The dangerous myth of 'white genocide' in South Africa
Narratives about a fictitious campaign to exterminate Afrikaners have the power to produce real violence.
On Wednesday, President Trump tweeted that he was instructing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to look into “the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers.”
This is a huge victory for South Africa’s far-right, which has been lobbying foreign governments intensively over the past year. So far, they have managed to find a few sympathetic legislators in Western countries, but Trump is the first head of state to make such overtures.
The president’s statement is troubling because it signifies the mainstreaming of white nationalist narratives about “white genocide,” of which South Africa’s farm murders are an essential component.
Collaborations between the racist “alt-right” and their South African counterparts have ramped up. In the last year, YouTuber Stefan Molyneux has done a series of videos warning of collapse and imminent civil war in which he interviewed some of the most prominent names on South Africa’s far-right, including Simon Roche of the rightwing prepper group Suidlanders. In June, Lauren Southern released a slick documentary called Farmlands starring Roche.
In May, apartheid apologist Ernst Roets, deputy CEO of the white nationalist Afrikaner group AfriForum, met with staffers from Ted Cruz’s office as well as representatives of USAID, and had a photo op with National Security Advisor John Bolton. Roets also appeared on Tucker Carlson, whom Trump referenced in the tweet.
This full-court press has been successful at garnering public support abroad for granting refugee status to white South Africans. Change.org petitions in the United Kingdom and the United States have garnered about 17,500 and 23,000 signatures, respectively.
As it inches closer to the mainstream, the narrative about “white genocide” in South Africa grows more sophisticated. Through their partnership with mature Afrikaner organizations, America’s white nationalist groups gain a host of misleading factoids and talking points that can be dangerously persuasive in the “fake news” era.
‘A white farmer is killed every five days’
The lead from a Newsweek article that appeared in March reads:
Activists say South African authorities are tacitly approving attacks on the country’s white farmers, with one being murdered every five days, and the police turning a blind eye to the violence.
To his credit, the writer points out in the next paragraph that the “activists” are from AfriForum and correctly labels them “white nationalist,” but both the headline and the opening paragraph afford undue weight and credibility to their claims.
The same claim was already found to be erroneous by the fact-checking organization Africa Check when it was made by Steve Hofmeyr in 2013, and the numbers have fallen since. The South African singer, who is notorious for provocative racist stunts, has been aggressively lobbying to gain refugee status for Afrikaners and also appeared in one of Molyneux’s videos.
Africa Check noted that the claim assumes all the victims of farm murders are white, when in reality, annual totals invariably include a significant number of non-white victims — usually black farmhands. The best data available is 15 years old and not reflective of the current situation, but it found that in that year, close to 40 percent of victims were non-white.
But even if all the victims were white, that still comes out to 72 murders annually in a country that averages nearly 50 murders per day. Outside of farms, the overwhelming majority of South Africa’s murder victims are non-white. On a pie chart of total murders, the slice representing the killings of white farmers would look like the second hand of a clock.
Contrary to sensational reports of escalating violence against white farmers, the long-term trend shows decline. Farm murders peaked at 153 in 1998, one year after the government declared them to be a “priority crime” and convened a series of task forces to address the issue.
Violence against farmers hit a 20-year low this year. According to the non-profit AgriSA, 47 farmers were murdered in a one-year period from 2017 to 2018, which equals about one every eight days. By this time tomorrow, it’s probable that at least that many black people will have died violently in South Africa.
White South Africans, who make up 9 percent of the population, are in fact underrepresented among its murder victims. A 2009 police analysis of murder dockets found that 1.8 percent of cases had a white victim.
Though these stats are nearly 10 years old, they are supported by a 2016 Lancet study on non-natural deaths using comprehensive mortality data from the statistical agency StatsSA.
The study’s appendix shows that in the most recent year examined, white deaths due to interpersonal violence numbered about 500, which equals 2.7 percent of the total. This is a 28.5 percent drop from 2000, when white deaths by interpersonal violence approached 700.
