/ 15 April 2021

Condemnation of UCT lecturer misses context

Graphic Tl Andile Herero Twitter
(John McCann/M&G)

If we are sincerely committed to the principle of free speech, we must take on the sometimes arduous task of carefully dissecting the content of a person or institution’s statements. Practically, this means inspecting the context in which remarks are made, the intention behind words and the consequences or effects said speech has on society at large. 

Outrage, although at times righteous and necessary, can also be easy. If we are swift to condemn or cancel, we risk narrowing the horizon of intellectual freedom. And in that process we can end up hurting those we seek to protect. 

“Hitler committed no crime. All Hitler did was to do to white people what white people had normally reserved for black people. We must see the Holocaust in exactly the same light as we see the massacre of the Herero people.”

These were the remarks made by University of Cape Town professor Dr Lwazi Lushaba during a pre-recorded Zoom lecture last week. The remarks amounted to 12 seconds in a nearly hour long lecture. 

Understandably the statement instantly drew condemnation and accusations of anti-semitism from civil society, with some requests that Lushaba be suspended from his position pending investigation. The Democratic Alliance has announced plans to lodge a complaint against the lecturer with the South African Human Rights Commission. Lushaba has now been declared Mampara of the Week by the Sunday Times

Sadly some journalists and political actors didn’t take the time or expend the effort to seriously interrogate the content of Lushaba’s statement. This is exactly what will be done here. Firstly the wider context of Lushaba’s words needs to be considered. 

The Holocaust is often understood as an aberration in the tale of European modernity. How could such methodically planned evil flourish in the birthplace of the Enlightenment, in what was once a democracy at the height of human knowledge, in a continent where reason and rationality supposedly reigned supreme? 

Without historical context, it is easy to view the Holocaust as unique. It can seem unique until one discovers the genocidal violence unleashed against Native Americans during the settling of the US, the orchestrated famines in British India or the systematic annihilation of Tasmanian Aboriginals and the mass murdering of the Herero people in what was once South West Africa. 

In her indispensable writing on the Holocaust, Hannah Arendt — a Jewish philosopher who fled Nazi persecution — positioned the genocide of her people not as unique event but rather one which unfolded in the tradition of Europe’s bloody imperial history. In his study of political violence decades later, Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani echoes Arendt, stating “the Holocaust was born at the meeting point of two traditions that marked modern Western civilization: the anti-semetic tradition and the tradition of genocide of colonised peoples”. 

Those seriously concerned about injustice don’t indulge in the Olympics of oppression. The discovery of genocides predating the Holocaust do not minimise its horror or require us to erase the memory of its victims or take their suffering less seriously. Rather they broaden not only our understanding of history but they expand and enhance our understanding of precisely how domination has functioned in the past 400 years till this day. 

Anti-semitism continually slumbers in the public imagination and slithers across our political landscape. The global rise of right-wing populism, on and off social media, has resulted in Holocaust denialists gaining destructive levels of legitimacy. Through underplaying the severity of the Holocaust or denying its existence altogether, they seek to justify the discrimination of Jewish people. No one should want such a person to retain a position in any academic institution. Dr Lushaba is no Holocaust denialist.

At this juncture we need to ask what specific context Lushaba was working in and what his intentions might have been? 

The topic of Lushaba’s lecture was the different approaches to studying political science. Summarising the institutional/legalistic approach, he highlighted how its framework was frantically rattled by the rise of fascism and the mass murder which then ensued. Because this approach focused on how politics is shaped almost exclusively by laws which govern political institutions, it dismally failed to anticipate the systemic violence of Hitler’s fascist regime. The institutional approach to political science overlooked how “individuals who have agency give different interpretations to the law”. 

Lushaba questions why the genocides and massacres preceding the Holocaust had not confounded political scientists in the early 20th century or provoked similar moral outrage. 

He answers that Western society, soaked in the ideology of white supremacy, did not think the extermination of black life to be a crime. Even some of its greatest scholars believed in the myth of European superiority and justified the violent domination of the colonised.

As a professor seeking to dispense valuable knowledge, Lushaba has an obligation to expose flaws within scholarly fields and he clearly states the intention of his comments regarding Hitler when highlighting that “Modern disciplinary knowledge begins from the sensibilities of white people”. Social science students need to be aware of such racist double standards in their respective fields in order to avoid such pitfalls themselves and hopefully produce empirically sound and impartial work. 

When Lushaba said that “Hitler committed no crime” he was not espousing his own views but rather illustrating how flawed the legal/political framework he was lecturing on was because it failed to criminalise previous atrocities committed against black and brown people. His position on the evil of the Holocaust is clear because in the next sentence he states “We must see the Holocaust in exactly the same light as we see the massacre of the Herero people”. 

This clearly demonstrates that Lushaba considers both atrocities deeply immoral but takes serious issue with the disparity in how these genocides are perceived by scholars and the general public. 

To argue that “All Hitler did was to do to white people what white people had normally reserved for black people” is not a resentful attempt to justify violence against whites because it had been inflicted on black people before. Nor is this argument particularly controversial or new. Thinkers from former colonies have long been aware of how the Nazi regime turned the logic of imperialism inwards, shattering the assumptions of Western civilization. 

Frantz Fanon in Wretched of the Earth noted how “not so long ago, Nazism turned the whole of Europe into a veritable colony”. Martinican poet Aimé Césaire argued that Europeans could not forgive the Nazis because “Hitler applied to Europe the colonial practices that had previously been applied only to the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India and the Negroes of Africa”. 

Hitler must not be seen as an anomaly. The imperative to exterminate “lesser races” was present in the imperial age long before the Nazis rose to power. 

As Mamdani argues, the violence of imperial Europe was viewed as necessary for the advancement of civilisation by its perpetrators and the citizens who benefited from it. Mamdani and other scholars have researched how the Herero genocide set an example for Imperial Germany which was then polished and internally implemented by the Nazis. 

I was shocked to find that Eugen Fischer, a eugenicist who conducted cruel experiments on the Herero people in concentration camps would later be the teacher of Josef Mengele, a physician who conducted similar experiments in the Auschwitz death camps. These continuities matter. 

Being a scholar whose work primarily deals with the politics of representation and decolonisation, Lushaba is committed to a radically progressive vision of the world. It would be bewildering if anti-semitism could suddenly find accommodation in this vision of reality. I don’t agree with the entirety of his political ideology, occasionally he dabbles in race reductionism and the fetishising of whiteness common to some segments of the social sciences in recent decades. 

Yet to think a person who has consistently spoken against racism and stood in solidarity with working class students and university staff would brazenly underplay or deny the suffering of millions is a stretch of the imagination not based in good faith. 

Ironically those who usually bemoan the ignorant zeal of “cancel culture” are now keen to cancel Lushaba to seemingly score political points in the public eye. 

The DA certainly has the right to lodge its complaints. But one wonders where their enthusiasm to silence and punish was when former apartheid president FW De Klerk denied that apartheid was a crime against humanity? Or when Helen Zille continually tried to sanitise the legacy of colonialism to the descendants of the colonised? 

Words and ideas carry immense power over our perception of reality and they can be used for destructive purposes. It is precisely the power of words and the force of ideas which necessitates that we guard the right to free speech and academic freedom. This isn’t to carelessly say those who violate the dignity of others should not be held accountable. To fairly give judgment requires we do the actual work of examining the content of people’s words and ideas.

Want to discuss this story? Join our Thought Leader community here.