Before COVID-19, the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre (JHGC) was a magnet for students, teachers, historians and others thirsting for knowledge about the holocaust of the Jews and the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda during which Hutu and others who opposed the genocide were also killed.
These days, the centre's operations are mostly digital.
Located in the centre of the bustling city of Johannesburg, South Africa, the centre was founded in 2008 and opened to the public in March 2019 under a private-public partnership involving the City of Johannesburg.
Founder and Executive Director Tali Nates, a historian and former university lecturer, says people visiting the centre gain knowledge that enables them to connect history with current realities.
In other words, the centre rips off the band-aid on the atrocities of the past and lays bare a wound that calls on people in the present to be vigilant and safeguard the future.
On matters of the Holocaust and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and human rights abuses in general, Ms. Nates speaks with uncommon passion. Her family's life story is steeped in the Holocaust. In fact, her father, Moses Turner, was a Holocaust survivor.
"My father was saved by Oskar Schindler. I grew up listening to stories of the Holocaust," Ms. Nates tells Africa Renewal, in an interview. Mr. Schindler was a German industrialist who heroically saved about 1,200 Jews he had employed in his factories.
"I still hear my father's voice talking about the choices that people make," Ms. Nates says. That voice continues to steel her resolve to carry on with a mission to advocate, within Africa and beyond, against violent extremism and other severe human rights abuses.
The centre itself is the spearhead of an expansive trans-African operation that amplifies stories of the Holocaust and the genocide in Rwanda.
The building housing it drips of symbolism. Remnants of railway tracks embedded in high walls of concrete "symbolize oppression, suffering and even modernity," says Ms. Nates. "The railway lines were used by the Nazis to move victims to concentration camps, and they were also used by colonial powers to move slaves around, and to transport people in the Armenian Genocide."
Names of victims of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda are inscribed on some walls--a kind of reality check that the victims were real people. More than one million people - overwhelmingly Tutsi, but also moderate Hutu, Twa and others who opposed the genocide - were systematically killed in less than three months.
There is also a room for seminars and workshops and another space for reflections. In the reflections space, narrates Ms. Nates, visitors "listen to songs by Philip Miller, a South African international composer who recorded Holocaust and Rwandan survivors' childhood songs of testimonies, songs that tried to empower each other to live again."
Each theme in the highly sought-after exhibition room tells a different story "through art and poetry, and testimonies through films and music," she adds. On a wall, the words: Never Again!
A centre such as this, by its nature, is expected to convey eeriness and melancholy, but the JHGC is different. "It is not dark. It's got lots of windows. You can look outside and outside can look at you," says Ms. Nates. Why? Because "Everything about the Holocaust and genocide in Rwanda did not happen in the night; everything happened in the day."
Conceptually, the centre is not simply meant to proselytize the primacy of good over evil; it equally canvasses the acceptance of the salience of man's capacity for evil relative to other competing challenges of society.
Is there a risk that a peep into a monstrous past might backfire? "No, not at all," Tali insists. On the contrary, it should foster an understanding of the stages of genocide.
The 10 stages of genocide were famously listed by academician and founder of Genocide Watch, Gregory Stanton, and they include classification, symbolization or stereotyping, discrimination, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, persecution and then extermination begins and quickly becomes mass killing, which is legally called 'genocide'. The last stage is denial following the genocide as perpetrators try to cover up evidence and intimidate witnesses.
People must "learn to question the propaganda of a totalitarian state, which is what happens when a democracy fails.
The key is to sniff and snuff out signs of the early stages of genocide before they metastasize. So, when people rally behind group identities to classify and stereotype others, they must be called out to prevent the latter stage, including extermination.
People must "learn to question the propaganda of a totalitarian state, which is what happens when a democracy fails," Ms. Nates suggests, acknowledging that some people, even today, try to hide behind racial, religious, tribal and other identities to wreak havoc.
Historically, Africa has had its share of extreme human rights abuses. There was, for example, the Transatlantic Slave Trade from the 16th to the 19th centuries during which up to 15 million Africans were captured and shipped to the Americas; the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda was another; and the Boko Haram insurgency in northeast Nigeria continues to decimate lives.
Currently in Africa, Ms. Nates notes, there are worrying fault lines around xenophobia, ethnic and gender identities, religion, race, language, homophobia, political ideology and so on. The JHGC is partnering with African governments, the United Nations and other institutions to raise awareness of these fault lines.
Ms. Nates delivers her key message with fierce urgency: "Africans must resist the perpetration of crimes. We must choose to stand up for what is right--for our values."