When Mcebo Dlamini, president of the Wits University SRC, publicly stated that he admired Hitler, people got upset. When Alistair Sparks, “Veteran Journalist” publicly noted how intelligent Hendrik Verwoerd was, people tried not to. The realm of free speech in South Africa, it would seem, is a confusing space.
Two noteworthy incidents occurred in the past few weeks. First, a university student Mcebo Dlamini, took to Facebook to express his admiration for Hitler. Then at the Democratic Alliance Conference (the DA being the official opposition in South Africa), a “Veteran journalist”, Alistair Sparks, in a speech meant to bid farewell to the outgoing DA leader, Helen Zille, noted that he has known many smart politicians in his time, one of which was Dr Hendrik Verwoerd. For clarity, Verwoerd is to Black South Africans what Hitler is to Jews.
Both defended their unfortunate statements. Dlamini, ill experienced and clearly not that smart, tried to negotiate around the fact that in every white person exists a bit of Hitler (convoluted and diversionary rationale), whereas Sparks, wily and long practiced, attempted to explain the reference as one of context.
Dlamini was asked by the university to step down (it was the final misdemeanour in a long unpleasant list) whereas Sparks’ history for fighting oppression was paraded before an unsuspecting public in his defence.
Jewish South Africans might understandably find comfort in the way this process played out, but would be wrong to do so. Simply explained, Dlamini had broken the code and needed to be punished. He took the more refined and subtle Israel focused anti Semitism too far and in doing so endangered all that the groups that he represents stand for. Sparks on the other hand, a well known anti-Israel journalist, active proponent of the Israel-Apartheid fallacy and unofficial “publicist” for the “Why Israel” travesty, has more or less kept his hatred in check and in doing so has done more damage. It is he who needed to be protected.
As a columnist for News24, South Africa’s most visited online news site, I tackled the subject of Dlamini’s racism in one article and then of Sparks racism in another a few weeks later when that occurred. Public reaction was shocking to me. Often advised not to read the comments, I have never really taken heed and am fascinated by the responses that I get from my columns. What was noteworthy was that when I lambasted Dlamini for being a moronic bigot, reader comment after comment applauded my courage to do so. But when I questioned the wisdom of Sparks quoting Vervoerd’s intelligence at a DA conference (or anywhere), close on 140 reader comments attacked my “Jewishness”, my yarmulke, expressed their view that “Jews have a lot to answer for” as well as the opportunistic nature of the article. Apples, it would seem cannot be compared with apples in the fruit salad that is South Africa.
Add to the above the sadly relevant fact that Dlamini is Black whereas Sparks is White, that Dlamini evoked a vile European figure, whereas Sparks a racist South African one, and one has to wonder how it could be that the incidents played out as they did. It smacks not only Jewish prejudice, but also of colour based one. Something the country has fought so hard to eradicate.
The ending of each story has not been written. Dlamini has rallied support from the ANC Youth League, the Young Communists and Muslim Student Association who defend his right to free speech. Sparks is smartly silent, waiting for it all to blow over, after which he will no doubt, blame Israel for the mess of his making. What is patently obvious is that when it comes to free speech, South Africans will fight hard to defend the notion, just so long as it aligns with their current prejudice.