The 'Halt' sign at the gate of a concentration camp in Oswiecim, Poland. File photo: GETTY IMAGES/BEATA ZAWRZEL
The 'Halt' sign at the gate of a concentration camp in Oswiecim, Poland. File photo: GETTY IMAGES/BEATA ZAWRZEL

University of Cape Town (UCT) senior political science lecturer Lwazi Lushaba was caught up in controversy recently after his claim that Adolf Hitler “committed no crime” made headlines. The remark that many found most offensive, made during an online lecture recorded shortly before Holocaust Memorial Day, was: “All Hitler did was to do to white people what white people had normally reserved for black people.”

True to form in SA, some are thus calling for Lushaba’s head, while others hail him as a hero. The DA laid a complaint with the SA Human Rights Commission, and UCT has announced that it is investigating the matter. More recently, a few commentators have pointed out that to gain a true understanding of what Lushaba was trying to say his comments on the Holocaust should be considered in the context of the full lecture.

The points raised by Lushaba’s sympathisers are partly valid, since it is clear that he did not literally mean that Hitler had “done nothing wrong”. He was making a sarcastic observation as part of portraying black people as the main victims of historic genocides. However, as a student of political science I still find the content of Lushaba’s lecture offensive and factually misleading. In particular, he creates the impression that European Jews were the only victims of Nazism, which is an insult to homosexuals, gypsies, Afro-Germans, blacks and many others. In all, about 11-million innocent people are said to have died at the hands of Nazi Germany during World War 2.  

Universities are supposed to be centres of intellectual inquiry, places where ideas are born and nurtured. It is the role of academics to guide debate on various issues as objectively as possible, not to deliberately provoke. The most controversial parts of Lushaba’s lecture do not appear to emanate from genuine intellectual inquiry, and were not backed up with evidence. Rather, his primary aim seems to have been to enrage white people and Jews, and agitate black people who believe all their problems begin and end with white people. In fact, he applies Hitler’s tactics by identifying black anger and promoting myths of what the world thinks of black people. He presents blacks as perpetual victims and whites as race supremacists, in highly simplistic terms.

Shocking words

Having spent much of my youth within the Pan African Congress I realise that SA’s history has a lot to offer the world, but has not been researched, written or disseminated adequately. Lushaba blames white people for not promoting awareness of black people’s history as they do their own. But since it is the ANC-led government that now controls the education system, it is surely they who should be using that platform to teach the younger generation about the black struggle, instead of always blaming whites for everything that has gone wrong. The ANC-led government also controls the biggest media house in the country, the SABC. Why has that not been used effectively to  educate the public about black history?

Calling for Lushaba to be fired from UCT is an extreme response, but he should be reprimanded for his ill-chosen and, for many, deeply shocking, words. Section 16 of the SA constitution makes provision for academic freedom and freedom of scientific research. However, such freedom does not extend to the advocacy of hatred based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.

The right to freedom of expression should be defended while also ensuring others’ rights to dignity and equality are not violated. Healthy and constructive debate on these issues should be the order of the day, and our universities should be providing the necessary platforms for this. Academics should not only identify and explain what the problems are, but seek to provide answers.

Nonracial thinking

Apartheid, the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide and all other such conflicts classified as crimes against humanity and whose victims experience ongoing pain and trauma should not be approached casually. Just as we should not downplay the negative effects apartheid continues to have on black South Africans, so we should not lightly dismiss the impact Nazism had on the descendants of Jews and others targeted for extermination.

As Lushaba himself correctly states, no-one can place the gravity of one massacre above another; all are tragic historical episodes that should teach us critical lessons about us and our future. He would be well-advised to adopt a nonracial mode of thinking and stop making deliberately divisive statements.

As SA’s greatest statesperson, Nelson Mandela, once declared: “No-one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion.  People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

• Mokgatlhe is an independent writer and political and social commentator.

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