Nazi salute never okay nor innocent, says esteemed editor

  • AdriaanBasson
Adriaan Basson, one of South Africa’s most respected Afrikaans journalists and editors, this week said that the Nazi salute and other symbols of racism were never okay or innocent.
by NICOLA MILTZ | Feb 27, 2020

“You have to speak out even if you are one person,” said Basson. “Throughout history, symbols have been powerful. You see it with all the genocides – the cockroach for example, the Nazi salute. It’s never ok, never innocent. If you let it slip once or twice, it becomes normalised.”

Basson was speaking to the SA Jewish Report following his reminder on Twitter of an ugly story that occurred six years ago involving first-year students at North-West University (NWU) in Potchefstroom, who were caught on camera doing the Nazi salute.

The News24 editor-in-chief and author of Blessed by BOSASA, was reminded the past few weeks of this messy piece of Potchefstroom history which landed him in the middle of an Afrikaner storm. His decision as then editor of Beeld newspaper to run with the story that affected the heartland of his readers was a defining moment for him.

Basson’s recent memory jogging began at the beginning of the month with the denial on national television by former President FW de Klerk that apartheid was a crime against humanity. Then, he read an opinion piece by internationally acclaimed poet, author, journalist, and academic, Antjie Krog. She wrote on News24 that De Klerk had become “the failed, unrepentant face of white people”.

“There were so many parallels,” Basson said. “I remembered the events that happened six years ago when I realised the absolute harm caused by people like the former vice-chancellor of the university, Theuns Eloff. He refused to educate children – who may or may not have known about the offensive, insensitive salute. Instead, he defended the salute to the hilt, calling it a ‘Superman’ sign.”

Eloff, who was subsequently forced to leave NWU, is the executive director of the FW de Klerk Foundation that apologised for a statement in which it reiterated what De Klerk said about apartheid not being a crime against humanity.

Basson took to Twitter to recall the shambolic events that took place following publication of the horrid anti-Semitic pictures of young students – who arguably may have been naïve and historically ignorant – doing the “Heil Hitler” salute.

“It caused a perfect storm. I became enemy number one for the AfriForum/Solidarity lobby, which accused me and Beeld of undermining Afrikaans as the language of tuition at Potch. They called for my sacking, and a boycott of Beeld.

“What could have been a learning moment about symbols of oppression and white power was turned into a battle for Afrikaans at Potchefstroom,” he tweeted.

There were campaigns to discredit him and his newspaper.

In a further tweet he said, “My line manager at the time called me in and told me I must remember Beeld is not the M&G [Mail & Guardian]. The New York Times will never attack its Jewish readers,” was his argument. I was startled.”

Basson said it was a very difficult time. “It was hectic, I won’t lie,” he said.

“But I firmly believe the role of an editor is to challenge your readers and their prejudices when it’s needed. Max du Preez, Allister Sparks and others did so at a pivotal time in South Africa’s history. It was a very tough time, but it was a good learning moment for me as an editor, and a reminder of the massive responsibility, privilege, and power we have as journalists.”

His Twitter thread this week has been retweeted, liked, and shared dozens and dozens of times.

Once again, the story has generated controversy, getting a mixed reaction across the board with some lauding him, others berating and belittling him.

“There has been the predictable hateful responses by people who react to anything critical of Afrikaner culture, but I must say, there has been a good push back from everyone – whites, blacks, Jews, and Afrikaners.”

Said David Saks of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, “As a genocide expert, Professor Gregory Stanton points out that one of the typical stages of genocide is denial on the part of the perpetrators. He would agree, no doubt, that such denialism is not limited to something as extreme as this, but is typical of perpetrators of other lesser but still severe forms of oppression.

“The response to Basson’s whistleblowing includes much denialism, but often goes even further by going the ‘shooting the messenger route’,” said Saks. “Basson is accused, in quite vicious terms, of being a race traitor, a defamer of Afrikanerdom, and as resorting to crass sensationalism at the expense of his own people in order to promote himself and the paper he works for. Several people, absurdly, claim that the students weren’t making a Nazi salute at all. A third aspect of the responses on display is the hyper-sensitivity many Afrikaners evidently feel, so that the exposure of a relatively minor incident is represented as an all-out attack against Afrikanerdom.”

In a related column Basson wrote in News24 this week titled, “Dear white people, it is OK to talk about apartheid and the ANC’s failings”, he speaks about the time he and his wife met a German couple when travelling abroad.

“The conversation turned to our shared past of shame, and I asked them, ‘Do you feel guilt about what your forefathers did during the Holocaust?’” The couple told them that they “weren’t moved from a place of guilt, but responsibility”. The Germans explained to Basson and his wife, “It’s our responsibility to make sure that it never happens again. To build our country, and teach our children about the past, not out of guilt, but because we must.”

Wrote Basson, “It was a powerful moment in my own thinking how I, as a white South African who never voted for apartheid but continues to benefit from the inherited privilege of the system, could contribute meaningfully to the future of the only country I call home.”

He told the SA Jewish Report, “I’m not part of the ‘let’s move on brigade’. We need to remind ourselves about history so that it doesn’t happen again.”

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