Never again should be for anybody

South African writer, publisher and curator Zukiswa Wanner explains why she is surrendering her 2020 Goethe Medaille.

People protest outside the German consulate in Cape Town on February 9 over the country’s position on the war in Gaza. Image credit Ashraf Hendricks (GroundUp) CC BY-ND 4.0 Deed.

My name is Zukiswa Wanner.

I am a writer, editor, publisher, and curator who considers the African continent my home. In 2020 I became the first woman on my continent to receive the Goethe Medaille alongside Bolivian artist and Museum Director Elvira Espejo Ayca and writer Ian McEwan from the United Kingdom. While the Goethe Medal is conferred by the Goethe-Institut to “non-Germans who have performed outstanding service for international cultural relations,” it is important to note that the award is an official decoration of the Federal Republic of Germany.  

I note and appreciate Goethe-Institut President Carola Lentz’s statement from an article of January 14, 2024, in Der Spiegel where she says, and I quote:

Longstanding partners in the international cultural world are losing trust in the liberality of Germany’s democracy and poses the question, should the Auswartige Kultur und Bildungspolitik (AKPB) support only persons or groups who accommodate the political/moral agenda of the respective German government?

She concludes otherwise and notes that organizations like Goethe-Institut must not become the extended arm of the government, particularly in difficult political times. In the same vein, Goethe-Institut Johannesburg, which is the regional headquarters for Sub-Saharan Africa, stated on February 7, 2024, “As to the current war in Gaza—we are convinced that in view of the catastrophic situation, a new ceasefire is urgently needed. The rising number of civilian victims is unacceptable.”

It’s important to state this so I highlight that this is NOT a statement surrendering the medal because of the Goethe-Institut and its position even where we may not always agree. I mention the Goethe-Institut statement by way of explaining that my actions are not a critique of the cultural institution but rather of the government.  

In May 2023, while attending the Palestine Festival of Literature and months before October 7, I was in the Occupied Palestine Territories and traveled to Ramallah, Nabi Saleh, East Jerusalem, Hebron, and Lydd. As a writer coming from a country with a history of apartheid, what I experienced shook me and resulted in my writing a long essay, “Vignettes of a People in an Apartheid State.”  

One did not need to be from a country with a history of apartheid to see the daily injustices and indignities visited on Palestinians. Palestinians have separate roads, and different number plates and are constantly under threat from strangers from the United States or white South Africans with apartheid nostalgia who come with guns and the protection of Israeli Defence Forces to settle into their homes. Indeed, unlike most literature festivals, PalFest takes the writers to multiple cities since Palestinians are unable to travel without permission from Israel, much like South  Africa during apartheid, just more cruel. 

This is why I am giving up the medal.  

I understand Germany’s guilt for the Holocaust.  

I do. 

That guilt is appropriate and has enabled Germany to face its unconscionable past. 

But it is this that makes its position on the current genocide in Palestine all the more shameful. As an aside and as an African, I wish the German government exhibited the same regret for their history in Namibia with the Herero-Nama genocide and for the genocide during the Maji Maji Rebellion in Tanzania. Equally important, I wish that the German government, in reflection and saying “never again” would acknowledge that NEVER AGAIN should be for ANYBODY. 

Instead, what I see is Germany being on the wrong side of genocide again (as per the International Court of Justice’s provisional ruling to the case brought on by South Africa). Additionally, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the Federal Republic of Germany and the United States of America are the biggest arms exporters to Israel. With more than 30 thousand killed in Gaza, this should have been a mea culpa moment for the Federal Republic of Germany, instead, they seem to have doubled their support for a very problematic government. 

Culturally, since October 7, I have seen Germany disengaging from artists for their position on the colonial state that is Israel even in light of Israel’s failures to adhere to the Oslo Accord (which was a super mediocre document for Palestinians). I am reading that of the cultural events canceled by Germany, 30 percent are by Jewish artists who are anti-Zionist. This has failed to make sense to me that Jews can be considered antisemitic (obviously ignoring that Palestinians are a Semitic people as those in support of the Israeli government seem intent on forgetting). More recently, during the Berlin Film Festival, Palestinian filmmaker Basel Adra and Israeli journalist Yuval Abraham won the best documentary prize for their film No Other Lands which shows the eradication of Palestinian villages in the West Bank. The German Cultural Minister is reported to have stated her applause was only for the Israeli half of the filmmaking duo. South African history has a phrase for this. Petty Apartheid.  

I thus find myself unable to stay silent or keep an official decoration from a government that is this callous to human suffering.

Further Reading

At what cost?

Malawi’s decision to send more than than 200 people to work on Israel’s farms sets a precedent for other African leaders to act with the same apathy.