South Africa

Maverick Citizen Op-ed

The Nattrass case and the Dangers of Ahistorical Analogy

The Nattrass case and the Dangers of Ahistorical Analogy
File photo - The Rhodes statue at UCT before being removed. Photo supplied. RhodesMustFall-response-to-Rebecca-Hodes.jpg

A number of inaccurate, problematic, and dangerous historical claims have been asserted recently in a flurry of articles attempting to defend Professor Nattrass’s South African Journal of Science publication 'Why are black South African students less likely to consider studying biological sciences?' against the critique launched by UCT’s Black Academic Caucus (BAC). 

Nattrass has argued that the BAC is a cabal parallel to the Afrikaaner Broederbond at the height of Apartheid.

Her defenders have framed her as a Jew being silenced by a Nazi “German Academic Caucus, or the Deutscher Dozentenbund”; while her white allies at UCT published an open letter of protest, claiming to represent “the veterans of the 1968 Mafeje protest” evoking the 1968 protest as an arbiter for contemporary debates on race.

At the heart of these analogies is the argument that the BAC is dangerous, unnecessary, and unjustifiable. They present decontextualised comparisons and grave misrepresentations of power, distracting from the critiques of the actual weaknesses of Nattrass’s research, and defending against the long overdue, much needed, and difficult work of challenging the reproduction of white privilege and structural racism in institutions like UCT at this current time.

The critiques of Nattrass’s work have been well made elsewhere (see here, here, here and here).

Here, however, we are interested in the defensive reactions to the BAC as a caucus, as a black only, collective space, as if it is up to high ranking white academics to say whether or not this kind of grouping is necessary, and to decide that UCT is not a racist institution. Those making the argument are pulling up selective moments of history to make this point: this includes, their ‘struggle credentials’ (citing their involvement in the Mafeje Affair), claiming that any racial caucus is comparable to the Afrikaaner Broederbond, and any monitoring of academic output is comparable to Nazi-German era censorship.

These are decontextualised snapshots being weaponised to make the same arguments as those crying out ‘’reverse racism,”  “All Lives Matter,” or  “Not All Men”, used when people benefiting from the current power structures feel excluded from women only, or black only spaces, that exist specifically because of the need to organise outside of the gaze of whiteness/ patriarchy. It is a move to re-center a dominant group in debates and actions taken by subordinated groups attempting to challenge power.

The tears in support of Nattrass are not innocent tears. They fall in a context in which whatever antiracist gains have been made over the past 50 years are facing a global backlash, the reassertion of hard white politics redefining battle lines. We are compelled to write because we understand how quickly backlash can work to silence important and necessary critique. Let us unpack some of the historical claims being mobilised in this instance:

Nazi Germany

In an article entitled “Der Fall Nattrass” Paul Trewhela’s begins with an emotive historical analogy, in which he paints the picture of a lone Jewish academic, in the context of 1930’s Nazi Germany, writing a dissenting article that goes against the hegemonic will of ‘the volk’- the German people, as imagined by the fascist regime.

In Trewhela’s formulation, in 2020, the white South African academic, Natrass is the Jewish dissident, and the Black Academic Caucus are the Nazis (and then later they are the National Party). Just writing this sentence is already absurd. But, these are the conditions of the analogy to which we are called to respond.

Trewhela’s analogy is flimsily held on the charge of censorship; that the BAC’s critique of the article amounts to an infringement on Nattrass’s rights to academic freedom of speech.

Nattrass herself has used the metaphors of book burning and thought policing in her responses, also invoking fascist state violence in her description of the BAC. But It is ludicrous to suggest that white academics in South Africa can claim to be victims of a Nazi-like policy in which anti-hegemonic views are silenced. White academics in South Africa occupy a position of historical, structural, and institutional power and privilege incongruous with the analogy which would read them as potential victims of a facist book burning.

The ahistorical mobalisation of the Nazi Germany  analogy is a cheap and dangerous shot. It deliberately inverts current power relations, obscuring ongoing white supremacy, emboldening white conservatives and liberals alike. By casting the victim as perpetrator, it also legitimises further attacks against those fighting against oppression.  

