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.

Academia and teaching Politics

UCT Academics Union statement on #RhodesMustFall

This entry is part of 7 in the series Rhodes

Rhodes_250x374On Monday (23 March), the UCT Academics Union (AU) met to discuss the statement released by the Executive of the AU. As a long-standing member of the AU, with a keen interest in the Rhodes statue and the University’s business in general, I attended for the purpose of supporting the statement, and also to join those arguing that the AU needed to say and do more in the coming weeks and months.

Needless to say, not everyone was on board – some thought that the students had gone too far, and that the Executive statement should have been more critical of them. But a majority sentiment was that the AU as a whole wanted to release a statement, and that it should express more committed support for the #RhodesMustFall movement.

More to the point, many of us desired to note our “past systemic failure to successfully engage with and pay attention to the experiences of marginalised voices on campus, especially Black students, academics and other staff”. As the academic staff at the University, we need to offer intellectual leadership, and on this issue, we’ve failed to do as much of that as we should.

You can read the AU’s statement below. In a poll that closed this morning, it garnered the support of over 70% of our membership. I do regret that the figure was not higher, but it’s of course possible that some of those who did not support it did so because they thought it didn’t go far enough.

A broad consensus statement will never satisfy everyone – work done by committees and collectives seldom does. Nevertheless, I voted in support, and am glad to be part of a union that was willing to make this statement.

UCT Academics Union statement on #rhodesmustfall

27 March 2015

Regardless of race, gender or rank, we are committed to excellence in higher education; and to the training of the next generation of South African leaders and academics. Engagement, debate and dialogue are essential and intrinsic to the academic project. UCT’s failure, over a period spanning decades, to address the institutional racism inherent in the naming of buildings and siting of objects on campus represents a signal failure to engage meaningfully with the symbolism of South Africa’s past, and with the university’s ‘heritage that hurts’.

That it has taken extreme action to bring the university to a realisation that urgent remedial action is required on the statue, and more importantly, for what the statue symbolises for the institution’s commitment to transformation, is itself testament to a past systemic failure to successfully engage with and pay attention to the experiences of marginalised voices on campus, especially Black students, academics and other staff. The AU acknowledges and accepts that it has been complicit in this failure. Had the university, including the AU, been more attuned and empathetic to these issues, the protest might not have taken the form it has.

It is the AU’s position that the statue has no place in its present position on campus. Nor is it relevant whether or not a majority of students, staff, alumni or Council members believe that the statue should be moved. That the statue is not appropriate on campus in its present position, where members of the university community are confronted with its hurtful symbolism on a daily basis, should be self-evident.

The AU believes that removing the statue from its present position is an essential first step towards creating the space for engagement, debate and dialogue on the pressing matter of institutional transformation at UCT. The AU calls on the Executive, Senate and Council of the university to support the call that the statue should be removed as a matter of urgency. We understand that constituencies external to the university, such as SAHRA, might need to be consulted. Should they be necessary, these consultations should commence as a matter of utmost priority so that delays in coming to a resolution on the statue are kept to an absolute minimum.

The statue, of course, has broader symbolism, raising important questions about structural and institutional transformation. As an important UCT constituency, the AU agrees with the students that there are specific issues relating to transformation that require the urgent consideration and engagement of academic staff. The most pressing of these relate to

  • The institutionalised discrimination, including racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia and ableism, experienced by staff members at UCT;
  • Questions relating to curriculum content and design, and whether these are as appropriate as they should be in the context of transforming higher education in South Africa;
  • Ensuring greater transparency of the ad hominem process, to ensure that artificial barriers are not being placed in the path of marginalised staff members seeking promotion.

Starting in the second term, the AU will convene separate fora on each of these topics. These fora will engage members, as well as important stakeholders and interest groups, and will specifically seek to provide a platform for the careful articulation and identification of problems, as well as ensuring that marginalised groups are provided a safe and responsive space to express their views. Our first task is to listen, to understand, and to empathise. Thereafter, we urgently need to find and propose solutions and policies that address these in such a way to ensure that the transformation of UCT is advanced.

