Andile Mngxitama, the leader of Black First Land First, orchestrated a furore via Twitter this week in a message about the Holocaust. On Thursday 24 August, Mngxitama tweeted: “For those claiming the legacy of the [h]olocaust is ONLY negative think about the lampshades and Jewish soap.”
Lots of claims are bundled up here. The message’s vagueness allows you to swill around in ambiguity, before reaching a decision on what Mngxitama is actually arguing. The tweet lends itself to at least two interpretations:
- Those claiming the legacy of the Holocaust is “ONLY negative” are fixated on the most perverse acts of the Nazi genocide, such as stretching the skin of a death camp inmate to make a lampshade, or using the human byproducts of industrial killing to produce soap. Their absorption in these atrocities obscures their recognition of the Holocaust’s benefits.
- In a second interpretation, Mngxitama could be suggesting that the lampshades and soaps made out of human remains could themselves be considered among the Holocaust’s benefits. Did they not – after all – provide pithy tools for Nazi home-economics?
The ambiguity in Mngxitama’s statement, lending itself to these two interpretations, hinges on his use of a particular word: “think” – a doing word. In the first interpretation, it is the Holocaust fixaters who are doing the thinking, with too much of it devoted to the repurposing of human remains, and not enough to the Holocaust’s positive consequences.
In the second interpretation, another kind of reader is imaged, for whom thoughts about the benefits of the Holocaust are more readily conceived.
Mngxitama’s tweet stormed across the internet and through inboxes. Tonight, it will have a boosting effect on Shabbat dinner conversations, similar to the consumption of chopped liver on levels of hemoglobin.
Within hours of the tweet, the Jewish Board of Deputies issued a statement in which it described Mngxitama’s statement as “crassly offensive, demeaning and hurtful.” But this was precisely what he wanted. Through their rapid and explicit condemnation, Jewish elected leadership opened itself up to a squall of allegations about selective empathy, and its racist applications. The content of another tweet – an obvious intertext for Mngxitama – and the different reactions it evoked, will serve as a primary reference point.
In March 2017, Helen Zille, former leader of the Democratic Alliance, tweeted: “For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport, infrastructure, piped water etc”. The social and news media exploded, with demands that Zille be forced to resign her premiership, and expelled from the party. She apologised for the tweet’s content, dousing the flames that continue to spark social media battles. But did Jewish leaders, as a collective, condemn Zille?
These comparisons will be made: If Jewish South Africans were so angered by a claim that the Holocaust didn’t only have negative consequences, why weren’t they equally angered and moved to act against similar claims about colonialism, another era of historical brutality?
In the coming days, the two tweets and their reactions will be spun further into the fraught fabric of South African public life, pulling tightly on painful histories.
But, the importance of history must not be denuded by Mnxgitama’s grasping populism. There are indeed many ways to consider the “positive consequences” of ruinous pasts, including the Holocaust. The Warsaw Ghetto uprising has its place in the pantheon of audacious resistance struggles. In the wake of revelations about Nazi atrocities, the first global mechanisms for protecting human rights were established. After the horrors of the Dachau cold experiments and Mengele’s medicine, the Nuremberg Code for the ethical conduct of research was formulated. These “positive consequences” are not equal in value or meaning to the atrocities that preceded them, but recognising them does not equate them.
The Holocaust gave to us a contemporary archive of how easily forms of hatred – racism, homophobia, xenophobia and anti-semitism – can be combined in the service of tyranny, and in the hands of articulate fascists. If anything, let Mngxitama’s recourse to history be a reminder of this. DM
Rebecca Hodes is a historian who works at the University of Cape Town.