On 4 May 2015, Wits University Vice Chancellor, Adam Habib, announced the dismissal of the university’s Student Representative Council (SRC) president, Mcebo Dlamini. This came just days after the initial outcry by the Wits Jewish community over a Facebook post in which he stated that he loves Adolf Hitler, comparing modern-day Israel to Nazi Germany.
“The same thing Hitler was doing to the Jews, they are doing to the Palestinians,” says Dlamini.
In interview on ANN7, which followed his comments, Dlamini explained that his “questionable” comment was based on his admiration of Hitler’s leadership and organisational skills. However, Habib’s statement regarding Dlamini’s dismissal adamantly stated that the dismissal was as a result of an earlier misconduct, not his comments.
Dlamini’s sudden – and what some argue to be a convenient – removal, has sparked further debate about Dlamini’s comment, with many agreeing that his removal reinforces many of the points he argued when attempting to contextualise his comment in local media.
The crux of his argument deals with contradictions that arise when we determine particular historical individuals to be heroes or villains. Hitler, fascist leader and the leader of the Nazi party which was responsible for the genocide of millions of Jews, is one of history’s most prominent villains. In school, we are taught about the great atrocities that have bloodied his hands. We learn about Anne Frank, Auschwitz, the swastika and the Nazi salute long before we learn about South African historical figures, and so we begin to hate Hitler.
“The Hitler stance was to expose the hypocrisy in the white community… If white people can say they love Malan, Vorster, Benjamin Netanyahu and Jan van Riebeeck, then I should also be allowed to say I love Hitler.”
I do not find it surprising that people, especially Jewish people, would then be outraged by Dlamini’s comment. But I seem to recall an event analogous to this, that has seemed to be wiped from the collective memory of Dlamini’s naysayers: the Rhodes Must Fall movement. This movement, at the University of Cape Town, saw students, staff and workers calling for the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes on campus. This sparked a debate around the symbolic nature of statues and was followed by the vandalism of numerous statues around the country.
In response, some argued against the removal of the statue, citing the historical significance of Rhodes as well as his contributions to South Africa as a politician and mining magnate. In contrast, campaigners in favour of his removal were told to follow institutional procedures, which involved engaging in intellectual debate and negotiation in order to reach some consensus. The supporters of the campaign were compelled to contextualise and debate the removal of the statue of Rhodes, a racist imperialist who is historically noted as saying, “the native is to be treated as a child and denied the franchise. We must adopt a system of despotism in our relations with the barbarians of South Africa”.
“I’m deciding to look at the good Hitler stood for. He rebuilt the country, the economy, the infrastructure, he uplifted the spirit of Germany.”
And here is where the contradictions become apparent. There are many South Africans, that recognise and admire historical figures such as Rhodes, Jan van Riebeeck and DF Malan, even in public domains based on their “positive attributes and contributions”. Yet we do not ask them to contextualise and justify their admiration of individuals that possess both positive and negative attributes, some which can be likened to the attributes of Hitler; and have resulted in the continued suffering of South Africans today.
Sunette Bridges was not labelled a racist when she chained herself to a vandalised statue of Paul Kruger and sang the apartheid national anthem, Die Stem, with a group of white South Africans, nor was she asked to contextualise her actions, nor was there a call to lay charges against her at the Human Rights Commission.
“But we have to keep quiet, or we are [labelled] racist and anti-Semitic.”
“Where are the black academics to interpret the pregnant statement I made? I am throwing this to them and they need to analyse this. It’s their role.”
Sure, Dlamini’s comments are controversial and he certainly is, and has been, a controversial character at Wits. But certain elements of his argument deserve some level of interrogation and debate if we wish to make this engagement meaningful and beneficial. Unless, of course, the assumption is that his comments are the rants of an anti-Semitic, racist, hateful, uneducated black man whose comments – like Chumani Maxwele’s poo protest (which in effect started the #RhodesMustFall campaign) – are regarded as a thoughtless and unreasonable act by a barbaric black man; and not the deliberate debate-mongering words of a frustrated young black intellectual bent on interrogating the norms and values by which we evaluate history. That he was never given the benefit of active debate to determine which he is, is problematic.
“There are those who feel offended by what I said, but they are in the minority. There are those who feel fully represented by my response.”
I do not fully agree with all the statements made by Dlamini. I do not think that black people cannot be racist because we occupy spaces of inferiority in a white supremacist paradigm. Instead, I think that disempowered black people can be racist but lack the institutional power to impose discrimination on the basis of race to the extent that white people do. I also cannot agree that all white people have an element of Hitler in them. This broad generalisation lacks accuracy and fails to recognise prominent figures such as Helen Suzman, George Bizos, and the ordinary white South Africans that have stood in solidarity with black South Africans fighting for equity and equality.
I stand by Dlamini’s comment in the sense that it highlights the hypocrisy and contradictions inherent in the white worldview. His views speak to the hypocrisy that underpins the personal views and institutional processes of many of the very white liberals in uproar over Dlamini’s comments. They have celebrated systems, people and perceptions that reinforce racist and divisive ideologies quite similar to those that Hitler held. However, they simply do so without the inconvenience of drawing the ire, collective hatred and historical villainy that the image of Hitler does.
Words by @ThatGirlFati