Commandante Lushaba and the Führer

David Benatar on the UCT lecturer's Hitler comments, and whether they were taken out of context

Dr Lwazi Lushaba, a lecturer in the Political Studies Department at the University of Cape Town, recently told his students in a pre-recorded lecture posted online that:

“Hitler committed no crime. All Hitler did was to do to white people what white people had reserved for us, black people”.

This comment has been greeted with outrage by some. There have also been calls for him to be removed from his position. The Democratic Alliance has indicated its intention to report him to the South African Human Rights Commission, and has urged UCT’s Vice-Chancellor, Mamokgethi Phakeng “to place him on suspension pending” an investigation.

Two questions need to be distinguished:

1. What did Dr Lushaba say?

2.  What should our response to this be?

The answer to the first question might seem obvious – I have just quoted his very words. However, the President of UCT’s Student Representative Council, Declan Dyer, has been quoted as claiming that Dr Lushaba’s views have been taken out of context. This claim is only partly true.

Consider, first, the immediate context, even though this does not seem to be what Mr Dyer had in mind. Immediately after the quoted words above, Dr Lushaba said:

“And so his [that is, Hitler’s] crime, if he had a crime, was to do unto white people what white people had thought was right to do only to black people”.

This statement is not the categorical one that Hitler committed no crime, but it is also not an acknowledgement that Hitler did commit the crime of genocide. In other words, the context makes his view less clear, but his view remains objectionable.

One possible charitable interpretation of Dr Lushaba’s comment is that he understands the word “crime” quite literally to mean a legally proscribed, punishable offence and that he was claiming that under Nazi law it was not a crime to kill Jews.

However, it is quickly apparent that Dr Lushaba does not mean this, because then he would be committed to a conclusion that he does not accept – namely that many evils inflicted on “black” people were not “crimes”. The maltreatment of “blacks” under Apartheid, for example, was not illegal under South African law, and thus could not have been a crime in that sense.

What about the broader context of Dr Lushaba’s comments? His lecture was about the discipline of “Political Science”. He argued that this discipline was unmoved by massacres of “black” people by “white” people. He cited two such massacres – the Herero genocide in Namibia from 1904 to 1907, and a 1921 massacre that he said took place in Queenstown, South Africa (but which actually took place in Bulhoek, near Queenstown). It was, he said, “only when white people are killed by other white people – by Hitler – that Political Science is jolted back to its sensibility”.

Even if one thought that this argument were compelling, this context would not explain why “Hitler committed no crime” in carrying out the Holocaust. Nor would it explain the need for the conditional “if he had a crime”. Refusing to acknowledge the Holocaust as a crime is not necessary for Dr Lushaba’s argument. It is a gratuitous and morally repugnant accessory.

Thus, the context does not exonerate or even extenuate Dr Lushaba’s comments, which constitute a kind of Holocaust denial – not a denial that there was a Holocaust, but rather a denial that the Holocaust was a “crime”.

Perhaps it will be suggested that Dr Lushaba did not mean what he said. If that is the case, he should both apologise for a sloppy formulation and clarify what he did mean. Alternatively, he might have been speaking in some benign figurative sense. It is difficult to fathom what that would be. This is especially so because part of the context is the speaker himself. What counts as a plausible interpretation of what somebody is saying, depends on their track record – both verbally and behaviourally.

Dr Lushaba has regularly engaged in racially inflammatory speech, targeting “whites”. He has whipped up emotions with simplistic Manichean narratives about “white people” and “black people”. He has told his students that “blacks” and “whites” cannot be friends and set an exam question in which he required students to “specify the reasons for the impossibility” of such friendships.

He has disrupted democratic elections in the Faculty of Humanities and previously, while a PhD student at the University of the Witwatersrand, he was suspended for “activities that were not conducive to free and fair elections and were intolerant to a democratic society”. In the light of such behaviour, his repeated references to himself as “Comrade Lushaba” and his recent self-promotion to “Commandante Lushaba” are ominous.

This context does not lend itself to a benign interpretation of words that, in their plain sense, minimize the wrongness of murdering people who Dr Lushaba determines to be “white”. At the very least, the onus is on him to explain himself.

What should our response to Dr Lushaba’s comments be? It should not be to seek his removal from his teaching post or his subjection to an official sanction. This is because he has a right to freedom of expression. Many people will say that while they endorse a right to freedom of expression, it must be limited, and that Dr Lushaba’s comments fall outside the bounds of protected speech.

Understandable though that view is, it is a mistake. The limits on freedom of expression are themselves limited. It is not enough that views are “offensive” or ignorant or stupid or even malicious. They must constitute defamation or incitement to imminent violence or harm. Harm and offence, it needs to be emphasized, are not equivalent. (The South African Constitution adds a further explicit exception to the right to freedom of expression – namely “propaganda for war”). Dr Lushaba’s comments, awful though they are, do not meet these conditions.

In taking this view, I do not underestimate the power of words. Even words that neither defame nor constitute incitement to imminent violence or harm can be part of a longer causal chain that can lead to future violence and harm. Dr Lushaba is a prime example of somebody whose words may very well be contributing to serious harm in the future.

