Zolani Ngwane
Zolani Ngwane

Black consciousness and Nazism, really?

After two days following the postings generated by Thorne Godhino’s article, “With friends like these, does black consciousness need enemies?”, I feel I must now confess to an unfulfilled anticipation on my part that someone (why not me I am not sure) would make a particular intervention in this important conversation. Before I get to that, however, there is a prior confession. I have lived in the US for 25 years and am beginning to realise, not without an element of horrified shame, that I have grown something of a thick skin towards invocations of Nazism and Hitler, particularly in the wake of oppositional right-wing public political discourse in the last decade.

In public images of and rhetoric about “Obama Hitler”, Muslim and communism have to mean the same thing. And that is not all. The word “Holocaust” is as easily equated with the medical decision a woman in this country has a legal right to make concerning an unwanted pregnancy as it is with what the Muslim world in general is imagined to have in store for western civilisation. “National socialism” stands for anything from affordable healthcare to minimum wage policies, while a “Nazi” is easily the “committed social liberal” of Thorne’s self-description, the sort of person you would otherwise be inclined to “friend” on Facebook.

Here you could be called a Nazi without losing the friends you already have. My writing this is partly motivated by fear of the numbing effect of this inverse “admiration” of Nazism among right-wing pundits in the US on my own historical and critical consciousness and partly by a hope that as we continue to engage the emerging frontiers of the struggle in South Africa we do not let the Holocaust or Nazism attain to a status of a mere metaphor for criticism. It cannot stand for anything imaginable.

In this regard I do applaud Thorne and other commentators for appropriately calling Mcebo Dlamini on his ill-informed notions. All this said, and for the chance to fight back my numbness, I was hoping for a two-pronged intervention in the discussion from black consciousness formations. The first part of that response would make it clear that taken on their own and coming from any person, the words attributed to Dlamini are disgusting. No amount or quality of black experience in South Africa makes them “understandable”. While this objection to Dlamini’s choice of objects of admiration is primarily grounded on the irreducible particularity of the person of Adolf Hitler and the events he set in motion (European Jews — yes all of them given the fact that the Nazi dream was to bring all of Europe under its umbrella — were targeted for systematic elimination and by dusk six million of them had met that fate. It’s as specific as that). Black people’s objection to Dlamini should also be grounded on a related fact, that millions of other people died (fighting, servicing the fight or as collateral damage) in the effort to stop the horror. On a personal level the objection is grounded on a hope, perhaps a mere fantasy, that in our continuing struggle against current forms of racism black people will not put into service images or ideas or practices that recall other models of racism.

The second part to the intervention I was hoping for would be directed to the conversation itself provoked by Thorne’s essay where, it seems to me, black consciousness itself appears at times to be tolerant towards Dlamini’s words, at other times as protective of his person, and at yet other times as completely complicit to both. Is this true? Fair? Correct? Of course it might be, mine being “a view from afar”, that Dlamini is in fact an advocate of black consciousness and that the ANC and its structures have lately taken to protecting BC people even where such protection risks compromising their own image. That would be news to me, as a person who was politically formed under the auspices of the black consciousness movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I first heard about Hitler and Nazism in talks from black consciousness leaders, and the impression I always got from that was that there is a broader story to racism and the struggles against it, that we could learn from and be humbled by the human capacity for resilience. Invocations of the Holocaust back then made it clear, at least to me, that because we would always have been belated to the scene of suffering and struggle, we could not copyright suffering. Otherwise others — say from Somalia, Nigeria etc — would simply disappear from a common history, opportunities and obligations to link up with others in a broader search for a different future.

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