Sparks, Dlamini, and whether “cleverness” is praiseworthy

ASWhen I saw that Allister Sparks told the Democratic Alliance congress that Hendrik Verwoerd was a “smart politician”, I was relieved to have previously defended not only Mcebo Dlamini’s right to say stupid things, but also to have argued that we can (and should) distinguish between an individual’s sentiments and poor expressions of those sentiments.

Relieved, because the cases do have at least one similarity – Dlamini was apparently attempting to make a pro-Palestine comment rather than a pro-genocide/eugenics comment, and Sparks was apparently attempting to praise political cunning rather than to present Verwoerd as a morally praiseworthy individual.

Both of these individuals have made matters worse for themselves in their explanations of their remarks, to be sure. Dlamini has legitimised interpretations of him being anti-Semitic by speaking of his Vice Chancellor being a “Jew puppet” who bowed to pressure from “Zionists” in removing Dlamini from office, while Sparks initially doubled-down in saying that Verwoerd gave a “veneer of moral respectability” to apartheid’s slogan, “The K***** in his place”.

Sparks has now offered a fuller account of, and apology for, his remarks, asking us to blame forgetfulness and senility for his not having name-checked any black politicians as “smart”, and also reminding us that he was drawing from his personal frame of reference as a veteran political observer in an environment where he’d naturally have encountered more white politicians.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) has also distanced themselves from Sparks‘ remarks, albeit only a day after they were made – allowing for social media to spend the intervening 24 hours exchanging views and confirming their interpretations of the DA as oblivious to the politics of race in South Africa, even as they were busy electing their first black leader, Mmusi Maimane.

The link immediately above takes you to a YouTube video where James Selfe, Chairperson of the DA’s Federal Executive, explains (repeatedly) that Sparks is not a party member, was speaking in his personal capacity, and expressed views that the DA does not endorse. He also notes that they didn’t want to say this immediately after Sparks’ speech, as that would embarrass him.

And there’s the problem – it is embarrassing to run off a list of “smart” politicians, and in doing so to not only mention Verwoerd but also to not mention a single black politician. You should be embarrassed in this situation, as it’s a situation that’s only possible if you’re insensitive to context and history to the extent that this sort of racial myopia can go undetected (in yourself).

If you’re a political party that’s aiming to speak for all South Africans, and that currently presents itself as the “most diverse” party in the country, having this happen at your national congress should likewise be embarrassing, even if you think that the commentariat is over-reacting. Perceptions matter, even if you think those perceptions are unfair interpretations of what someone was saying.

As I’ve said in the past with reference to the mind-boggling decision to rename a road after FW de Klerk, if you know – as the DA surely does – that you’re perceived as a racist party, you need to bend over backwards to avoid signalling that those perceptions are true, even if it means embarrassing your outgoing leader’s friend and mentor.

Yes, of course it’s frustrating to have to cater for misinterpretation. But you need to do less of that once trust is established, and people no longer think of you as being a party of white (quasi) liberals. Once that trust is established, I’d be more sympathetic to the DA being annoyed at those who took offence at Sparks’ remarks.

But if the DA thinks they’ve already earned that trust, they’re sorely mistaken.

On Mcebo Dlamini’s free speech, and his “love” for Hitler

Mcebo Dlamini is the current SRC President at Wits University, and also the current focus of much Twitter outrage, and even some conversation. Both the outrage and the conversation are due to this, from Facebook:

Responding to a commenter who wrote [about Israel] “Hitler new [sic] they were up to no good”, Dlamini replied “I love Adolf HITLER”.

Mcebo-2-339x600In the same comment thread, he claimed that all whites have a “bit of Hitler” in them. From what I’ve seen, the Facebook thread offered no context or explanation for these comments, the first of which is obviously offensive, in that it follows from a comment endorsing Hitler’s attitude towards “modern Israel”, and by extension Jews. In that context, Dlamini seems to be endorsing the Holocaust (even though I don’t believe he was in fact doing so).

When asked to explain these comments, he said

What I love about Hitler is his charisma and his capabilities to organise people. We need more leaders of such calibre. I love Adolf Hitler.

He also responded to the news that his Facebook comment had been reported with “am not removing it…..truth hurts…face it murderers”. So, he respects certain attributes of Hitler, and summarises this in saying that he “loves” Hitler, and furthermore calls out supporters of modern-day Israel for inconsistency in that they (on his version) are “murderers” themselves.

There is no doubt in my mind that these comments are anti-Semitic, as the South African Union of Jewish Students noted. I think they were so in two ways: first, because of all the villians in history, Hitler occupies a unique position. There are still hundreds of thousands of people alive that he harmed fairly directly, in arranging for the killing of relatives and friends.

