was the Nazis’ “final solution” was extremely effective and efficient.

There is no monopoly on pain visited on a people from prejudice and hate: the Rwandans, Cambodians and Armenians, to name but a few, can attest to that.

My and my family’s lives have been indelibly affected by the fact that all of our family members who lived in Europe and the USSR in 1939 had been murdered by 1945. Every single one of them, man, woman and child, had been gassed, shot or beaten to death.

If you don’t want other people to underrate or diminish your pain, Mr Mathekga, don’t underrate or diminish theirs.

*Sara Gon is a Policy Fellow at the IRR, a think tank that promotes economic and political liberty. Follow the IRR on Twitter @IRR_SouthAfrica.

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