Stage 5: Preparation
A common claim in white nationalist propaganda is that the genocidal nature of the crimes is self-evident from their sheer brutality. Assuming that the most horrific accounts are all authentic, the sad truth is that incredible acts of violence are not so rare in a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world.
An official committee of inquiry formed to investigate farm murders found that robbery was the motive for the vast majority of the 2,700 attacks studied, whereas racial motives accounted for two percent. According to Afriforum’s own analysis, 13 of the 74 victims in 2017 suffered torture.
But even a much larger number of individual racially motivated murders still would fall short of any existing definition of genocide, which is an organized, systematic attempt at extermination by either the government or non-state actors.
All efforts to prove that the ANC government is complicit in mass killings fall flat. Nevertheless, white nationalists have used South Africa’s ranking on Genocide Watch’s eight-stage system to argue that genocide is imminent or even underway — something the organization’s director Gregory Stanton has explicitly denied.
In 2016, Africa Check criticized Genocide Watch for making determinations based on opaque, subjective criteria. The decision to raise South Africa from Stage 4 “Polarization” to the much more ominous Stage 5 “Preparation” was almost entirely based on the revival of “Dubula Ibhunu,” an apartheid-era struggle song that means “Kill the Boer,” led by Julius Malema, who was the head of the ANC Youth League at the time.
It should be noted that, according to the organization’s own stated criteria, “preparation” means “identification of victims” and the examples it gives are the yellow stars of the Nazi regime and racial IDs — like the ones that were in use for the entire apartheid era.
Without presenting quantitative evidence, Genocide Watch posited a connection between the ANCYL singing the song and a rise in violence against white farmers. This claim is identical to the one made in the book Kill the Farmer recently released by Roets.
In 2011, Malema was brought up on hate speech charges and ordered by a white judge named Colin Lamont to stop singing the song or face penalties. Stanton, who had previously been critical of the ANC for not doing enough to rein in Malema’s inflammatory behavior, reverted South Africa to Stage 4 in 2012 after his expulsion from the party.
Taken as a whole, this episode does not present a picture of a country barreling inexorably toward genocide. Instead we see one that, despite deep historical divisions, nevertheless operates under the rule of law.
The lowest stages of Genocide Watch’s system are classification, symbolization and polarization. While plenty examples of these can be found on South African social media, the same can be said for many countries, including the United States, which the group also places at “polarization.”
White nationalists scour Facebook and Twitter to find instances of violent, inflammatory rhetoric, which they cite as evidence of a widespread genocidal campaign.
What these selections dredged from the bowels of various comment sections fail to show is that black South Africans have at times demonstrated an almost superhuman capacity to forgive — not just whites as a group but specific white people who have done horrible things to them or their kin.
In 2014, Candace Mama forgave her father’s assassin and even advocated for his parole, which was granted shortly thereafter. For his role as leader of the infamous apartheid death squad known as Vlakplaas, Eugene de Kock had been sentenced to two consecutive life sentences plus 214 years on 89 charges, including six counts of murder as well as abduction, assault and conspiracy.
When the nation was reconstituted as a true democracy, forgiveness was institutionalized in the form of the historic Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose mission was to bring South Africa out of the shadow of apartheid by unflinchingly confronting and atoning for its past.
As its name implies, the commission placed truth above vengeance. For giving a full, honest account of their crimes, some of apartheid’s worst killers were spared punishment for the stomach-churning horrors they committed in defense of the racist regime.
Nicknamed “the electrician” for his method of electrocuting anti-apartheid activists to death, police officer Paul van Vuuren was allowed to quietly retire to a farm where he could live in peace, drinking white wine and scarfing down big piles of steak. For his cooperation, he was granted amnesty in all but three of his 18 applications, which included torture, assault, kidnapping, arson and bombings.
