About 10 years ago I spent a night in HF?Verwoerd’s holiday house in Betty’s Bay. How this came about is a story for a different day. The cottage, perched on the dunes and overlooking the ocean, was declared a national monument in 1973. Verwoerd was assassinated shortly before the building of the house was complete.
The house seemed frozen in time and slightly spooky. Miss Havisham would have felt at home there. Portraits and photographs of Verwoerd decorated the walls. Most dramatic was the iconography, including bronze busts of Verwoerd: one seemed to be staring at me from the top of the wardrobe in the room I stayed in. I became nauseous that night. I had to see a doctor and left early the next morning.
Whereas the Verwoerd images contributed to making me physically ill, the comments of the former president of the student representative council of the University of the Witwatersrand, Mcebo Dlamini, on Hitler makes me intellectually nauseous. This is exacerbated by some of the subsequent commentary in the media. Dlamini’s Facebook post in which he declares his admiration for Hitler triggered comments on racism, transformation, #RhodesMustFall, poverty, Verwoerd’s legacy and academic freedom. It is high time we debate these issues, but much of the commentary, including that of Busani Ngcaweni and Robert Nkuna in the Mail & Guardian last week, was disappointing.
Ngcaweni and Nkuna argue for something that does not exist except in the realm of the imagination: limitless freedom of expression. They state that we should not become “bogged down with Hitler”. By chickening out in this way, they show some awareness that what Dlamini said was indefensible.
It is crucial to appreciate that, in evaluating Dlamini’s utterances and Wits vice-chancellor Adam Habib’s response, we do need to get “bogged down with Hitler”.
Ngcaweni and Nkuna refuse to recognise that there are certain no-go areas in countries with histories of institutionalised racism. The reason why praising Hitler is a no-go area is that it is one of the most anti-Semitic statements it is possible to make. Because of Hitler, two-thirds of European Jews lost their lives.
Hate speech is defined as speech that could give incitement to harm. There is no doubt in my mind that Dlamini’s utterances amounted to hate speech and therefore enjoy no constitutional protection. Speech much less vicious than that of Dlamini has incited violence. Student politics is not child’s play.
Dlamini was swiftly removed from his position, but he could also be brought before the Human Rights Commission and face other forms of legal action.
Holocaust denial or Holocaust “trivialisation” is illegal in countries such as Germany and Austria. Whether there should be uniformity in the European Union in this regard is highly controversial. Austrian journalist Robert Misik summed up the prevailing sentiments when he wrote that there is no single approach to dealing with Holocaust deniers and fans of Nazi insignia that will be satisfactory for all democracies. He writes: “Each variant has its own historical justification, which may differ according to time and place.”
Free-speech fundamentalists often overlook the fact that the limits of free speech are context dependent. Countries with recent histories of institutionalised racism and international crimes such as Germany have outlawed or criminalised certain forms of offensive speech. One reason for this is that such countries consider non-racialism and nondiscrimination to form the foundation of the newly established state. In these countries offensive speech is more likely to inflame public sentiment and lead to violence.
One can detect a steady trend in Europe towards the criminalisation of genocide denial and xenophobic speech. The push for such criminalisation says much about the current anti-foreigner and anti-immigration mood in Europe.
Ngcaweni and Nkuna latch on to Habib’s statement that Dlamini’s comments brought Wits into disrepute. They jump to the facile conclusion that, for Habib, it was all about marketing. By conveniently “not get[ting] bogged down with Hitler”, they sidestep the essence of the issue: Dlamini committed hate speech. They say they are against “bookish managerial language”. But isn’t bookishness what university is all about?
Speaking of books, if Dlamini had done his homework, he would have known that, as a young man, Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, a book that sets out much of the anti-Semitic doctrine he later implemented in the most diabolical way. There is nothing to admire about Hitler as a young man.
Dlamini’s statements display an almost unbelievable ignorance combined with poor education and judgment. How much has he read?
He is not the only student who has not studied the Holocaust. World War II features heavily in my international law teaching, and I have occasionally come across law students who have never heard of the Holocaust. The lack of Holocaust education in our schools is scandalous and embarrassing.
Students should learn that all of modern history has been profoundly affected by World War II and, more precisely, the Holocaust. That catastrophe represents a watershed moment. Students need to know that the history of human rights since the war is the history of the world trying to recover from the moral abyss of the Holocaust.
This has direct relevance for South Africa. No one should emerge from school or university without knowing this. Dlamini’s ignorance is an indictment of our educational institutions.
Few things would have pleased Verwoerd more than the idea that the racism and race essentialism to which he so fiercely devoted his life is still alive and well on our campuses and in our public life.
We South Africans have the chance to achieve something singular and powerful: to debate and effect transformation on our campuses and beyond without betraying our constitutional commitment to nonracialism.
Mia Swart is a professor of international law at the University of Johannesburg