Peace in our time: Independent Education speaks to Tali Nates

By Fiona de Villiers

Tali Nates is passionate about many things – in particular, history as a powerful force for peace, and the ability of young people to craft a new kind of future for the world.

This Director of the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre (JHGC) knows all about the power of the past. “I was born into a family of Holocaust survivors, but despite that – or maybe because of that – I grew up with the knowledge that not ‘all Germans were bad’. The knowledge that people have choices and that one cannot generalise about people was empowering. “I also learned the value of remembering the past in order to empower us all to act for the betterment of humanity in the future.”

A brand new centre for Johannesburg

Her personal family history is by no means the only reason why Nates is perfectly placed to head the Johannesburg chapter of the South African Holocaust and Genocide Foundation (SAHGF).

Over the years, she’s worked with various organisations in the fields of holocaust education, genocide prevention, reconciliation and human rights in different parts of world. “SAHGF was established in 2008 to coordinate holocaust and genocide education.

The centres in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg are associated with over 300 organisations and institutions worldwide engaged in holocaust and genocide education and remembrance. They are all members of the Association of Holocaust Organisations.” Nates bubbles over when our conversation turns to the new JHGC, currently under construction. Like other important centres in the city built in the name of history – such as the Apartheid Museum and Museum Africa – it promises to be an impressive architectural landmark, with a memorial garden, resource centre and venues for workshops, public events and temporary exhibitions.

It will also be home to a permanent exhibition focused on the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide. “The centre, due to open in 2013, became necessary,” she explains, “because of the new national school curriculum for senior students, which includes a study of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust at both the Grade 9 and Grade 11 levels. The centre will be committed to assisting provincial education departments, schools and educators with the implementation of the human rights curriculum through educator training, learner workshops and resource materials.”

SAHGF works with schools around the country

The absence hitherto of a smart centre doesn’t mean Nates and her team haven’t been significantly involved in human rights education programmes around the country for some time. This year alone, they’ve worked with teachers and students in Joburg, Soweto and Ekurhuleni, as well as Queenstown in the Eastern Cape and Tonga in Mpumalanga.

“As part of our ongoing work with the Department of Basic Education to empower History teachers, we held the fourth round of Educators’ Workshops, entitled ‘Understanding Apartheid and the Holocaust – Teaching and Learning, the Grade 9 Experience’,” details Nates. “Our educators’ workshops all over the country offer resources like student and teacher workbooks, DVDs and handouts, using experiential activities to learn about the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide.”

The JHGC is also involved with the Peermont Schools Support Programme (PSSP). This long-term initiative of the Peermont Group provides both financial support and resources to seven schools in Gauteng. The centre also offers all schools the opportunity to host a visiting exhibition or guest lecturers from around the world. “This year, US-based Theresienstadt Holocaust survivor Ela Weissberger shared her testimony and life lessons with the students of Mcauley House School, for example,” remembers Nates. And in July, in partnership with the Liliesleaf Trust and the United Nations Information Centre (UNIC), the JHGC hosted the exhibition ‘Lessons from Rwanda’ at Liliesleaf Museum. The exhibition presents an account of the events that took place before, during and after the genocide in Rwanda, to raise awareness of the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the lasting impact of genocide on survivors.

How to tackle the issue of injustice

I’m moved again by Nates’ passion when she suggests a way for teachers to tackle the issue of genocide in the classroom. “Consider this,” she says simply. “In April 1994, as South Africans celebrated their freedom from apartheid and people stood proudly in queues for hours to vote; only a mere threeand- a-half hours airplane flight away, on the same continent and in the same time zone in Rwanda, hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and some politically moderate Hutus were murdered in a period of three months.

Yet most South Africans don’t make the connection. “We suggest that teachers link the Holocaust and the genocide in Rwanda with the consequences of prejudice, racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia and the dangers of indifference, apathy and silence. Teaching the Holocaust as a case study of human rights abuse serves as an excellent entry point for both teachers and students; this history is removed from the local experience of apartheid as it happened in another country more than 65 years ago and is less emotionally charged for South Africans.”

Whilst a great deal of attention is focused on the Rwandan genocide and the Holocaust of World War II, Nates urges South African teachers to include current events on our continent in their curricula. “They can conduct with their students a ‘human rights barometer’ of Africa by studying countries like Sudan, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Libya, to name a few. Don’t just wait for calendar dates like the International Day of Peace to pay lip service to the atrocities happening all around us.” Schools without access to slick technology and other resources should not worry.

“South Africa has a great oral tradition and the opportunity to use story-telling to acquire and share knowledge, values, ethics and morals presents itself naturally,” advises Nates. “Listening and learning from testimonies of survivors of injustice can help learners to look more closely at the issue of choices and connect to the lessons they can learn from this history.

“My hope is always that learners will move from knowing what they ‘should do’, to actually doing it. “Understanding the role of bystanders and choosing to take action is extremely important, especially in a young democracy such as South Africa dealing with serious problems like xenophobia.”

The young are up to the challenge

Nates fervently believes that the young people in whom our future hopes are vested are up to the challenge. She cites the impact of an event held at St Stithians Girls’ College in 2009 to commemorate the Rwandan genocide. The students held a fundraising drive to assist Rwandan survivor Xavier Ngabo to return to Rwanda and find the remains of his parents, who were murdered in the genocide, and bury them.

“Young peoples’ immediate world – their ‘universe of obligation’ – needs to be challenged. If you teach them about human rights issues, like the way the Nazis perfected the propaganda technique of ‘otherness’, they will be up there on the barricades fighting for human rights. “I know this, because everywhere I go, I meet inspiring students, like the Grade 9 Redhill School pupil who said after our workshop: ‘I want to teach people about the past, about the horror of the Holocaust, to prevent it from happening again’.”

Contact the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre at tel +27(11) 640 3100/6402148, fax: +27(11) 640 7865 or cell: +27(83) 260 8124, or visit the website at www.holocaust.org.za

Filed Under: Summer 2011

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