Power

The creeping spectre of “white genocide”

The conspiracy theory that was once contained to South Africa is spreading worldwide.
Power

The creeping spectre of “white genocide”

The conspiracy theory that was once contained to South Africa is spreading worldwide.

As a white person in South Africa, the first time I remember being told that I and every other white person I knew was shortly to be eliminated was when I was about eight, and a girl in my class leaned confidingly over my desk and told me that her family was “buying a lot of cans.” No, not for going camping. For when Nelson Mandela got elected, the race war began, and this girl in my class would go live in some kind of bunker with all the other demented whites who believed this garbage. They had enough cans of beans to last them a long, long time, she said.

She did not deliver this information with any special flair or drama. It was obviously something that was frequently discussed at dinner. She and her family emigrated to New Zealand soon after that announcement, and so I don’t know whether they were disappointed when the race war failed to materialize. I suspect they might have been. The far right has been doggedly searching for signs of imminent “white genocide” — the idea that the occasional murder of white farmers is merely step one of a coordinated plan to kill all the white people in the country — for a very, very long time. And recently, the concept has been steadily gaining traction in a frightening way, and not just in South Africa.

In March, the Daily Mail  published an article about remarks made by Peter Dutton, the Australian Home Affairs minister. Dutton had asked that his department give “special attention” to white South African farmers, insisting that as a persecuted group they were eligible for humanitarian visas and should be granted refugee status within Australia. He had made the request, he said, because “if you look at the footage and read the stories, you hear the accounts, it’s a horrific circumstance they face.” The article did not dwell for too long on Dutton’s statements, nor on the widespread disgust, condemnation, and demands for retraction they provoked.

Its focus, instead, was on claims made by the Afrikaans lobby group Afriforum, among them that white farmers have the most dangerous job in South Africa, twice as likely to be murdered than police, and that such attacks were fueled by racial hatred. Throughout, Afriforum was referred to as a “civil rights group” with no mention of the fact that it is regularly described as a white-nationalist organization in local and international press, or that it once referred to apartheid as “a so-called historical injustice” (nothing out of the ordinary for the right-leaning tabloid).

The far right has been doggedly searching for signs of imminent “white genocide” for a very, very long time.

Founded in 2016, and with more than 186,000 members, Afriforum focuses on the preservation of Afrikaner rights. Two of its leaders are currently on tour in the U.S. — first stop Texas — campaigning to raise awareness about what they describe as “racist theft” (otherwise known as land expropriation), and farm murders. Pieter Du Toit, the editor-in-chief for HuffPost South Africa, noted earlier this month that while the group has not made public the list of people or media outlets they are meeting with, the issues they are raising have recently been taken up by Ann Coulter and Alex Jones.

The Mail acknowledged that the Afriforum statistics on the murder rate of white farmers could not be verified, but said that this was because the South African government had “refused” to release such statistics since 2007. Alongside the allegation that the state was currently in the process of seizing all land belonging to white people, this was one of the more outright fabrications the piece contains: while statistics were not released between 2007 and 2010, they have been made public every year since that point. Police figures for the 2016 to 2017 financial year show that there were 19,106 murders in South Africa, with 74 of those murders taking place on farms and plots of land used for small-scale agriculture. It takes only slightly more work to cast doubt on the other claims.

According to a report released by AfricaCheck, an independent fact-checking organization, it is nearly impossible to calculate the rate at which white farmers are being murdered in South Africa, much less divine a motive. South African police reports are not required to specify whether a victim owned the farm, worked on it, or was simply a visitor; neither do they make provision for a victim’s race. In response to Dutton’s remarks, Gareth Newham, the head of Justice and Violence Prevention at the Institute of Security Studies, pointed out that “the statistics show that you are far more likely to be murdered as a young black South African living in a high-risk area. White South African males are less likely to fall victim to murder than black South African males.”

South African police reports are not required to specify whether a victim owned the farm, worked on it, or was simply a visitor; neither do they make provision for a victim’s race.

There is no question that violent crime is a serious, horrifying problem in South Africa, but there is no evidentiary support for the claim that white farmers in particular have “the most dangerous job in the world,” or that they are being steadily and deliberately picked off based on their race. South Africa is the most unequal country in the world. White people own 73 percent of the country’s farming land, and make up nine percent of the total population. In a society where economic apartheid persists for millions of black South Africans, most experts agree that the overwhelming majority of crime against white farmers is economically rather than racially motivated.

Yet there is a long history of believing otherwise. The right here has always organized itself around a sense of grave imperilment and a belief that white people are teetering on the edge of a precipice. During apartheid, and going back to at least the 1860s, the most sacred religious holiday in South Africa was December 16, the Day of the Vow. The Day of the Vow celebrated the narrow victory of the Voortrekkers — the Boer pastoralists who migrated east from the Cape in an attempt to form a state away from British rule; the word literally translates from Dutch to “those in front who pull” — over the Zulu army in 1838 at the Battle of Blood River.