Transformation, and the challenging of institutional racism is not an issue important only to a few sections of the UCT community. If we all stand together and openly embrace and enact transformation, we will contribute towards a more inclusive, and unified university.

The engagement proposed represents a significant shift for the Academics Union at UCT. For too long, the Union has been too parochial, concerned only with relatively uncontroversial questions of working conditions, and representation of members’ concerns and grievances with UCT’s management. The AU has no intention of abandoning or downscaling these activities. However, by taking on the issues above, we will be able to more meaningfully represent all UCT academic staff, and thereby build a stronger Union.

The UCT Academics Union

Academia and teaching Politics

#RhodesMustFall, race and essentialism

This entry is part of 7 in the series Rhodes

575fc635e692409d82cb27b378a5476cThe UCT protests sparked by Chumani Maxwele on March 9 are ongoing, with Students Representative Council members and other students currently occupying the Bremner building, where the Vice-Chancellor and other members of the executive sit.

As I said in my previous post on this, I do think that Rhodes should fall. But I also think that there’s scope in protests like these to be politically expedient, intellectually lazy, and also to fall victim to a (typically) well-intentioned but ultimately dangerous form of identity politics.

The identity politics I refer to are in the imagining of communities of agreement, to modify Benedict Anderson’s construction. In the worst manifestation of this (in a South African context), we might imagine that those communities are defined by the simple characteristic of “race”, but one can also wrongly conflate all sorts of beliefs under a category like “liberal”, as Xolela Mangcu does in a column today.

Sharing a skin colour, a nationality, or a gender (etc.) offers no guarantee of sharing opinions or ideologies. Yes, some inferences are reasonable – for example, in a country like South Africa, I think it immediately more likely that a white South African will be somewhat oblivious to his or her structural advantages.

White South Africans benefited from apartheid, and continue to do so. Some of us don’t acknowledge that, to be sure. But the fact that we did benefit from apartheid should not mean assuming bad faith when we speak about race and discrimination either – interlocutors should still be willing to hear arguments and judge them on their merits.

On the other side of that coin, being a member of a disenfranchised or oppressed group of whatever sort doesn’t automatically confer virtue on arguments or behaviour. It might be the case that your cause is more likely to be urgent, yes, but we have no guarantee of this.

The Rhodes protests going on at UCT are justified, and it is to our discredit that it has taken so long for the Rhodes statue to be an issue. But I do fear that some students are not being encouraged to think and debate by these protests, but rather to be dogmatic, and to make judgements according to simplistic categories like race alone, rather than arguments.

Any of you who have looked at comment threads on this might know what I mean. I also have privileged access, in that the discussion forums of my 1st-year course at UCT have carried much commentary on the protests, the statue, and transformation at UCT.

There is little consensus, and many students – across whatever categories you want to divide them into – are not supportive of certain aspects of the protest. Their complaint, and one I agree with, is that it’s antithetical to the purpose of a university to refuse to discuss something, as the SRC are doing by demanding that a date for the statue’s removal be provided before they engage in dialogue.

But what’s also going on is plenty of simmering racial judgement, where good faith or bad faith is assumed, based largely on race (as judged by the name of the student). In other words, prejudice, if not necessarily of the naked sort.

On social media, some folks are still talking about Maxwele and excrement, as if that’s the only issue – or even an issue at all. It’s not, really – it’s a detail trivial enough that focusing on it simply marks you out as someone desperate to deny the legitimacy of the protest.

There is scope for various lazy arguments, and for various easy forms of prejudice, in situations like these. Given that this protest is likely to go on for some time – and (rightly) focus attention on transformation more generally – everyone involved will hopefully remain aware that when emotions run high, we can lose sight of subtleties.

However things end up going, this is going to be one of those moments in time that gets recorded as part of UCT’s history. Let’s all do our best to make that history one that we can be proud of reading, and shaping.

