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School reaches out to community after Nazi salute

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Four matric prefect pupils raise outstretched right arms in “Heil Hitler” salutes on stage during a karaoke rendition of Erika, possibly the best-known tune that was sung by the Wehrmacht. The pupils seem to speak German fluently, and are copied by students offstage. This was the scene at Hoërskool Rustenburg in North West on 18 May 2022, posted on TikTok, which then went viral.

According to local media, the pupils accused of giving the salute were the school’s top academic achievers. They apologised to the school’s management on Monday, 23 May, and are expected to make an apology to the whole school community.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report, Bernhard Visser, the chairperson of Hoërskool Rustenburg’s school governing body (SGB), said, “As SGB chairperson, I want to give my commitment to the South African Jewish community that the SGB has already and will continue to handle this matter with due respect. As South Africans, we’re all well-acquainted with the devastating consequences of discrimination. We cannot plead ignorance – we have to do better as education role-players, whether parents, teachers, SGB members, or the larger school community.

“We would like to take hands with the Jewish community and use this incident as an opportunity for education, growth, tolerance, and positive dialogue,” he said. “We ask that you please receive our unreserved apology for the hurt caused by the incident.”

He confirmed that “the pupils were taking part in a karaoke competition at the school. There was a request for a German song, and Erika was played. Some students reacted with a Nazi salute. The incident was captured on video, and shared on social media.

“I was shocked when the incident came to my attention. The SGB acted immediately, and initiated an enquiry into the incident. The pupils were identified, and their parents have been informed. The disciplinary hearings of these pupils will be held early next week.”

Visser doesn’t want to speculate why the students took the salute. “I don’t think there was any malicious intent, but ignorance is in no way an excuse,” he said. Asked what kind of Holocaust education was offered at the school, he said, “As SGB chairperson, I cannot comment on the formal curriculum as that’s determined by the national department of basic education. However, in addition to what’s taught in the formal curriculum, there’s always room for awareness programmes.

“A school isn’t just responsible for teaching the formal curriculum. As education role-players, we’re all responsible for the holistic teaching and development of pupils,” he says. “The South African Jewish Board of Deputies has offered assistance in terms of education and awareness, and the SGB has gratefully accepted the offer of guidance in this matter.”

Regarding the consequences the students will face, “Once the disciplinary process has been concluded, a decision will be made about sanctions against the pupils,” he said. “I cannot pre-empt the outcome of the disciplinary hearings, save to say that such sanctions, on a finding of guilt, are always corrective in nature and that, in this matter, will be substantive given the serious nature of the incident.”

In an official statement on the matter, Visser said, “The SGB views the incident in an extremely serious light. These gestures are associated with the worst crimes against humanity.”

North West education department officials visited Hoërskool Rustenburg on 24 May to investigate the incident. The province’s education spokesperson, Elias Malindi, said a detailed response would be given after their investigation was concluded.

Says South African Jewish Board of Deputies Associate Director David Saks, “These references are deeply hurtful to the Jewish community and are particularly distressing to survivors, for whom this isn’t history but their heartbreaking lived experience.

“The persistence of ‘Nazi chic’ among elements of the white youth, in spite of them having grown up in a non-racial democracy where such beliefs are considered abhorrent, is disquieting and raises disturbing questions. Sometimes it comes down simply to a misguided desire to appear unconventional and rebellious by pushing accepted boundaries, but it would be naive to deny that a sneaking admiration for the Nazi cult is also part of the mix.

“That people aren’t embarrassed to identify publicly in this way, albeit as a ‘joke’, further points to their peer group being also to some extent desensitised, and at least at some level one has to attribute this to the failure of the educational system in which they were raised.”

Tali Nates, the director of the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre (JHGC), says, “The South African Holocaust & Genocide Foundation, the association of the three independent centres in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg, invites the school as a whole to visit one of the centres and engage deeply with the history of the Holocaust, genocides in the 20th century, and South Africa’s painful history of racism and ‘othering’. An annual school visit and workshop will deepen knowledge and understanding about the Holocaust and genocide, and allow students to make connections to the world today and especially to themselves in it.

“In the JHGC, the words of Auschwitz survivor and writer, Primo Levi, greets the visitors, ‘It happened, therefore it can happen again.’ This is the core of what we have to say. It’s critical to reflect on these words. The students, through their hurtful actions demonstrated a lack of understanding of history and its consequences for the lives of millions of women, men, and children. They were blind to the connections between the past and the present, and the hurt that hateful symbols and words can cause others.

“We believe that education is key, and that the students should engage with the history of the Holocaust as well as other genocides, and reflect on the lessons learned from history for all humanity.”

“Heil Hitler” salutes at South African schools and universities aren’t a new phenomenon. In 2019, pupils at Somerset West Private School were depicted doing Nazi salutes in a school website photograph. The school initially said it was a “Roman salute”, but then backtracked, apologised, and met Jewish organisations.

In 2017, Nazi slogans and gestures were directed against Jewish pupils from King David Victory Park by pupils from Edenvale High at an interschool one-act play competition. The school met the SAJBD and condemned the incident, committing to further Holocaust education.

In 2012, a student at St John’s College in Johannesburg mimicked Adolf Hitler on “Moustache Day”. He went on stage sporting a moustache and hairstyle similar to Hitler, and performed the Nazi salute. Most of the students laughed, and more than half stood up and returned the salute, according to reports. The boy later apologised, and the school also “apologised unreservedly for the offense caused by this incident”.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. yitzchak

    Jun 4, 2022 at 6:40 am

    no surprises here considering the deep roots of nazism amongst afrikaners.
    When I served in the SADF I had many instances of the sieg heils thrown in my face
    Maybe these brave warriors should volunteer to fight the russians in Ukraine

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