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Fighting racism with education

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Racist incidents in our country are still common. Seldom, however, do they take so repellent and demeaning a form as that which occurred at Stellenbosch University last week, when a white student was filmed urinating on the belongings of a black student while telling him it was “a white-boy thing”. It’s sobering to reflect that such acts are being carried out not by those who grew up under apartheid but by young people who have lived all their lives in a democratic society committed to the values of equality and rejection of racism in all its forms.

Further evidence of how traditional racist attitudes persist among some of our youth is the regular occurrence of Nazi-themed demonstrations, along with the casual display of Nazi symbols and slogans, in schools and even tertiary institutions around the country. Our Cape Council, for example, recently addressed a case of antisemitic and Nazi-themed memes posted on a student WhatsApp group at a local training college. This week, it was reported that four senior pupils, all of whom were prefects at Rustenburg High School, performed a Nazi salute during a karaoke competition at the school. In our response in the media, we pointed out that there was nothing clever or cool about publicly identifying as Nazis, particularly in a country still struggling to come to terms with its own racist past. Nazism is an exceptionally evil ideology whose proponents were guilty of some of the most monstrous crimes in human history including the systematic annihilation of six million Jews and many others deemed unfit to live.

We’re in the process of setting up a meeting with the school, whose governing board has been commendably decisive about the way in which the incident and those responsible are dealt with. Our approach has always been that changing attitudes through education and sensitivity training is preferable to simply punishing those responsible. Through partnering with the South African Holocaust & Genocide Foundation, we have been able to facilitate a range of these initiatives, including guided visits to the Holocaust centres in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban, and conducting educational programmes at relevant institutions for the entire student body.

Since its establishment, the Holocaust & Genocide Foundation and its regional centres have sought to instil in visitors an awareness of the evils of racism, bigotry, and intolerance, and of what the unspeakable consequences of such scourges can be. Each year, the three centres are visited by tens of thousands of school pupils from widely differing backgrounds. Through the foundation’s work, ever growing numbers of people are being taught not just what happened during the Holocaust but as importantly, how and why it happened. This, in turn, helps to foster the kind of culture of respect and acceptance that’s so critical to South Africa’s future as a united, democratic, and non-racial society. The South African Jewish Board of Deputies greatly values the partnerships it has forged with this exceptional institution.

  • Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday 12:00 to 13:00.

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