The Nazi analogy makes a mockery of the seriousness of the Holocaust when it is brandished about as a piece of historical ammunition to point at whatever ideas are challenging to the very system which caused it; white supremacy. The easy weaponisation of Nazi history is offensive and an insult to the memory of those millions who were persecuted and murdered by the Nazi regime.

It does not matter that Trewhela is Jewish, so are many of us. We read this particular use of the holocaust as a cunning diversion from the real issues of power and privilege at stake in our context, which is increasingly how it is used globally by right wing movements to quash legitimate criticism of the Israeli State.

Lastly, when the figure of the ‘victim’ is expressed solely through analogies to ‘the Jew’ in Nazi Germany, this privileges European history and delinks it from world history.

Nazi fascism did not only persecute Jews but also black people, homosexuals, Roma, placing Jews in a spectrum of targets for white supremicist hatred. Nazi techniques of oppression had after all been developed by Germany’s eugenecist, genocial and colonial history in Southern Africa. To lift Jews out of this spectrum misses the connections between antisemitism and other forms of racism, connections that should create solidarity between Jewish and black histories at UCT. Far from using the holocaust as a leverage for antiracist work everywhere, Trewhela’s Nazi analogy used against the BAC further entrenches the disavowal of world historical atrocities such as colonialism, apartheid and slavery.


The analogy that Nattrass makes to the Broederbond is particularly egregious in our context.

While Nattrass provides a disclaimer that does say that the BAC and the Broederbond do not share an ideology, she intimates that the Black Academic Caucus at UCT holds the same kind of institutional, violent, and secretive power that the Broederbond held in South Africa under apartheid. This is a reading that essentialises race and completely ignores any analysis of contextual power.

The Black Academic Caucus at UCT is an organisation formed because of the need for a black space in a University which still has overwhelmingly white power-structures. The BAC is an organisation formed against racism and systemic power, not as a tool to secretly wield and organise systemic power and spread essentialised racist apartheid ideology as did the Afrikaner Broederbond.

The Broederbond was an organ of those who held state power during apartheid, and had its tentacles in every aspect of South African society: every president of South Africa from 1948 until the end of apartheid was a member of the Broederbond. The Broederbond was a tool through which the Apartheid government, and white Afrikaner elites, enacted their politics and ideologies through white Afrikaans communities.  It was a hugely powerful white-supremacist organisation deeply enmeshed within a white supremacist state and society.

The purported comparison between the BAC and the Broederbond draws on the so-called secrecy and anonymity of both organisations.

In the case of the Broederbond, the secrecy was a tactic of institutional power, as a way of carrying out the ‘dirty business’ of the racist state. the Afrikaner Broederbond was an all-male, secret “brotherhood” that was notorious for marshalling and directing power in the Apartheid state. The anonymity of the BAC comes from the fact that black academics at white institutions are targeted and often suffer greatly for speaking against institutional power. UCT is not the only university where black academics have felt the need to create forums and caucus spaces to think and work together in challenging the colonial legacies very much alive in South Africa today. Acting within a caucus, or collective, is important because it shields black academics from the real dangers of acting as named individuals in a hostile institutional context.

The Mafeje Affair

In the commentary on the Nattrass article, involvement in the 1968 Mafeje sit-in has been used as an historic event to defend Nattrass and criticise the UCT executive for not upholding academic freedom. It insinuates that participating in a protest 52 years ago translates into authority on debates about racism today.

The 1968 sit-in was led by white National Union of South African Students (NUSAS)-aligned students to criticise the university’s handling of the appointment of Archie Mafeje to a senior lectureship position at the university. The apartheid state had intervened to prevent Mafeje’s appointment on the grounds that as a black scholar, he should not be teaching at a white university. The university buckled to state pressure and did not appoint Mafeje.

While the students rightly protested the racist education policy, Lungisile Ntsebeza’s research into what became known as the Mafeje Affair reveals how little the 1968 students actually knew of Mafeje and his work, how little follow up there was after the sit in when Mafeje was not hired, and what a scandal it is that UCT and NUSAS use the Mafeje Affair to justify their progressive credentials.

Mafeje died without accepting UCT’s very late apology because the university’s 30-year handling of the case was so deplorable. The case does not stand as a record of UCT and NUSAS anti-racism, but a record of weak politics and shame.

