Over the past few days I have been thinking again about The Reader (Der Vorleser), a novel by German law professor and judge Bernhard Schlink, published in Germany in 1995. The Reader is a parable of sorts, as it deals with the difficulties the post-war German generation have had in comprehending the Holocaust. How should modern Germans deal with the knowledge that their parent’s generation perpetrated (or acquiesed in the perpetration of) the Holocaust?
In this novel, the struggle of the post-war generation to come to terms with the past, and its difficulties in deciding how it should view the generation that took part in, or witnessed, the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime is problematised and the complexity (or perhaps impossibility) of the task, is explored.
Michael – the young “reader” of the title – who had an affair with a much older woman called Hannah many years after the war (a woman who is later implicated in Holocaust atrocities), finds it impossible to imagine what Hannah was like “back then”. He feels a difficult identification with the victims of Hannah’s deeds when he learns that Hannah often picked one prisoner to read to her, as she chose him later on, only to send that girl to Auschwitz and the gas chamber after several months. Did she do it to make the last months of the condemned more bearable? Or to keep her secret safe? Michael’s inability to both condemn and understand springs from this. He asks himself and the reader:
What should our second generation have done, what should it do with the knowledge of the horrors of the extermination of the Jews? We should not believe we can comprehend the incomprehensible, we may not compare the incomparable, we may not inquire because to make the horrors an object of inquiry is to make the horrors an object of discussion, even if the horrors themselves are not questioned, instead of accepting them as something in the face of which we can only fall silent in revulsion, shame and guilt. Should we only fall silent in revulsion, shame and guilt? To what purpose?
I have been thinking about this novel because of a broedertwis (a friend joked that it was actually a sustertwis) raging on the pages of Rapport newspaper between myself and those (including an English novelist called Dr. Marie Heese) who argue that one of the most egregious injustices is being perpetrated at the University of Stellenbosch because some classes are now being conducted in both Afrikaans and English (alternating between the two in the same class).
I responded (rather sharply) to an assertion by Dr Heese that she was “die bliksem in” (“bloody outraged”) about my previous writings on this topic, arguing that this sudden moral outrage is rather rich, coming from a person who supported apartheid and never expressed any moral outrage about the oppression, legalised racial discrimination, torture and murder perpetrated by the apartheid regime in order to sustain a system, imposed in the name of the preservation of white Afrikaners, and branded a crime against humanity by the United Nations. This women, I said, knew nothing about justice, honesty and plain common decency. (Ironically, in the same issue of Rapport Dr Heese offered a partial defence of Bantu Education - which she enthusiastically took part in — rather underlining the point I was making about her immoral, apologist, view of apartheid.)
Elsewhere in that august paper Pieter Malan (one of its editors) took exception: “Met wie praat jy, professor? Ek kom uit ’n ordentlike huis. Ek laat my nie so behandel nie.” (“Who are you talking to, Professor? I come from a decent family. I do not allow myself to be treated in this manner.”) While admitting that we should not close our eyes to the “faults” of our parents, Malan argued that Afrikaners have a lot to be proud of: the industrialisation of the country, creating the best infrastructure on the African content and building Afrikaans into a fully fledged academic language (albeit not one in which Dr Heese wishes to publish her novels) were all achievements of Afrikaners who now face a grave threat to their future because their children (even those who fight for Afrikaans at Stellenbosch) choose to write their post graduate dissertations in English and dream of living in Sydney or London.
Which brings me back to The Reader.
What does it mean to come from a “decent” Afrikaans family? Can one credibly call that family “decent if its members actively or passively participated in the perpetuation of a crime against humanity? How should we deal with the “faults” of our parents — if those faults include the enthusiastic support for the systematic dehumanisation, denigration, oppression and (at times) torture and murder of fellow citizens — all based on the belief in the racial superiority of whites?
Is it morally defensible (and factually correct) to argue that Afrikaners created the modern capitalist state in South Africa and to suggest that this is something to be proud of? What does it say about the nature of the moral universe inhabited by these children of apartheid, when some of them express moral outrage about the manner in which Afrikaans is treated (although this treatment complies with the provisions in the Constitution), but have consistently failed to express similar moral outrage about the injustices related to our apartheid past in which their parents were implicated, or the injustices of hunger, homelessness and inequality that haunts present day South Africa?
