Last week Beeld newspaper printed shocking pictures of students at the Potchefstroom campus of Northwest University giving the Nazi “Sieg Heil” salute. It transpired that for many years first year students at this University had been forced by senior students to give this salute as part of a deeply embedded culture of “initiation” at university residences aimed at cultivating “group spirit”. This practice of “initiation” – which forces vulnerable first year students to indulge in acts that border on hate speech – is, of course, incompatible with the true purpose of an institution of higher learning.
Ideally a University is a place where young people will be relatively free to explore new ideas, to question widely accepted beliefs or cultural practices, to experiment, to reconsider received dogma, to make mistakes and to question the wisdom of their elders and those in authority.
Students who attend such an institution are extraordinarily privileged as they are often given the space and the ability to acquire the tools to begin to decide for themselves who they are, what ideological course they want to chart, and according to which norms and values they wish to live their lives.
In such an institution students are free to pursue different forms of knowledge – both inside and outside the classroom. In dorm rooms, in cafeterias, in bars, in political meetings and even in the library, students making the best of the opportunity will pursue new and exciting forms of academic knowledge and ideas as well as knowledge and ideas about themselves and the larger world in which they live.
A good University is also one where the opportunities exist for students to learn more from fellow students who are different from them (because of their race, their sexual orientation, their language or their class) and about the wider world in which they live.
At a mediocre University, on the other hand, these opportunities will not exist or will be curtailed by a semi-authoritarian or group-based culture which may punish or discourage individuality, otherness and creativity.
In such a University the management and student leaders will be scared of free thought and will try to stifle free speech and debate. Older students will try to impose their authority and the culture of loyalty to the “group” on new students through initiation practices and through other forms of social control.
In such a mediocre institution conformity and loyalty to the group will be prized above all else and respect for (certain forms of) authority will be inculcated through fear, group pressure and by playing on students’ eagerness to belong and not to be “Othered”.
That is why, in my opinion, allowing any form of “initiation” of first year students at a University is a sure sign that the institution has embraced educational mediocrity (in the broadest sense) in the name of loyalty to the group and in the name of tradition. “Initiation” is the handmaiden of group conformity and “groupthink” and the enemy of real and critical thought, reflection and deep learning.
Matters are made worse when, as part of the process of enforcing conformity through initiation, first year students – under the guise of “tradition” and of “having fun” – are required to give the Nazi “Sieg Heil” salute to those who are conducting the initiation, as happened at the Potchefstroom campus of North West University as recently as this year.
Defenders of this practice have made the extraordinary claim that students at North West University are not aware that the “Sieg Heil” salute is associated with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, who killed six million Jews, homosexuals and Gypsies during the Holocaust. Forcing first year students to execute the “Sieg Heil” salute, they claim, was therefore “just” an innocent joke.
It would, of course, be quite a shocking indictment of the quality of Potchefstroom students if they were really ignorant about the fact that the “Sieg Heil” salute is now practically exclusively associated across the world with the most notorious and widely known oppressive regime of the 20th Century.
Given the fact that depictions of Nazism (including the “salute”) permeate popular culture – including in innumerable movies, TV series and books – one would have to be extraordinarily ignorant and cut off from mainstream culture to be unaware that the “Sieg Heil” salute has acquired world-wide notoriety because of its association with Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party’s crimes against humanity.
Making the salute is prohibited in many countries across Europe on the basis that it symbolises the evils of Nazi Germany and because it may be used to re-awaken the bigotry and prejudices which lead the mass killing of millions of people because of their religious or social origin or sexual orientation.
I suspect that in South Africa, some contexts, the giving of the “Sieg Heil” salute would also amount to hate speech in terms of the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act (PEPUDA).
Section 10 of the Act states that no person may publish, propagate, advocate or communicate words based on grounds such as ethnic or social origin, religion or culture against any person that could reasonably be construed to demonstrate a clear intention to be hurtful.
Because words can also be communicated through gestures and because making the “Sieg Heil” salute in a manner that seems to endorse or celebrate – not critique – Nazi gestures is hurtful to many of us who know that we too would have been targeted for extermination by the Nazi’s if we had lived in Europe during the Second World War, giving the salute may very well, in certain context, constitute hate speech against people of Jewish origin or against gay men and lesbians.
I might be wrong, but I suspect the Potchefstroom students of 2014 may not actually have intended the salute to be hurtful to Jews or gay men or lesbians. Whether a reasonable person would construe the enforcement of the salute at Potchefstroom initiation ceremonies as intending to hurt Jews or gay men and lesbians is thus, in my opinion, not clear. In other contexts the giving of the salute will, however, almost certainly amount to hate speech as defined by PEPUDA.
I would guess that the “tradition” of forcing first year students to make the “Sieg Heil” salute may have more to do with a nostalgic yearning for the “good old days” of Afrikaner Nationalism and Apartheid. After all, during and after the second World War Afrikaner Nationalists – especially those who were members of the Ossewa Brandwag – displayed strong sympathy for the Nazi’s.
Given its origin and predominant symbolism, some students may also be attracted to enforcing the giving of the “Sieg Heil” salute because it is associated with authoritarianism more generally. The well-known film footage of hundreds of thousands of Germans giving the “Sieg Heil” salute to pledge allegiance to Hitler and the Nazi party (re-enacted in many movies) reminds us of the role the salute played in pledging and affirming (in a theatrical manner) the German nations loyalty to the Nazi party.
As such, re-enacting the Nazi salute may also be a way of inculcating into first year students the belief that they need to belong to the larger group and must display uncritical loyalty to that group – just as Germans were expected to display uncritical loyalty to the Nazis.
I would argue the salute aims to inculcate into students exactly those values that cannot be squared with the well-functioning University. Where it is practiced and defended it reaffirms that the dominant student culture aims to promote academic group-think and to discourage critical thinking and reflection. After all, education – at its very best – is dangerous as it makes people question authority and conventional wisdom and allows them to start thinking for themselves, unfettered by the shackles of group pressure. DM
Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.
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