It was around the time of the 1968 sit in that black students who had been part of NUSAS split away to create the South African Student Organisation (SASO), the predecessor of the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa. They split and formed precisely because the white liberalism at the heart of NUSAS and UCT was experienced by black students not as anti-racism but as racial paternalism: ineffectual, patronising, and far too complicit with the racist status quo.

SASO was a necessary black caucus against the slippery politics of ‘non-racial’, white-led politics in racist institutions and a racist society. After reviewing the long history of the Mafeje Affair, Ntsebeza (in ‘The Mafeje and the UCT saga: unfinished business?’ Social Dynamics, 40:2, 274-288, DOI: 10.1080/02533952.2014.946254, 2014) concludes that the 1968 sit-in was founded not so much on any serious commitment to anti-racism but was based rather on a limited and formal liberal defense of academic freedom.

“It is interesting to note that almost all the students of 1968 that I interviewed in 2008 not only claimed that they never met Mafeje, they never made attempts to find out what happened to him, a clear suggestion that the Mafeje affair was, in the eyes of the students, not about Mafeje, the person, but about themselves and at best, the principle, in this case, academic freedom and the autonomy of universities.”

This is certainly corroborated by the fact that those writing in the name of the 1968 sit-in now defend – without making any comment on the substance of the contentious paper itself – a white professor in a majority-white university against a mostly-black university executive and a small black academic caucus. To use the historical case of the 1968 sit-in as an innocent vector of the academic freedom argument is to repeat, uninterrogated, all of the problems of that moment in the present.


Gathering as a black caucus, as in the cases of SASO, or Rhodes Must Fall or the BAC, is a tactic used in the struggle to overcome the essentialisation of race purported by white supremacists and the continuities of racism denied by white liberals. To ignore or dispute SASO’s explanation for why a black South African student organisation was needed, why BAC is needed today, points to the legacies of liberalism well outlined by Terri Barnes in Uprooting University Apartheid in South Africa: From Liberalism to Decolonization (Routledge, 2018).

All throughout Rhodes Must Fall, white liberals dismissed the calls for decolonisation by the student movement, by claiming to know better, and to have already fixed the problem; ‘we led you, now listen and wait’.

In so doing, they were washing their hands clean of their culpability in upholding the very oppressive structures against which the student movement was pushing. Trewhela, supported by a generation of white liberal academics, has formed a version of history in which the movements they participated in, NUSAS, CP, ANC which embraced multiracialism and assimilation at the cost of radical change, still hold the only legitimate claim to historical and current ideological correctness. These manoeuvres to monopolise the terms and terrain of transformation by flexing unsubstantiated historical analogy need to be questioned.

Part of the problem is in the ways in which dominant narrative histories of the South African liberation struggle have been cemented and sealed in the interest of post ‘94 Rainbownationism at the exclusion of alternative perspectives and politics beyond the liberal approach embodied by the TRC and in the ANC rhetoric of multiracialism, reconciliation, and forgiveness.

Capitalising on the ways that historic struggles against racism have been demobilised and cemented into apolitical and ahistorical narratives that dismisses the structures of racism that were left intact by the process of the negotiated settlement in the 1990s, makes the kinds of comparisons we are seeing in these debates possible.

The misreadings of power and deliberate misuses of historical analogies being used here are a continuity of these debates about who and where we are in history. In other words, they are debates about the reading of power in historical context. Inversions and reversals of Black/White, Jewish/German, are part of a broader conservative discourse that is weaponising academic freedom to defend against any shifts threatening white privilege.

Unsubstantiated ahistoricisms like those used in the Nattrass matter prevent acknowledging the real historical task we are faced with, which is to open our history to critique, and with courage, in order to undo the long violence of colonial and apartheid structuring of our institutions, our knowledges and our lives. DM/MC

Koni Benson , University of the Western Cape, Department of History; Linda Cooper, University of Cape Town, Emeritus Ass/Professor; Judy Favish, University of Cape Town, Retired Director of Institutional Planning; Kelly Gillespie,University of the Western Cape, Anthropology Department; Sarah Godsell, Wits School of Education, Social and Economic Sciences Division, History; Mitchell Hunter, University of the Western Cape, Department of Sociology, MA Student; Talya Lubinsky, University of Western Cape, Department of History, PhD student.


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