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Focus on Issues Nazi ‘joke’ at Pretoria University

If it was a student joke, it was in execrable taste. A men’s residence at Pretoria University, Marcela Hall, decided to have a Nazi “victory feast” as theme for their annual dinner last month. There were the Sieg Heils, Wagnerian music, the shirts and armband, salutes and Hitlerian speeches — and the slogan: “We hate Jews.”

When Jewish students at the university wanted to find out what was going on, they were lectured by one of the organizers, a Christian theology student on the need to forget the Nazi death camps. As news of the Nazi feast leaked to the general public, the organizers intrans gently told the press that the residents of Maroela Hall “marched up and down the corridors yelling anti-Semitic slogans.”

Let it be said immediately that South Africans as a whole are by no means anti-Semitic, no more and no less than, say, the French or British publics. Certainly at governmental level the Administration of Premier P.W.Botha has a fine record of respect for the local Jewish community and for Israel, an attitude shared by the opposition parties and groups, whether Black or white.

MOVES TO DEFUSE THE ISSUE

So it was no wonder that responsible leaders of Pretoria University, one of Africa’s biggest institutes of learning, sought to quickly defuse the issue. The university principal, Prof. E.F. Hamman, disassociated himself from what he called the ill-contrived dinner and he censured the function.

Earlier the university’s rector-designate Prof. D.M. Joubert, had stated that he was unaware of such a function being organized and dismissed it as “a student prank.” The head of the student residence, politics professor G. Olivier, conceded that the “victory feast” may have been “insensitive” though no evil was intended.

South Africans, no less than other people, usually tolerate “student pranks,” no matter how tasteless. But when the students concerned are Afrikaaners fooling around with Nazi symbols for whatever reason, the “joke” tends to boomerang on more than just the students. Some, though by no means all Afrikaaners gained a reputation during World War II for holding pro-Nazi sympathies.

In the post-war period the Afrikaaner dominated governments gained a reputation for racism due to apartheid policies. Then followed the formation of rightwing fringe groups in and around Pretoria, some of them cherishing avowedly anti-Semitic attitudes. Further, the timing of the “prank” was worse compounded by the news of the upsurge of anti-Semitism in Western Europe.

Many Afrikaaners are descendants of French and other West European peoples, though they usually tend to import more noble ideas from their countries of origin than anti-Semitism. In fact, many Afrikaaners, together with their Jewish, English and Black compatriots, joined the Allied onslaught against Nazism and fascism from 1939 to 1945.

It was less than surprising to find South African opinion against the Pretoria pranksters. Letters to the newspapers from Jews and Gentiles alike deplored the Nazi “feast,” some casting doubts on the level of education of those concerned. The South African Jewish Board of Deputies’ executive director Aleck Goldberg, spoke of unbelievable ignorance or else a frightening lack of sensitivity towards the victims of the Nazi regime.”

The mass-circulation Sunday Times of Johannesburg, by way of its political column, observed: “It really is time that Pretoria University and all that it represents as an elite, catches up with the civilized world. To launch the racial doctrine of apartheid in 1948 when the Nazi death camps were hardly empty is one thing; to celebrate the Holocaust as a joke 30 years later, as the students of Maroela House did, displays the kind of insensitivity top civilized human concerns that marks barbarians.”

It may be that the “Nazi” celebrants are just too plain dumb or downright boorish to become effective anti-Semites. But one thing they did with almost professional elan: they seemed to confirm, wittingly or unwittingly, the view among many that racism still exists in Pretoria.

At a time when the country is trying its level best to undo its racist heritage, this sort of “joke” hardly renders a service to overdue enlightenment. Even if the students carry out their “threat” to have a Bar Mitzvah as theme for next year’s dinner, the damage will have been done.

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