Guest Column

On non-racialism and freedom of speech - lessons from Germany

2018-09-18 09:15
German Nazi flag with a swastika (AP)

German Nazi flag with a swastika (AP)

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Andani Thakhathi

I landed in Germany in October 2016, a deeply excited and naïve PhD candidate for a prestigious scholarship focused on ethics and responsible leadership in the global business environment.

As a young Venda man born and raised in South Africa, I had always been acutely aware of racism's grip on society. I remember having a childish disagreement with Ronald, a white primary school friend of mine from Makhado, a small town formerly called Louis Trichardt in the Limpopo province. 

In the heat of the moment, I accused him of not being a true friend. In fury, Ronald reacted, "You think I'm not your true friend? Do you know how often I get stopped by other white oaks who harass me for hanging out with you? Just last week, Ethan and I were stopped by a bakkie of jocks who slammed their brakes and warned us to stop befriending a k-word and yet here I am."

These early personal experiences, coupled with my relatives' horror stories about racial antagonism towards them made me conscious of South African society's persistent racialised undercurrent. However, when I got on that airplane and left for east Germany, I had no idea what was in store for me. 

I landed as a typical South African, excited to be somewhere new, greeting everyone I encountered with a bright smile. I soon learned that Germans are not a friendly bunch but I recognised that it was not personal. And just as I was adjusting to this cold attitudinal difference in demeanour, it happened.

I was waiting by the road for my furniture to be delivered at my new flat in a relatively upmarket suburb of Halle (Saale), the small east German city that was to become my new home. An elderly man rode by on a bicycle and started cussing, pointing at me and waving his hand so as to say, "get the hell out of this neighbourhood!" I stood there and watched in disbelief as he peddled down the road yelling obscenities. 

Not long after that I was at the main station getting ready to board a train to attend a workshop and thought to get myself a light snack while I wait. I entered a small café and walked past a train maintenance crew having breakfast. They all turned their heads and sneered at me. I felt immediately uncomfortable. 

I sat down and tried to mind my own business but they started talking amongst themselves, pointing at me and staring me down. Then one of them blurted out something about "black coffee" with reference to me and they all chuckled looking at me in response. My heart sank. "Not again," I thought in a moment of rude awakening. 

As if this wasn't enough, not long thereafter on a grey rainy day, I was leaving a salon where I had just received my first haircut in Germany. Contrary to the friendly Arabic immigrant who had just treated me to a clean shave, a random middle-aged man walked up to me and angrily vented, "Du bist scheisse," which in English means, "you are shit"!  

I stood absolutely still as he tried to intimidate me with a piercing look and started to ready myself mentally for anything to ensue. Fortunately, nothing did. He eventually walked back into the rain while I stood there wondering what I had gotten myself into by coming to this part of the world. 

The final straw came a year later while I was at the main train station in Leipzig one night waiting for my ride home. I went to the station's McDonald's to get a bite and pass time. Out of nowhere, while I was waiting in line to order, a young adult female with Nazi swastika tattoos all over her body cut in front of me, turned around and looked at me with hatred burning in her eyes. 

She started to hiss and muttered out some weird phrases that I couldn't understand while forming what looked like gang signs with her hands and fingers. This was orchestrated, ritualised symbology that was targeted at me, the only African in the store at that point in time. 

The woman posed no physical threat to me, so I simply stepped past her to regain my previous position in the queue. She immediately came back around me and faced me again with cheeky determination. What bothered me this time round was not her insistent behaviour, but the actions of everyone else in that McDonald's. No one, not even the staff members stopped her, reprimanded her or even said a word. I was totally on my own and their indifference rendered them complicit in her blatant racist attack. It was a sad indicator of neo-Nazism's resurgence in Germany and the public's apathy towards it. 

Later in 2017, the xenophobic far right German nationalist party – the Alternative for Germany (AfD) – won 12.6% of the vote in Germany's national federal election. This made them one of the top three parties in the country and the first far-right nationalist movement to enter the German parliament since World War II! 

The main driver of their re-emergence was a fear of immigrants stemming from the European refugee crisis. Xenophobia had gripped the outlook of ordinary Germans who were terrified of the threat the influx of refugees posed to them keeping their job, their lover, their space, their language and their cultural identity.

The majority of the AfD's votes came from the region where I was located for my studies – east Germany. East Germany, also known as the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), is the part of Germany that was occupied by Russia after World War II which stunted its growth by turning it into a closed communist state. East Germans were not allowed to interact with people from other parts of the world and this legacy still has its nationalist remnants in the region today. 

When these trends surfaced in the news, the penny dropped and put things into perspective for me. I was based at a university in a province called Saxony-Anhalt and so was situated in the heart of the AfD's stronghold. Each one of the experiences I had in the past two years all began to make sense but they remained nonetheless deeply abhorrent. 

All this taught me a very powerful lesson; racism is still alive and its proponents are ideologically possessed by its grip, which makes it all the more important that those of us who subscribe to higher moral values and principles should not be shy to stand up for them. 

Non-racialism is a potential future that we'll realise only if we work towards it with our daily private and public thoughts, behaviours and actions. Neutral fence-sitting will not suffice, we must be unequivocal about the values we hold dear, including respect for everyone's sacred human rights without favour.

My perspective has been broadened since. Every time I get on a flight and head for OR Tambo International Airport I get butterflies in my stomach and can't wait to come home. One thing that South Africa possesses that many parts of the world do not, is its multi-culturalism. It is okay to be African, Indian, Asian or Caucasian in South Africa. In Europe, if you do not look like everyone else, you automatically stick out like an irritating sore thumb. 

Granted, race remains a big issue in Mzanzi and our history's unjustifiable legacy is something we must change for the betterment of all South Africans. However, if there is one key ingredient that will take us forward it is our freedom of speech. 

Pent up anger and resentment that is supressed instead of expressed will only lead to the rise of left-wing or right-wing extremism.

We must engage in frank, constructive dialogue and protect the right for all South Africans to vent and share their experiences openly and respectfully in the quest for a truly non-racial society.

- Andani Thakhathi is a PhD candidate at the Wittenberg Centre for Global Ethics and Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg, Germany.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    germany  |  racism  |  nazi
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