The problem is that the more likely words are to contribute to longer term harm, the less likely they are to be restricted. Consider Holocaust denial, for example. Where is such speech least likely to result in another genocide against the Jews? The answer is Israel, but that is a country in which Holocaust denial is legally prohibited.

By contrast, Iran is one of the countries in which Holocaust denial is most likely to contribute to another genocide against the Jews (through an attack on Israel, which Iranian leaders have sworn to wipe off the map). Yet Holocaust denial is not only legally permitted in Iran but also state sponsored.

None of this is surprising or accidental. In societies in which hateful words will not have traction, the hateful words are less dangerous. Those are not societies in which the hateful speech needs to be outlawed. The societies in which there could be some benefit from outlawing such speech are the very societies in which that speech is less likely to be outlawed – precisely because the hateful ideas have more traction in those societies.

Dr Lushaba’s anti-“white” rhetoric is dangerous precisely because it has traction in South Africa. However, that is also why his speech is unlikely to be curbed (whether or not one thinks that it would be justifiable to do so).

Comparable anti-“black” rhetoric in post-Apartheid South Africa is much less dangerous – because it is so widely condemned. Yet, a much harder line is taken against anti-“black” rhetoric in contemporary South Africa.

The South African Human Rights Commission’s Priscilla Jana has been quoted as saying that the Commission was intentionally more lenient to “black” offenders in racial incidents “because of the historical context”. However, in terms of danger, it is not the historical context, but the present (and future) context that matters.

Even more worrying than the outlawing of hateful speech that, while offensive, is unlikely to harm, is the potential silencing of speech that is not hateful, but which is characterized as hateful by the majority in order to silence it. Freedom of expression is needed not to protect speech of which a dominant majority approves. In a democracy such speech will be protected even without explicit legal provision. Instead, freedom of expression is needed in order to protect unpopular speech.

A vigorous defence of freedom of expression is thus not predicated on a naïve view that words can never contribute to harm. Instead, it is a matter of principle, but one rooted in, rather than divorced from, political reality. Another benefit of recognizing and respecting Dr Lushaba’s right to freedom of expression is that the rest of us then know exactly who he is and what he stands for.

While he should not be removed from his position or officially sanctioned, he should be vigorously criticised for his vile comments – and especially because so many people have come to his defence. His defenders include the Executive of UCT’s Faculty of Humanities which, like the SRC President, said that Dr Lushaba’s “remarks were taken out of context”.

We can be sure that the Faculty of Humanities Executive would have had a very different reaction if a “white” academic had made the claim that “Cecil John Rhodes committed no crime”. The Black Academic Caucus would immediately have objected. Neither of these groups would have thought that context made any difference.

These defences are even more worrying given how academically impoverished Dr Lushaba’s argument is. Dr Lushaba would have us believe that his discipline reconceived itself in response to the Holocaust only because it involved “white” people killing other “white” people. His supporting evidence consists of two prior massacres in which “white” people killed “black” people. These, he said, had not been sufficient to influence the course of political science.

This is an appallingly weak argument because it ignores the many massacres prior to the Holocaust in which “white” people killed “white” people. If the (purported) “whiteness” of the Holocaust’s victims were the key factor, then the discipline of political science would, from its beginnings, have taken an alternative course.

Massacres of “white” people by “white” people have been taking place since there were first “white” people (just as massacres of people by other people have been taking place for as long as there have been people). Dr Lushaba’s fixation on race is so great that he is oblivious to other historical factors that must have played a role following the Holocaust.

Dr Lushaba’s historical insensitivity and ignorance are not limited to this point. Here is another of many examples:

“And so we must see the Holocaust in exactly the same way that we must see the massacre of the Herero people, in exactly the same way we must see the Queenstown massacre and several other massacres that happened across the continent. We must not privilege one massacre over the others”.

We should certainly be outraged by any massacre, but surely we must not see through differences between massacres by seeing them “in exactly the same way”. Massacres differ and their various differences should be seen. For example, the Bulhoek massacre had 163 victims. That is awful, but we should not see it in exactly same way we see the genocide of the Herero which resulted in the deaths of between 24 000 and 100 000 people. We should also not see it in the same way that we see the Jewish Holocaust, which had nearly 6 000 000 victims.

Nor were the Jews Hitler’s only victims. If we add Slavs, Roma, Sinti, homosexuals, the mentally disabled, prisoners of war, and others, the total is about 15 500 000. That is 15.5 million crimes for which Hitler was ultimately responsible.

The largest massacre of “black” people in what is now South Africa is believed to have taken the lives of between one and two million people (although some have suggested that even a death toll of a million may be high). This is the Mfecane.

Perhaps Dr Lushaba overlooked this example because this was a case of “black” people killing “black” people, which does not fit his simplistic narrative. That perpetrators and victims were “black” should not detract from our outrage on behalf of the victims.

The relevant differences between massacres are not only numerical. Also relevant are the rate of killing, the methods of extermination, and, in genocides, the proportion of the targeted population that is killed. To recognise these differences is not to privilege one massacre over another.

Instead, it is to understand their commonalities and differences. That is the sort of nuance we should be able to expect from academics appointed at the University of Cape Town. When students are instead fed demagoguery, the University of Cape Town should feel a deep sense of embarrassment.