Thabo Mbeki and the Nazi analogy

Or, why those who live in glass houses should avoid throwing stones

In late May President Thabo Mbeki took exception, in his weekly internet letter, to the reported remarks by Zwelinzima Vavi, COSATU's secretary-general, to the effect that "a reported economic boom in South Africa is government propaganda similar to that used by Adolf Hitler's regime in Nazi Germany." Mbeki described this statement as "grossly repugnant" and said that the "charge that our government and the ANC are behaving in a manner akin to the Nazis is very serious in the extreme."

As Professor Hermann Giliomee noted Mbeki was "doubly upset because the ANC itself has been so ready to tar the National Party government with the Nazi brush." Mbeki himself has not exactly been averse, in the past, to loosely equating the previous regime to the Nazis. In a pseudonymous 1967 article for the African Communist dealing with the relationship between West Germany and South Africa he wrote:

"It is a fact very often stated that South Africa's Afrikaner political leadership is composed of self-confessed Nazis. These men have not wavered in their Nazi convictions since the time that they supported Hitler before the war and were interned for their treacherous role as Nazi agents.

The history of the growth of Nazism in Germany has now passed into the stock of general human knowledge. We are, however, not sufficiently familiar with the methods and techniques employed by the South African Nazis in the building up of their supremacy in the economic and military fields...

The Nazi advance was halted in 1945 by the victory of the anti-fascist forces against Hitler and his allies. In 1948, Hitler's erstwhile agents took political power in South Africa. What then was not clear was the continued alliance between the South African Nazis and those that remained in positions of authority in West Germany."

Such rhetoric was also employed by the ANC well into the post-apartheid era. After the 1999 elections the ANC of Mbeki resuscitated such accusations as part of their efforts to de-legitimise the Democratic Party, after it had overtaken the NP as the largest opposition in the country. As noted previously a defector to the ANC was deployed by the presidency to label the DP of Tony Leon as the new home of "neo-Nazism" and "white fascism". 

The following year, before the 2000 local government elections, the Western Cape ANC released a pamphlet with a cartoon showing Helen Zille - sandwiched in between an "apartheid general" and an AWB member - giving Leon what appeared to be a Hitler-salute. 

If Vavi's comments were indeed "grossly repugnant" what can one say about these earlier ANC efforts to smear both a Jewish South African, and the child of refugees from Hitler's Germany, as "neo-Nazi"? In last month's article Mbeki also claimed that, "The truth that Vavi seeks to deny is that the ANC and our government constitute the very antithesis or opposite of Nazism in all respects."

Well... up to a point Lord Copper. The central tenet of the ANC's policy of transformation is that every centre of power and influence in society - from the universities to national sports teams - should be made to conform to the racial composition of society as a whole. (The use of quotas, race classification, and racial discrimination against the white minority, are regarded as justified until these racial targets have been met.)  This underlying principle is not a million miles away from the one that guided much anti-Semitism in the mid-1930s.

In a 1940 speech Adolph Hitler stated that the ‘struggle for power' against the Jews had been "a battle against a satanical power which had taken possession of our entire people, which had grasped in its hands all key positions of scientific, intellectual, as well as political and economic life, and which kept watch over the entire nation from the vantage of these positions." The argument the NSDAP initially raised in order to justify the discriminatory measures against the Jews was that they were over-represented in the higher activities of society and as a result their influence was too great.

On the 1st May 1933 the NSDAP began its campaign against the Jews with a boycott of Jewish shops and businesses. Every branch of the NSDAP was to form an Action Committee in order to implement the boycott. These Committees were required to organize tens of thousands of mass meetings across the country "at which the demand will be raised for the introduction of a limited quota for the employment of Jews in all professions, according to their proportion in the German population.  In order to increase the impact of this step the demand should be limited to three areas for the time being: a) attendance at German high schools and universities; b) the medical profession; c) the legal profession." At almost the same time the "Law against overcrowding of German Schools and Higher Institutions" was signed into law by Hitler. This required that:

"The number of non-Aryan Germans [Jews] ... who may be admitted to schools, colleges and universities, must not exceed a number proportionate to the Aryan students in each school, college or university compared to the percentage of non-Aryans within the entire German population."

One effect of this campaign, Sebastian Haffner wrote, was that "it soon became customary to count it against the Jews if they had a respectable or intellectually valuable profession...The defenders of the Jews were frowningly told that it was reprehensible of the Jews to have such-an-such a percentage of doctors, lawyers, journalists, etc. Indeed, per cent calculations were a popular ingredient of the ‘Jewish Question'."

Even if some of the tactics used by the NSDAP were widely regarded as abhorrent, such measures effectively legitimised the espousal of anti-Semitism across central Europe and in South Africa as well. In 1937 Hendrik Verwoerd - under the influence of these "developments in Germany" - proposed a "possible solution" to the "Jewish question" in South Africa, which ran along very similar lines.

He argued that the Jewish "question" would only disappear when the Afrikaners gained a share of commerce and industry "proportional to its percentage of the white population." The underlying cause of the problem lay in the inequitable dominant position the Jews had "achieved in the economy, particularly in commerce and industry, which in turn results in a disproportionate influence on the country's political and social life."

For this reason, "Legislation must gradually but purposefully ensure that each white section of the population should, as far as practicable, enjoy a share of the major occupations, according to its proportion of the white population." Verwoerd described this situation as ewewigtige verspreiding (broad representivity), "but it has also been called a ‘quota system'".

Verwoerd's first proposal was that, "as Jews presently enjoy a disproportionate share of the wholesale and retail trade, such a balanced distribution can be achieved only by refusing them further trading licences, until such a time... as English- and Afrikaans-speakers have gained a proportion which (as far as practicable) corresponds to their percentage of the white population". In much the same way "an appropriate balance between the various [white] population groups may also be sought among the other professions".

Secondly, an industrial bank should be established which could give Afrikaners-who lack capital but have the requisite expertise-"the chance to achieve leadership in various industries".

"In the allocation of capital and top management posts this banking institution would discriminate against the Jew, until a stage is reached where the Jew, and the English- and Afrikaans- speakers, enjoy a share of industry proportional to their percentage of the population. Of course, the discrimination must disappear as soon as the correct balance has been achieved."

 His unauthorised biographer, Henry Kenney, did write that in "fairness to Verwoerd" he made no attempt as Prime Minister to implement the "astounding proposal" contained in the essay.

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