In his book about apartheid death squads, veteran investigative journalist Jacques Pauw writes that van Vuuren has lost track of how many people he tortured or murdered over the years. His only regret was losing the war and being exposed, according to Pauw. He got a thrill he described as sexual from the killings: “It was exciting days, those years. At times I could not wait to do it. They say to kill is like sleeping with a woman. It’s true.”
The Rainbow Nation began its new life by extending clemency to the some of its worst enemies, including remorseless mass murderers. Is it possible that the pendulum could swing so far in two decades that such a country might be transformed into a genocidal machine intent on collecting apartheid’s debt in blood?
‘We must act as Hitler did to the Jews’
Aside from Malema’s recent sinister remarks, the far-right has struggled to find many damning examples of any high-level government officials openly inciting the genocide of Afrikaners.
The closest they have been able to muster is a disgusting Facebook rant by Velaphi Khumalo, an ANC member working at a government office in Gauteng, who wrote “white people in south Africa deserve to be hacked and killed like Jews. U have the same venom moss. look at Palestine. noo u must be bushed alive and skinned and your off springs used as garden fertiliser [sic]”
White nationalists have capitalized on Khumalo’s words, integrating them into several memes.
The things he said are publicized, but not their consequences. Khumalo is currently awaiting a ruling from an Equality Court on charges of crimen injuria, which is a cross between hate speech and libel.
Cases are usually resolved under the framework of civil law through restitution to the harmed party, but the Equality Court is empowered to refer special cases to a criminal prosecutor. In 2017, real estate agent Vicky Momberg was sentenced to a term of three years, with one suspended, for a hurling a flurry insults at a black police officer that included the racial slur “kaffir.”
Khumalo’s genocidal Facebook rant was actually in response to an earlier high-profile hate speech case where a woman named Penny Sparrow had complained online that Natal beaches were overrun with black “monkeys.” She was ordered to pay 150,000 rand to charity, and in a separate criminal case, convicted of crimen injuria. She was given the option of a 5,000-rand fine or a year in jail.
According to Genocide Watch, a defining feature of a genocidal society is a “culture of impunity.”
But when looked at side by side, the cases of Khumalo and Sparrow show a country acting to impede the progression toward genocide by mitigating polarization as well as punishing classification, dehumanization and symbolization, just like Stanton recommends: “To combat symbolization, hate symbols can be legally forbidden (swastikas in Germany) as can hate speech.”
Slogans that feature so prominently in “white genocide” propaganda — “one settler, one bullet” and “land or death” — are at the center of a hate case scheduled to be decided in September. The radical group Black First Land First (BLF) was brought before the court in mid-July for using these phrases and other violent rhetoric.
Represented by the multiracial South African Human Rights Commission, the plaintiff Lucy Strydom is petitioning to have BLF’s standing as a legitimate political party revoked. BLF has mirrored the right’s allegations of “white genocide” with its own hyperbole, arguing its violent slogans defensible response to a “black holocaust.”
A lie told often enough becomes the truth, and the same holds for myths.
There’s a complete set of lies told about South Africa that together make up an entire parallel reality, and when incanted regularly in sequence, like a magic spell, the component lies of this myth have the power to manifest it.
Imagined inaction in the face of an imaginary genocide becomes the casus belli for a real race war. False images of carnage fan the flames of polarization until they are actualized as living violence. Paramilitary groups arm themselves to avenge atrocities that never occurred.
The contagion crosses oceans where it infects the minds of deranged young men. With visions of the lost glory of Rhodesia in his head, one shoots up a church to stop black people from “raping our women and taking over the country.” Elsewhere, a group of self-proclaimed “Crusaders” looks at Somali refugees and sees the vanguard of a globalist invasion. Convinced their survival is at stake, they plot to exterminate the “cockroaches.”
If these myths are allowed to spread and take hold, our reality could come to resemble the type of bloody fever dream that plays inside the mind of a person who thinks of the Turner Diaries as a bedtime story.
These lies have been told often. How long before it’s often enough?
Photo illustration by SPLC