Man’s inhumanity to man is never okay
IF YOU ARE NOT OFFENDED BY ZILLE REDUCING ... BLACK HOLOCAUST, WHY DO YOU CARE FOR ANY HOLOCAUST?
For those claiming the legacy of the Holocaust was only negative, think about the lampshades and Jewish soap.” When I first heard about Andile Mngxitama’s rancid tweet, I assumed he’d written it while drunk. I know he’s got some privilege issues, but it seemed inconceivable that someone with a master’s degree from a decent university could wittingly say something so monumentally tasteless, offensive and stupid.
I didn’t expect an apology, but I figured that when full lucidity returned, he’d feel a bit awkward and issue some kind of qualification.
It turns out that Mngxitama was not only entirely sober when he filed his bilious piece, but that he composed it with substantial forethought. He was due in court the same day to press for the prosecution of Helen Zille and this was his considered attempt to publicly illuminate the contest. And how do I know this? Because, far from disavowing what he’d said, Mngxitama doubled down on his position in the intervening fortnight.
He is now on record as saying that the Holocaust was “an insignificant footnote in human suffering” and that “if you are not offended by Zille basically reducing our holocaust, the black holocaust, why do you care for any holocaust?”
As for what Mngxitama was trying to achieve, that’s not difficult to see. His arch enemy had said that “the legacy of colonialism was not all bad”, and he was mimicking her phrasing so as to parody her view. Unfortunately — for him and for the truth — he made a spectacular hash of it.
It’s really not okay to joke about human remains being moulded into soap or lampshades. Not remotely okay, anywhere, ever. In this case though, what was said wasn’t just stupefyingly crass and irrational, it was also inimical to the cause it was intended to advance.
In so saying, I’m mindful of the fact that there are many people — serious, thoughtful people — who hold the view that colonialism was an unmitigated catastrophe; that the injustice involved, and the suffering, was so immense that it’s simply unacceptable to refer to an upside. As they see it, to talk approvingly of things like “an independent judiciary, transport infrastructure and piped water” just serves to aggravate an already awful (and still open) wound, with no countervailing benefit.
For my part, for various reasons, I don’t share this reading. I guess I’m more liberal than left, and more white than I think. My point here is that by expressing himself the way he did, Mngxitama did his own side a considerable disfavour. By sounding off like a bigoted buffoon, he turned the story into an unedifying one about himself and hate speech, instead of an illuminating one about suffering and redress.
Regarding relative suffering, this is, by its nature, an equation that’s impossible to compute. How does one measure a day of severe physical pain against a month of solitary confinement or a year of institutionalised humiliation? And how does one weave in the number of people involved and their respective sensitivity levels?
The Nazi Holocaust was unique in its conception (as industrial genocide) and its effectiveness (with many millions killed) but it doesn’t follow that the amount of suffering involved was greater, on aggregate, than that endured by black people at the hands of whites over the last three or four hundred years. That epoch includes not just the subjection, exploitation and debasement of colonialism but also the manifold horrors of the Atlantic slave trade. Thus, while it’s probably true that systematic extermination is a higher order of evil, that begs the question as to the total pain felt. Mngxitama may have harmed his cause, but that doesn’t mean the cause itself is devoid of merit.
I worry about the habit of fixating on the horrors of the past. It’s politically galvanising, of course, but also deeply psychologically destructive of both wellbeing and amity.
Against that, there are considerable dangers in its opposite — culpable forgetfulness — so there’s Andile Mngxitama Black First Land First leader surely virtue in a public conversation. In an open, inclusive, in-depth examination of the proper role of dark collective memory; of how we can best harness the pain of the past to help in the building of a better future. In SA and everywhere.
I suggest Mngxitama as a key panellist — ideally subject to an apology — and the Holocaust Centre as a key venue. The former on the basis that he’s got a lot to learn and also (dare I say it?) a lot to contribute. And the latter on account of its foundational credo. “Never Again,” it reads, and the installation, while focused mainly on the Nazi genocide, is expressly universalised.
We are admonished to remember all instances of man’s inhumanity to man — and that emphatically includes colonialism.