These are not easy questions to answer. It is emotionally and intellectually challenging even to begin to contemplate the past in an honest and fearless manner. After all, none of us wish to think of ourselves as being morally tainted because of what our parents did (or, yes Dr Heese, because of what we did or allowed to be done). How can we judge our parents when they loved us (even when they hated fellow black South Africans and enthusiastically supported or took part in their oppression), when we fondly recall how — as toddlers — our parents lulled us to sleep at night by humming the well-known Afrikaans lullaby, Siembamba? Siembamba/ mama se kindjie/ Siembamba, Mama se kindjie/ draai sy nek om/ gooi him in die sloot/ trap op sy kop/ dan is hy dood (“Siembamba/ mothers child/ Siembamba/ mothers child/ break his neck/ dump him in a ditch/ step on his head/ then he’ll be dead”.)
No wonder so many of us find it impossible to begin to comprehend the incomprehensible horror of apartheid and the complicity of our parents in this horror. No wonder we shy away from any but the most flippant acknowledgment of the “faults” of our parents and then cover this up by extolling the virtues of a regime that supposedly “created” the current infrastructure and the modern capitalist (albeit a bifurcated) state which was rigged disproportionately to benefit whites. (No matter that the infrastructure was paid for with the taxes generated by white-owned mining companies and businesses who made exorbitant profits because they could rely on the cheap migrant labour that was an inherent part of the apartheid system. No matter that the infrastructure was partly built with the hands of black men paid a pittance because of the racist employment policies embedded in the legal system.)
No wonder so many seem to find it impossible to reflect seriously on what our parents actually were like “back then”, what they were actually thinking and saying and doing while they rode on the “Whites Only” buses and bought stamps at the “Whites Only” counter of the post offices, when they euphorically cheered on DF Malan or HF Verwoerd and JB Vorster and PW Botha (all Chancellors of Stellenbosch University) at National Party or Republic Day rallies while these leaders extolled the virtues of apartheid and argued that black South Africans were essentially sub-humans who did not deserve to be treated equally with whites who, after all, had a duty to protect white civilisation against the black hordes? No wonder those of us who grew up in the apartheid era (and maybe supported it by getting involved in the Bantu education system), prefer to believe that we only meant well — although some “mistakes” were admittedly made.
Yes, in order to preserve our sanity and our sense of ourselves as basically decent and “innocent” people, we might believe that we have no choice but to maintain that we come from “decent” families. We might believe that we have no choice but to insist that nobody treat us as if we are morally tainted. We dare not admit that we lack the moral decency to target our outrage at the real injustices of past and present day South Africa and not at the failure of institutions like the University of Stellenbosch unconstitutionally to preserve the white privileges obtained through the exploitation of black South Africans.
I am not being flippant when I say these are emotionally and intellectually complex and difficult issues to deal with. No person wishes to be told that his father or mother was a moral degenerate and few of us would agree with such a proposition if we could find any way to deny or reinterpret the facts on which such a charge was based. If one lives in a country that underwent a managed transition, a country in which the oppressors were never fully defeated or exposed and humiliated, in which a Truth and Reconciliation Commission granted amnesty to the perpetrators of gross human rights violations and in which there was never an acknowledgment that the evil of apartheid was not perpetrated by a few “bad apples” like Eugene de Kock, but by every person who benefited from the system yet supported or acquiesced in it, this task of at least acknowledging the impossibility of facing up to the past honestly and fully becomes very difficult.
Most of us Afrikaners (and many white English speakers too) live in a moral wasteland: most feel that we must either deny the past and our complicity in it (or at the very least re-write that past to erase our complicity in it), or we must acknowledge the full horror of that past, which seems to mean that we would lose our very humanity, our ability to be human beings with an inherent human dignity with moral agency and the right to express our views on present day injustices in our country.
Some of us try to find another way. We grapple with the impossibility of squaring our love for our parents and our family (and the langue we all speak) — all implicated in the horrors of the past — with attempts to imagine how it was “back then”; what our parents said and believed and did to maintaining a system branded a crime against humanity, all because they loved us and wanted to provide us with a better life, even when this was at the expense of the humanity (and sometimes the lives) of the majority of South Africans.
To square these things is impossible. To stop trying is immoral.
PS: I borrowed some of the information about The Reader for this piece from Wikipedia. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Reader