The Voortrekkers promised that if God let them win the fight against the 15,000-strong Zulu army, they would honor the day as holy. The foundational myth of the Afrikaans people, in other words, is a story about the time God stepped in on their behalf just as they were about to be wiped out by a vast army of some of the original inhabitants of the land. Throughout apartheid, the state invoked the threat of “die swart gevaar” (the black danger) as a means of justifying the increasingly brutal suppressive measures they took to ensure that the majority of the population remained poor and disenfranchised.

Another long-standing and persistent belief is that white South Africans should be able to apply for asylum status. In 2009, a white South African named Brandon Huntley applied for asylum in Canada on the grounds that white people here were being “targeted, attacked and killed because of their skin color.” The Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board that heard Huntley’s appeal accepted his unsubstantiated claims that, among other things, he received delayed treatment at a hospital where the staff was black, that he had been unable to get a job because of affirmative action, and that he had been attacked seven times by black men who called him a “white dog” and a “settler.”

The right here has always organized itself around a sense of grave imperilment and a belief that white people are teetering on the edge of a precipice.

The board granted him refugee status. The decision was almost immediately appealed, and a year later, a judge overturned it on the grounds that it was clear Huntley had come to Canada to work as a carnie as opposed to fleeing persecution. Also in 2009, a white South African named Dianne Jefferson made a similar appeal to the Dublin High Court; hers was accepted.

In 2017, a Canadian court rejected an appeal made by a white South African family on the grounds that their claim of being at risk of racial persecution was based on “patently unreliable racist propaganda.” With the exception of the Huntley case, which was relatively widely covered, the periodic trotting out of the white genocide conspiracy theory has been largely ignored by the mainstream media and the political establishment. Until now.

Dutton is not alone in his vocal support of white South African farmers. His proposal to offer them refugee status has been publicly supported by other members of the Liberal party in Australia, and the issue has made the front page of the country’s biggest national newspaper on more than one occasion. Dutton, so far, has not fully elaborated upon why he and his colleagues are taking such a passionate interest in white South African farmers.

Others are not so constrained, and will happily spell out what the Australian government is communicating only via exceptionally shrill dogwhistle — that white farmers matter because, in the words of a group called the Suidlanders, “the same globalist forces that worked to destroy South Africa are at work destroying what is left of the civilized West by forced integration.”

The Suidlanders are a white-supremacist organization that toured America last year in order to bring the South African version of the myth of white victimhood to the alt-right. The tour was intended to raise money for what the group describes as their “emergency plan initiative” (a section of their website is dedicated to a detailed breakdown of how they will respond to “the coming revolution”). As Lloyd Gedye pointed out in the Mail and Guardian, they did not quite succeed in hitting those targets, but they seem to have done an exceptionally good job of turning South Africa into the alt-right’s “flavor of the month.”

The periodic trotting out of the white genocide conspiracy theory has been largely ignored by the mainstream media and the political establishment. Until now.

Gedye provides a breakdown of those who giddily bought into what the Suidlanders were selling, including Alex Jones, Jared Taylor, Henrik Palmgren, and Michael Hill. Again and again, the message was repeated: first, that the murder of white farmers heralded the start of a co-ordinated ethnic cleansing, and second, that white South Africans were “the canaries in the coal mine,” the supposed fate of whom should act as a wake-up call to white people all over the world.

Last month, the Australian Home Affairs department rejected two separate asylum applications from white South Africans, stating that “the vast majority of crimes against whites are not racially motivated, but rather are crimes for financial gain.” One of the decisions was published in full, after the applicant appealed a 2015 decision to reject his asylum bid.

Citing the U.S. State Department’s Reports on Human Rights Practices from 2016, the decision said that “while there have been a high number of white farmers who have been the victim of brutal attacks and killings, violence against farmers based on race is not identified as a significant issue in various reputable human rights reports.” The Australian bureaucratic system has retained a grip on the facts, for now, although Dutton stood by his comments in a subsequent radio interview, insisting that any criticism came only from “crazy lefties” in the media who were now “completely dead to [him].”

With the mainstreaming of far-right nationalism, the myth of white genocide in South Africa seems to be increasingly invoked as a racist bedtime story for white nationalists to tell their children — a useful means of justifying barbaric immigration policies. Considering that Donald Trump won an election by embracing the fiction of white victimhood, it is almost strange that whoever reads the newspaper for him has not yet brought the myth to his attention.

Rosa Lyster is a writer in Cape Town.