Thorne Godinho
Thorne Godinho

Hitler in Potchefstroom

We need to talk about the young people at North West University (NWU).

The university residences at NWU that made their first years pledge allegiance with Nazi salutes and a sieg heil have either perplexed people (with many wondering why this was even taking place – fascist symbolism hasn’t ever caught on in South Africa) or elicited a strange response of solidarity with the poor Pukke students who were having their traditions trashed by the big, bad media.

Amid accusations that the Beeld newspaper was engaged in sensationalism, and the outrage that this newspaper dare question university cultures and traditions, which promote exclusion, we’ve managed to forget the real issue at hand: the appropriation of symbols of hatred by young people.

1. “They’re just kids/students — leave them alone”

Shortly after Beeld wrote about the prevalence of a Nazi-like culture at NWU, I stumbled across a now-deleted picture where students from Pukke decided to stick it to the media on Facebook. They were floating in a pool, their arms extended in a Nazi salute. Each one of the young men held one of their fingers under their nose, mimicking Hitler’s little moustache for the photo.

They were just being students, right?

A lot of ordinary people have come to the Pukke students’ defence by citing pride in their university — or the time-old excuse for unacceptable behaviour: just having fun. The appropriation of political symbols that represent the death of millions of Jews, homosexuals, Roma, and others is crass and offensive. There is nothing funny about it. Nor can one simply say that these residence students are happily consenting to behaving like a cult when they extend their arms and repeat political epithets that have a home in 1939 Berlin — or the dingy basement meetings of a neo-Nazi club.

The (somewhat) reasonable people who have tried to justify this appropriation of hatred are cut from the same cloth as those who think that the games, traditions and exclusion practiced by almost all traditionally Afrikaans university residences are representative of students being innocent, young and having fun. Someone has to start telling these people that there is no fun in forcing 18-year-old boys to serenade the girls’ residences. There is no fun in sieg heils or strange residence uniforms and hierarchies that allow for senior students to exist as permanent Hoofmeisies or Hoofseuns. These 20-something prefects treat younger peers like school children, all the while forcing them into a culture of heteronormativity, strict gender roles and most importantly — obedience.

There is nothing fun, innocent or specifically attributable to age in the way some of these traditions operate.

For some, even studying would be preferable to the participation in traditions that isolate those for whom the residence was not initially built.

2. “Kill the Boer” bad, Nazism good?

AfriForum and Solidarity members have supported a social media campaign aimed at solidarity with the students at Pukke (“pro-Puk”). This support may be a more honest representation of AfriForum’s values. It points to an unacceptable inconsistency that has clouded the commentary on this scandal.

AfriForum, and many others who have sought to show solidarity with students that have appropriated symbols of hatred, took offence to the singing of “Kill the Boer” by Julius Malema and the ANC Youth League. AfriForum v Malema begs the question: does AfriForum only take action when black people say/do offensive things? Do white people who appropriate the symbols of the past for their own devices — just as the ANCYL did — not deserve to be chastised too? Or are only they capable of acting like rowdy youth with quasi-innocent intentions every now and then?

These double standards and hypocrisy highlight an unacceptable inconsistency in post-apartheid discourse. This hypocrisy serves no one but the people who want to offend, but not be offended. A democratic society built on human dignity cannot operate on the basis of such inconsistency.

This inconsistency is also found in the way we approach former white universities — with kid gloves. University staff — academic and administrative — carefully navigate the corridors of power and never speak out against the ways in which the universities’ institutions and residences manage to exclude people who oftentimes cannot afford but to ascribe to the many silly rules and traditions that have no place in a modern South Africa — or 2014 for that matter.

Solidarity with student traditions built on hatred cannot be accepted. The organisations and people who approach this scandal in solidarity with the ignorant students fail to understand how insulting it is for student residences to mimic Nazi salutes. This isn’t about innocent fun. And this isn’t about students being students. This is about a culture of exclusion and hatred in our sacred academic spaces.

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