The hallucinatory bunker of the white right

The anti-Black Lives Matter backlash in South Africa highlights the growing ideological convergence between the far right and conservatives.

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

The tragic murder of Brendin Horner, a white farm manager who was killed by stock thieves in South Africa’s Free State province, has become a rallying cry for South Africa’s far-right. After two suspects were arrested for the murder, violence broke out at the magistrate court in the town of Senekal, as protesters attempted to seize the accused from their cells, set a police van on fire, and intimidated journalists.

Afrikaner nationalist organization Afriforum addressed the crowd, while other protesters held up signs with the phrase “Boer Lives Matter.” The protesters in Senekal were also joined by the Democratic Alliance (DA), South Africa’s official opposition party, which presents itself as a “non-racial” organization. While the party’s official statement on the event claims that farmers are subjected to a “low-intensity war”, it downplayed the racist overtones and made sure to claim that a “diverse group” of members attended the courthouse.

This news story highlights an intensified convergence between Afrikaner nationalists and English-speaking (in short Anglo) mainstream conservatism in contemporary South Africa. This was made evident earlier this year in the cultural response against the George Floyd protests and the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States.

After expressing his public support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and calling for cricket South Africa to collectively do the same, fast bowler Lungi Ngidi experienced an online backlash from white reactionaries like former cricketers Pat Symcox and Boeta Dippenaar. Dippenaar claimed that BLM is a “dangerous leftist movement”, that Ngidi should read “Milton Friedman” (a conservative American economist admired by white liberals) and “All lives matter” (the slogan popularized by supporters of Donald Trump and the police in the US.) Dippenaar added: “If you want me to stand shoulder to shoulder with you Lungi, then stand shoulder to shoulder with me regarding farm attacks.”

Such arrogant, kneejerk dismissal of the lived experience of others is common in the conservative responses to anti-racist movements. But what is especially revealing is how Dippenaar connects free market libertarian Milton Friedman (who visited South Africa on the way from Pinochet’s Chile months before the Soweto uprising in 1976) with “farm murders.”

The conspiratorial belief that white commercial farmers are being targeted for extermination is often associated with right-wing Afrikaner nationalist groups like Afriforum. However, such coded white nationalism and political paranoia is an increasingly evident theme in political spaces which purport to espouse “non-racism” and “liberalism.”

For example, a series of “stop farm murder” rallies in July attracted the expected collection of apartheid nostalgists. But one of the speakers outside parliament in Cape Town included Sihle “ Big Daddy Liberty” Ngobese, a black online media personality who styles himself on black American political operatives like Candace Owens, reinforcing white conservatives’ beliefs that structural racism does not exist because a black person says so and that they are under siege from creeping socialism.

Ngobese also works for the South African Institute for Race Relations, a Johannesburg based think-tank which essentially functions as a domestic version of US Republican Party aligned organizations like the Heritage Foundation.  On its website, the IRR claims to represent “the silent majority”  and produces extensive op-eds and reports denouncing things like land reform, anti-fascist activism, the climate justice movement, and Black Lives Matter. It has a close relationship with the DA, including recently having former DA leader Helen Zille as a research fellow. An ardent convert to Canadian rightwing academic Jordan Peterson style paranoia about “cultural Marxism”, Zille is notorious for making inflammatory statements online.

Zille is actively supported by a growing online echo chamber of podcasts, YouTube channels and social media accounts orientated around “free speech” or “classic liberalism”.  In practice, however, these spaces are a mix of Breitbart and Infowars style alt-right propaganda, half-baked McCarthyism and white identity politics. In a process that has been observed internationally, paranoid shared tropes around farms murder and “cancel culture” increasingly serve as gateway to expose right libertarians and conservatives to hardcore white nationalists and neo-fascists.

Since experiencing a 2019 decline in votes, and the highly embarrassing resignation of former party leader Mmusi Maimane amidst the exposure of institutional racism within the DA itself, the party has made a conscious pivot towards more reactionary politics.

Current leader John Steenhuizen claimed that “farm murders are a national emergency”, and called for violence against white farmers to be declared a political hate crime. A blatant attempt to capitalize on a “white lives matter” backlash in the wake of the uprising in the US, his call was greeted online with enthusiasm by far-right activists.

Simultaneously, John Steenhuizen has made guest appearances on the podcast Jerm Warfare,  which in the past has platformed the likes of Katie Hopkins and Proud Boys gang founder Gavin McInnes. It has also included local right-wingers such as Ernst Roets of Afriforum, Steve Hofmeyr, Dan Roodt and Sudilanders survivalist group leader Simon Roche, who was also part of the “Unite The Rally” in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. Ideologically encouraged by the background chatter of organizations like the IRR, Steenhuizen seems to believe that his party’s future fortunes lie with Tucker Carlson style, dog-whistle white nationalism.

Colonialism and apartheid created a scared, authoritarian white settler culture that was both deeply racist and violently hostile towards democratic and egalitarian ideas. Christian National Education and military conscription instilled a fear of any politics towards the left of Ronald Regan, and saw personal non-conformity as a gateway to communism. The psychic laager of Apartheid taught whites to believe that they were threatened by both the “swart gevaar” (black peril) and rooi (red) gevaar.

These fears are sublimated within the paranoia around farm murders. Right-wing whites believe that they are simultaneously under attack from black people, and that this is motivated by a Marxist plot to steal and collectivize their lands. There is an entrenched belief that only white farmers can be truly productive, and hence violence against them is an orchestrated plot to destroy “white, Christian civilization”. Of course, this concern with rural violence is not extended to the improvised and exploited black people who work on farms and face the greatest risk of criminal violence in rural South Africa.

Unlike the imaginary “white genocide”, South African’s problems of massive racialized inequality and political maladministration, particularly under the disastrous presidency of Jacob Zuma, are very real. (The majority of victims of crime are poor, black South Africans.) As a result, many white conservatives are fearful of losing their status, wealth, and property. These socio-economic anxieties have been exploited by groups like Afriforum and an online space which have given a new, Trumpian supercharge to crude racism and white supremacist ideas.

By appealing to both the racial and property anxieties of white voters, the DA is attempting to infuse its mainstream conservatism with concepts derived from the far-right. This is not unpreceded, as the party infamously used a “Fight Back” campaign to appeal to former National Party supporters in the late 1990s. However, Steenhuizen and his party may find that scapegoating “reverse racism” and “communism” obscures the DA’s actual weaknesses.

Rather than failing to appeal to the racial paranoia of whites, the DA’s political problems are caused by a combination of factors. Persistent in-fighting within the party ranks, ineffective governance in cities like Cape Town and its authoritarian and cruel treatment of the black poor are some of the key reasons why the party has failed to garner support across a wider social base.

In a year where the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the crisis of capitalism and contemporary political systems, the white right in South Africa has chosen to retreat to a hallucinatory imaginative bunker forged from 19th century colonial racism and 20th century red-baiting.

That such ideas are mobilized around the issue of racism in cricket and rugby, shows how popular culture is being used to amplify both white identity politics and reactionary fear-mongering. This is the latest mutation of white supremacist ideology in South Africa, with old racial paranoias given new expression by the right-wing culture wars.

Further Reading