Flight of the Boers

South Africa's lead anti-land reform organization is cultivating its relationship with the international far right.

US National Security Advisor John Bolton with Kallie Kriel and Ernst Roets. Image via Twitter.

The South African organization AfriForum is having a moment. The nearly 200,000-member-strong Afrikaner rights group has received considerable media attention for its campaign against “expropriation without compensation” (a land reform proposal that would address the concentration of land ownership by white owners), a campaign which Afriforum has started to take overseas.

Earlier this month, Kallie Kriel and Ernst Roest, the CEO and deputy CEO of AfriForum, undertook a trip to the United States to spread their message that land reform in South Africa must be stopped, while simultaneously raising the issue of violent crime against white farmers, which they claim to be linked. The tour was announced as the “the first leg of [AfriForum]’s international campaign” against expropriation without compensation, which the group claims has a “clear racist motive” against white landowners.

For all the fanfare (and its amplification in mainstream Afrikaans media back home), none of AfriForum’s meetings in the US appear to have been particularly high-profile. These included a meeting with officials from USAID, and with the office of Senator Ted Cruz (but likely without the presence of Cruz himself). By a stroke of luck, at one point Kriel and Roets apparently ran into John Bolton, national security advisor to US President Trump—he didn’t know who they were, but he was willing to let them take their picture with him. They also met with conservative think tanks the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, organizations that during Apartheid had echoed Pretoria’s talking points and opposed campaigns for disinvestment and trade sanctions (and indeed, in an interview with the Huffington Post about their meeting, an analyst with Cato compared Apartheid to the current policies of the South African government). AfriForum’s biggest coup of the trip was to snag an interview with Tucker Carlson on Fox News, in a segment which was posted with the title: “White farmers are being brutally murdered in South Africa for their land. And no one is brave enough to talk about it.” Everywhere they went, Kriel and Roets left behind autographed copies of Roets’ forthcoming book Kill the Boer (to be published by AfriForum’s in-house imprint.)

If AfriForum’s tour can be considered a minor success, at least in terms of breaking into political elements associated with the Republican party, at home in South Africa they have been met with outrage and mockery. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa accused them of “mobilis[ing] the international community against their own country.” The Huffington Post’s editor Pieter du Toit (himself an Afrikaner) published sharply critical coverage of the tour, and Vice-Chancellor of Wits Adam Habib called AfriForum’s leaders “disgusting human beings,” which Kriel dismissed as “the hysterical reaction” from leftist anti-AfriForum activists “under the guise of being academics or journalists.”

Unforced errors by both Kriel and Roets further fueled the backlash in South Africa against them. When Elmien du Plessis, a law professor at North West University, criticized AfriForum on Twitter and on News24 (owned by Naspers, the media company that was the propaganda organ of Apartheid in a previous life), claiming that their “own statistics … do not support their claims of an ongoing genocide against white people, or even white farmers in South Africa,” Roets responded with a half-hour video monologue in which he quoted a line about hanging professors (but then said there was “no intention to harm”). Another blow-up came when Kriel told a black radio host that “I don’t think Apartheid was a crime against humanity.” He later tried to explain this away by saying that although “Apartheid was wrong,” it couldn’t be compared to the Holocaust or communism, as “there was not a mass killing of people.”

Kriel has also argued that the UN’s 1973 designation of “crime against humanity” was an initiative of the Soviet Union and should therefore be rejected, and that “it is unfair to not judge apartheid within the context of its time,” in light of the threat of the ANC’s communism. (AfriForum likes to claim that it is distinct from Apartheid, but its rationalizations are often borrowed wholesale from that regime: once its more vile racist justifications for Apartheid were no longer de rigueur, the National Party used red scare tactics to convince local whites and, crucially, Americans of the danger of Nelson Mandela and the ANC ever governing South Africa). Then there’s AfriForum’s defense of Apartheid symbols. AfriForum’s defense of the old apartheid-era flag against a proposed ban has forced them to try to explain—unconvincingly—that they “have no particular love for the flag or what it represents.”

These ongoing incidents pose a serious challenge to AfriForum’s ability to build its legitimacy on the international stage and at home. Its leaders are trying very hard to present themselves as “mainstream” (media in South African often describe them, erroneously as a “civil rights organization”). AfriForum also insists that they are not the far-right, racist, or Apartheid apologists as they are often made out to be, but rather that they are moderate voices fighting for the civil rights of a racial minority.

This distancing from the far-right is made difficult, however, by the fact that AfriForum is clearly trying to take advantage of a situation in which the far-right conservative media in Europe and North America is preoccupied with the plight of white South Africans, eagerly appropriating their stories to bolster their own white supremacist views. AfriForum may not want to admit it, but this is a situation that they helped to create, and it mutually benefits both parties. Just as the alt-right exploits an imaginary South Africa to pursue their own anti-immigration goals, AfriForum is happy to leverage global white nationalist sentiment to highlight their domestic campaign against land reform.

Expropriation without compensation

Land reform has been a constant feature in the far-right’s obsession with white South Africans, and the current debate on “expropriation without compensation” has further triggered their outrage.

On February 27, the South African parliament passed a motion to review and amend the Constitution in a way that will allow the state to expropriate land without compensating its current, mostly white, owners. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), whose leader Julius Malema has been pushing for “expropriation without compensation” since 2011 when he was president of the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL), called the move a “victory for black people, [a] victory for Africa.” Meanwhile, Ramaphosa has assured investors that land reform will mostly target unused land, and “will unfold within a clear legal framework and without negatively affecting economic growth, agricultural production and food security.” 