The vast majority of these folk are united in being Jewish, and it is that same fact about their relatives and friends that led to their deaths. Other villians like Genghis Khan, Pol Pot and Stalin are either not as fresh in the memory, or killed more randomly. My point is that there is no need to engage in any comparison regarding who was the most evil to recognise that Hitler’s evil is uniquely powerful in the visceral response it generates even today.

The second way in which they are anti-Semitic is that they draw an equivalence between modern-day Israel and the Holocaust. As much as I disapprove of much of Israel’s behaviour in Palestine and towards Palestinians, to describe it as being intended to result in Palestinian extermination seems an unfair comparison (even though quotes to that effect can be found, I don’t think them representative).

Having noted all the above, Dlamini should nevertheless be allowed to say these offensive and stupid things. He does not “love Hitler” for having killed millions of Jews, he simply loves controversy and headlines. Dlamini appreciates certain aspects of Hitler’s personality or certain skills (while perhaps being wrong or right about those same personality attributes and skills), and expressed this hyperbolically to get attention.

That’s fine. It’s is, in fact, good. Because now the Wits students know that they have a hothead anti-Semite as their SRC President, and they can remove him from office. They should remove him from office, as if they don’t, they are endorsing his views. But that’s as far as it should go – I don’t believe Dlamini did anything illegal, and I don’t believe that the university should pursue charges against him.

(I need to highlight one additional distinction with regard to charges, though: while I don’t think that the university should charge him in open court, it might well be possible that he contravened internal university rules. In fact, I think it’s almost certain that he did so, in that Wits would no doubt have rules about offensive speech and the like.

So even if Dlamini did not engage in hate speech as per the Bill of Rights, he should be charged with breaking an internal rule if he did so, or the rule should be changed. And this does not mean the internal rule is the right rule, or that I’m endorsing it. You either apply the rule, or you change it – but you don’t ignore it.)

That’s the first over-arching point I want to make: what he said was offensive and stupid, he should not be SRC President, but he should be allowed to say it. Then:

The second point I want to make is an extension of the Tweet above, and relates to sentiments of the sort expressed by T.O. Molefe in a Tweet calling out Max du Preez for inconsistent treatment of the RhodesMustFall situation and the one currently under discussion. The claim made was that du Preez is wrong in seeing Hitler as absolutely evil, while recognising both good and bad in Rhodes.

I think that’s a serious misreading of du Preez, in that I doubt he’d deny the fact of the matter if Hitler were, for example, often to be seen helping out at the old-age home. What I mean is that noting someone’s – anyone’s – positive virtues has no necessary bearing on one’s overall attitude towards them. Du Preez’ columns on Rhodes made their distaste for Rhodes clear upfront, before noting any virtues.

Even if you think it’s wrong to even note a single virtue of someone like Rhodes (or Hitler), there is nevertheless a clear difference between saying “that was an evil person, with one or two redeeming qualities” and saying “I love this person, even though he’s universally reviled for being a mass murderer of Jews”, and leaving it at that until being asked to clarify your sentiment.

Expressing your admiration or love for a person endorses them. Expressing the sentiment that they had certain virtues does not, or at least does so far more tentatively and ambiguously. The difference is clear, and we cannot make excuses for Dlamini as a result of how some responded to Rhodes, if the issue is restricted to this one alone, namely the “I love him” followed by a belated “but…” versus “he was a bad man, albeit with a few virtues”.

(As another aside, because I know how misreadings abound, I don’t think comparisons between Rhodes and Hitler are either useful or justified. My point is merely to make the case that there is no necessary equivalence between a sentiment about the one and a sentiment about the other. Both the words and the context of their utterance matters.)

Consider saying “I hate Hitler, but…” or saying “I love Hitler, although…” – both of those will be regarded as offensive by many, but hopefully you can see that they are less so than saying “I love Hitler” and then waiting for someone to ask what you mean. If you say “I love Hitler” without qualification, you’re saying something about your character, and loudly enough that the Wits students will probably hear it.

Lastly, I’d also encourage you to read this piece about Dlamini’s history, including his extended deception of peers where he claimed to be the love-child of Zwelakhe Sisulu and a Swazi princess, as well as a student in a secret nuclear physics degree at the University of Pretoria. He’s now admitted to lying about these things, but the story told there suggests to me that taking him too seriously would be a mistake, and also that we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that a sympathetic ear might be more useful than shouting at him.

He expressed himself badly, yes, but that’s not always the same thing as being a bad person. Distinctions can, and should, be made.