The spark ignited when the school published a picture of students in their matric class using a Nazi salute on the home page of their website.
It is unclear how long the picture was up.
It caused outrage on social media and the school quickly replaced it soon after.
They released a statement that only served to create more anger.
In the statement, the school’s principal, CM Coetzer, said: “It has come to our attention that there have been objections to a matric photo where some learners give what appears to be a Roman salute. While we don’t believe that the learners intended to offend anyone, we have removed the photograph from the website.”
The school seemingly tried to sweep the mess under the carpet and deflect responsibility by calling the gesture a “Roman salute”.
There’s just one problem though – the Roman salute did not really exist. A few minutes of desktop research will tell you that the Roman salute was never referred to in ancient Roman texts and was in fact dreamt up in old movies.
While Roman paintings depicted a gesture similar to that of a Nazi salute, it was never referred to as a Roman salute. In some of these paintings, it is even disputed as to whether the gesture was a salute or just people reaching for something.
The fictitious gesture, however, found its way to Italy where it eventually became well known in Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed under his iron first. Mussolini was also one of Adolf Hitler’s greatest influencers.
Whichever way Somerset West Private School tries to spin, it leads back to square one and is not the first time an ignorant deflection is used to cover up the grotesque gesture.
The great denial
This is not the first users of the Nazi salute have tried to whitewash the situation. In 2014, students at North-West University in Potchefstroom caused outrage after they used the Nazi salute in a welcoming ceremony for first-years.
The picture of the incident was published in Beeld and a task team was established, led by Dr Leon Wessels, to investigate the incident. Then vice-chancellor of the university, Dr Theuns Eloff, in a report to then minister of higher education, Blade Nzimande, said the campus rector and the SRC president Janco Jordaan distanced themselves from the gesture.
“They pointed out that the gesture should in no way be construed as a Nazi salute, but that it was used purely as a way of greeting by a small group of residences with no ulterior motives whatsoever,” Eloff said.
He added that there were no racist “overtones” at the university and said the picture used in Beeld’s article was one of students doing an innocent song and dance.
In Wessels’ report, however, he confirmed that the incident was not the first of its kind and described a culture of racism and intimidation at the university.
He also confirmed that staff had brought up similar concerns in the past and management failed to act on it. At the time, then North West premier Thandi Modise said the image was disturbing, and demonstrated that segments of our young, white people were still vulnerable to ethnic and racial indoctrination, News24 reported.
Similarly, in 2013 footballer Giorgos Katidis got himself banned from Greek football for life when he gave a Nazi salute to the crowd after he scored a goal. The footballer, however, said he did not know what the gesture meant and was simply pointing to the crowd.
BBC reported that he tweeted: “I am not a fascist and would not have done it if I had known what it meant.”
While there are countless examples of the very thing Somerset West Private School tried, and failed, to do, the larger question remains: Can ignorance be an excuse for what is widely regarded as racism or is it a determined cover-up to perpetuate racism for generations to come?
On its second attempt, Somerset West Private School said referring to the gesture as a Roman salute was “misjudged” and apologised.
“We apologise unreservedly to the public at large, and all groups and individuals that were victims of the holocaust. We also acknowledge that referring to the gesture as a ‘Roman salute’ was misjudged and we apologise for the additional offence that has caused,” Coetzer said.