Academia and teaching Morality Politics

On UCT, transformation and #Rhodesmustfall

This entry is part of 7 in the series Rhodes

RhodesThe statue of Cecil John Rhodes you can see alongside these words stands on Madiba Circle at UCT, overlooking the sports fields. It’s there because UCT’s main campus is situated on land bequeathed by Rhodes in 1928 as “the site of a national university“.

The fact that it’s currently there doesn’t mean it should stay there – and if an ongoing protest is successful, it won’t be there for long. The protest started last Monday, March 9, with Chumani Maxwele emptying the contents of a portable toilet on the statue, and continued with various ad hoc engagements as well as a rally on Jameson Plaza.

The protest is motivated by – and this is of course the nutshell version – students being aggrieved that a statue of an arch-colonialist, racist and sexist such as Rhodes occupies such a prominent place on our campus.

Pictures of the rally allowed for some wry smiles also, given that students who were facing the statue of Rhodes would also have had their backs to Jameson Hall – the building named after Leander Starr Jameson, Rhodes’ lifelong friend and ally in various racist land-grabs and other mad schemes like the Jameson Raid.

There are problematic names and symbols on UCT’s campus, to be sure – but there are also others that are less so, like Madiba Circle and the Steve Biko building. (Limiting the discussion to this one aspect, namely racism, apartheid and its corollaries.)

This doesn’t make the problematic ones okay. But it does speak to an awareness, on the part of UCT’s governing structures, of the need to make changes. And the fact that the current management of UCT is committed to building a campus that is welcoming to all is not, I think, something that a fair person can dispute.

You can dispute the pace of progress, or how things are prioritised, but I think the intentions are clear, and sincere. Furthermore, the last 5 years have been occupied by debates on exactly these issues, in the form of the admissions policy debate.

Before Maxwele’s protest, plans to have debates and consultative processes on signage, symbolism and naming had already been set in motion. The first such discussion (unless I’ve missed something) takes place tomorrow today.

What some critics don’t understand is that large organisations such as UCT can often not move at the pace that you’d prefer. Also, the headlines often obscure complexities – it’s quite possible, for example, that there are other stakeholders with regard to the statue, perhaps the City of Cape Town.

Second, and as a friend remarked, “removing a statue is easy” – but we don’t know if it’s the best option until more debate has been held. Perhaps you want to leave it there as a reminder of the past, adding a plaque explaining what a terrible man he was. Perhaps you want to build a statue of someone who serves as an “antidote” to Rhodes alongside him, symbolising the triumph of good over evil.

There are many options besides tearing it down, is the point – and while it’s true that the current mood is in favour of tearing it down, the university – and the SRC – should be acting in the best interests of the university as a whole, and most crucially, in the best interests of future students.

(As an aside, if the statue were to go, it’s not at all true that we’d have to start rejecting Rhodes scholarships and any other things called Rhodes. It’s entirely possible to make a logical and moral distinction between commemorative statues and bequests of land/money that serve some public interest.)

I’ve been at UCT since 1992, and it’s great to see significant student engagement with political issues after what has been quite a long slumber. But to some extent, there’s the possibility of a more highbrow version of Twitter slacktivism here.

The conversation shouldn’t only be about what will satisfy us now, but rather on what is the most principled and defensible choice to make. I fear that grandstanding is getting in the way of this to some extent. Second, I fear that the issue of the statue can obscure larger and more important problems – as I said above, it’s an easy win.

Will tearing down the statue help with throughput or graduation rates? Will it improve the comprehension of the first-year students I teach, many of whom struggle to engage with abstract ideas at all, after a decade of schooling that has taught them to be studiously literal?

I don’t think so. But having said that, my intuition is that the statue should go, if it can – although I’ll want to hear all the arguments for and against before committing to that intuition, because as I indicate above, its continued existence might serve the same purpose as the protesters desire.

More crucially, though, I hope that we can avoid letting this important debate end up being a distraction, or simply a vehicle for opportunism.