Business Day

Man’s inhumanity to man is never okay

- Heneck is a Cape Town businessma­n.


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.

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