BONAVENTURE Kageruka was a young law student in Kigali in 1994 when his mother, two sisters and two brothers were killed because they were Tutsis.
He now works with the South African Holocaust & Genocide Foundation, telling his story as often as possible in a bid to ensure others do not endure similar experiences.
But Tali Nates, whose father was one of the Jewish people saved by German industrialist Oskar Schindler, knows genocide happens over and over again.
Ms Nates too has dedicated her working life to warning people against perpetrating human rights abuses. “We don’t even have to go to genocide, xenophobia is enough,” she says, referring to the xenophobic attacks that rocked SA in May 2008, leaving 62 dead.
The foundation quietly launched the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre, which joins sister centres in Cape Town and Durban, this week. The centres are associated with more than 300 organisations and institutions worldwide that are also engaged in Holocaust and genocide education and remembrance.
About 6-million Jews were killed by the Nazis, and between 800000 and 1-million people lost their lives during the Rwandan genocide.
One of the patrons of the Johannesburg centre is Judge Richard Goldstone, the South African legal expert who was the first chief prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda.
“SA has much to offer to the rest of the world about the consequences of serious human rights violations.
“The Cape Town Holocaust Centre has contributed much to building understanding between different religious and racial groups and the acceptance of differences.
“Johannesburg has much to offer and much to learn,” he says .
SA is the only African country that includes the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide in its school history syllabus and this adds urgency to the foundation’s work, Ms Nates says.
“From 2007, it’s compulsory for the grade 9 and grade 11 syllabus to learn about the Holocaust and the genocide.. grade 9 is an exit year, so it is so important that this history is included (in children’s education) because they can leave school at the end of the year,” she says.
The Johannesburg centre consists of a permanent exhibition, seminar rooms, space for temporary exhibitions, a memorial garden, a resource centre and other facilities.
It is being built in the central Johannesburg suburb of Parktown, on land given on long lease by the city. The building was designed by architect and sculptor Lewis Levin , who created the screens on the west facade of the Constitutional Court building.
The foundation has, for the past two years, been training teachers in how to approach teaching these delicate subjects and has reached 2500 teachers and pupils through seminars, travelling exhibitions and other events, Ms Nates says.
Teachers find SA’s own human rights abuse history hard to approach, and it was thought it would be easier to do so by teaching first about other racism, she says.
“We find teachers are sensitive. The education department thought that if you look at other history, like Rwanda, it would open a door to your own history. For many it’s too painful, too raw (to teach directly).. We find this method very successful.”
University of the Witwatersrand psychology professor Norman Duncan says it is important to “take stock” of history and of “how far we’ve moved on”, adding, “I wouldn’t be alarmist and say these things happen easily, but they do happen and we must guard against them.”
For Mr Kageruka the spectre of racism hangs too visibly over society. “The (Rwandan) genocide is an event (in the past), but . we all know about xenophobia.. I think my small contribution can make a difference.”