Swastika-wearing ‘soldier’ in Wimpy says sorry
The Bloemfontein resident in his late 70s – who has asked not to be named for fear of reprisal – walked into the Wimpy in the Fleurdal Mall in Bloemfontein last Saturday, and ordered breakfast, thinking nothing of it. No one said a word to him.
Unbeknown to him, horrified patron Kanya Mofokeng made a video of him, and posted it on Twitter. It immediately went viral, with a broad spectrum of South Africans expressing shock and disgust.
“Unavoidably, this comes across as a public display of identification with Nazism, an ideology inextricably associated with genocidal anti-Semitism as well as with extreme white racism,” said David Saks, the associate director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD).
Hearing about the furore, Famous Brands, which owns the Wimpy brand, said it took matters of this nature seriously, and would review the incident.
It turns out that the man was going to attend a historical re-enactment at a farm nearby, which was commemorating the 75th anniversary of a famous battle known as Operation Bagration.
The event was organised by the Bloemfontein branch of the Southern Africa Arms and Ammunition Collector’s Association (SAAACA). It is an annual event held locally, commemorating different battles throughout history, and takes place at Leeuwberg Farm, about 15km south of Bloemfontein.
This year, a Nazi flag and a Soviet Union wartime flag were hoisted as a sign that the battle lines had been drawn. Aghast, Mofokeng also posted video footage of the flags, which drew more ire on social media.
Following widespread criticism for his insensitive behaviour, the man told the organiser of the event and Wimpy management that he “did not mean any harm, and was not thinking”.
The chairperson of SAAACA Bloemfontein, MC Heunis, told the SA Jewish Report the man “did not mean to offend or hurt anyone, and expressed deep regret”.
“He shouldn’t have done what he did. He phoned and apologised. He just didn’t think,” Heunis said.
Heunis said members of the organisation had been briefed not to wear uniforms in public or post pictures on social media.
SAAACA aims to promote the collection, study, restoration, preservation, and responsible, recreational use of collectible arms and ammunition, according to its website.
Branches throughout the country host battle re-enactments.
Historical records show that the Soviet army’s Operation Bagration offensive in June 1944 all but destroyed Nazi Germany’s army, and drove hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops and tanks from Minsk into the Third Reich. Historians say it was arguably the greatest disaster for Germany in World War II, three years after Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, resulting in more than 400 000 German casualties.
Wimpy’s marketing executive, Jacques Cronje, told the SA Jewish Report that the man “had no idea his actions would create such an outcry on social media. He didn’t even know what Twitter was.”
In a statement, Wimpy said, “The customer has since been in contact with the restaurant and confirmed he was part of the simulated re-enactment … the customer realises it was poor judgement to wear the re-enactment costume in a public area. He has subsequently apologised for the unintended offense this has caused.”
Said Cronje, “He wasn’t thinking. He is an old fellow, and it didn’t cross his mind. He didn’t mean any harm. He apologised profusely for causing any harm or upset”.
The open-day event for families is a widely publicised affair. It received a full-page spread in the Volksblad this week.
A flyer says, “See the Germans and Russians battle one another and enjoy a nostalgic day of living history, military displays, historic vehicles, militaria and food stalls, beer hall, and an authentic battle re-enactment.”
The SAJBD said it was acceptable to display Nazi symbols in certain contexts.
“No-one can seriously object to their inclusion in museum displays or to their reproduction in books or documentaries,” Saks said. “The same must surely apply to the activities [such as historical re-enactments and memorabilia collecting] of bona-fide military history enthusiasts.”
The problem arises, he said, when they are displayed outside of those contexts.
For Jews in particular, this kind of behaviour was threatening and deeply hurtful. “However, most South Africans would likewise be viscerally offended by it, as indeed the widespread backlash to the Wimpy incident showed. This might not have been the intention of the person responsible, but acting the way he did without recognising the offense he was likely to cause was highly insensitive, or at best thoroughly obtuse.”
Cronje said Wimpy staff didn’t say anything to the patron, assuming he was part of the annual event.
“They didn’t think twice when he walked in because they knew the event was taking place that day,” he said.
Anti-Semitism expert Professor Milton Shain said this was not the first time an incident like this had occurred. In most cases, those involved had apologised.
In this case, Shain said the man was “probably oblivious to the impact of his actions”, pointing out that it was important that he had apologised, and it was good that his behaviour had caused a stir on social media.
Richard Freedman, the director of the South African Holocaust and Genocide Foundation, said the man acted “stupidly”, but he cautioned against condemning him.
“Is it offensive? Yes. Is it deliberately offensive? No. The man was completely unaware that he was doing anything shocking. We must be careful not to condemn him. It was stupid and insensitive of him, but he was oblivious to the offence. He is a foolish old man who wore a uniform to a re-enactment, and popped into the Wimpy because he was feeling peckish.”
Freedman said the man was not trying to insult Jews and make a mockery of the Holocaust. “This was not a deliberate, inciteful act.”
Both he and Saks said it was the responsibility of the organisers of historical re-enactments to ensure that participants are aware of the sensitivities involved, and act appropriately.