Many observers, however, have called into question the significance of the motion. Political economist Patrick Bond has expressed doubt that expropriation will ever take place, calling it “more rhetoric than reality.” Land expert Ruth Hall argues that the constitutional change is “neither necessary nor sufficient to advance a truly progressive land reform process,” as the South African government already has the tools necessary for land reform but has failed to effectively use them. Even the Former Finance Minister Trevor Manuel (who transformed from a left winger to a conventional neoliberal while in government) admits that “the biggest beneficiaries of land reform in South Africa [to date] have actually been white farmers,” which raises skepticism towards the effectiveness of any future efforts. 

For the international alt-right, however, the timing could not have been more perfect. Only weeks earlier, media personalities Katie Hopkins and Lauren Southern had visited South Africa to produce documentaries for North American audiences about the “ethnic cleansing” facing white farmers. The debate over “expropriation with compensation” allowed them to amplify their narrative that white South Africans face imminent genocide, with Hopkins claiming that “this is not just about land, this is vengeance,” and that it provides “political permission” to murder whites. Their propagandistic videos, only recently uploaded to YouTube, proliferated even further across social media, leading broader sections of the right to jump on the white genocide bandwagon, from Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, to Glenn BeckJordan Peterson, and Gavin McInnis. Thousands have signed petitions frantically urging the US, the EU, or Australia to prioritize immigration by white South Africans fleeing for their lives, a proposal which has been supported by senior members of the Australian government. 

In a significant way, the international reaction to land reform in South Africa has been shaped and conditioned by white supremacists and alt-right voices. The surging popularity of the term “white genocide” is clearly associated with rise of white nationalist activity online—it was coined to describe the supposed threat facing “whites” (both culturally and physically) if they become a “minority” in Europe or North America, due to shifting demographics and non-white immigration. The plight of white South Africans has been a welcome addition to this “white genocide” narrative, for it provides an example of the nightmarish future that European and North American white supremacists warn about: a minority white population, surrounded by masses of people of color, facing their very extinction as a people.

It also appears that South Africans themselves have played a decisive role in bridging Afrikaner anxieties with the worldview of the global alt-right: according to local weekly the Mail & Guardian, the international popularity of the “white genocide in South Africa” myth can largely be attributed to last year’s prolonged US tour by the Suidlanders—a fringe Afrikaner group—which may be what motivated so many alt-right stars to visit the country recently. The Suidlanders have been ramping up their civil war rhetoric in recent months, tweeting: “8 Farm attacks, 2 Farm murders in the last 24 hours. It’s speeding up. Arm yourself (Legally).”

White genocide lite

AfriForum’s response to the proposals of expropriation without compensation has been more measured than that of Suidlanders (a low bar), but still suggestive of an existential threat to white nationhood. Aside from their alarmist warnings that the initiative could lead to a “second Zimbabwe,” AfriForum’s strategy has been to question the legitimacy of land reform itself, and to connect it to incidents of violent crime against white farmers. 

In a recent memorandum, AfriForum has set out to correct what they say is a “distorted” version of history underlying the entire concept of land reform: that is, the “assumption that white land owners inevitably obtained land through oppression.” Instead, AfriForum argues, in most cases land was “legally bought” by whites, found uninhabited, or—in a minority of cases—taken through conquest (which “had at that stage been a common practice among black tribes”). Similarly, they have pushed back against the idea that black South Africans were ever dispossessed from their land, seemingly suggesting that under Apartheid “whites in black areas” experienced as much dispossession as anyone else. Following this logic, there is no legitimate black African claim to the vast majority of white-owned land, and no justification for land reform—land expropriation can only be “racist theft.” By focusing on individual transactions of land while ignoring the large-scale production of disparities through segregation, forced transfer and separate development, AfriForum is effectively justifying Apartheid-era land holdings as legal and legitimate. 

AfriForum’s leadership is also trying to conflate the proposed expropriation of land with so-called “farm murders,” which they say have increased in the last few years. Roets has indicated that his forthcoming book will make the case that the South African government is actually complicit in the farm attacks, for the very purpose of advancing its land reform program. (It is worth noting that researchers have repeatedly disputed AfriForum’s claims regarding farm murder; for example, Africa Check has argued that calculating a “farm murder” rate is “near impossible,” and even accused them of “dishonesty” in their use of statistics). 

This argument, that the government is tolerating or even facilitating gruesome murders of white people to force them off their land, is the same one that is made by the alt-right, who typically use the language of ethnic cleansing or “white genocide.” AfriForum has tried to avoid these terms in their bid to be seen as a more moderate party; in an interview on News24, Kriel denied that they ever use the language of “simple genocide” to describe farm murders, even if there are others who do.

This position, however, is disingenuous. Just last year, AfriForum tweeted that they have “received several hundreds of complaints in which genocide of white people” [sic].

Even if such explicit utterances are rare, AfriForum’s leaders never correct anyone who does use that language, as Kriel’s interviewer pointed out to him. If anything, their approach to the discourse of “genocide” is characterized by ambivalence and tolerance. Roets shared his thoughts on the matter on Twitter, in “one of the more important passages” from his forthcoming book, where he equivocatingly states that “this is not to say that farm murders are a form of ethnic cleansing per se,” and then urges that “a reasonable person not convinced that this amounts to ethnic cleansing should at least display a degree of patience, empathy or compassion with those who believe that ethnic cleansing is under way.”

Friends on the far-right

Why are AfriForum’s leaders unwilling to denounce the far-right? Simply put, because they are a part of it. For all of their attempts to present themselves as moderates, AfriForum’s commitment to white nationalism means that they are justifiably viewed with suspicion outside of Afrikaner circles. The Mail & Guardian summed up this mistrust well, saying of AfriForum:

Theirs is not so much a movement for civil rights as it is a movement for the historical hegemony of the rights of white people to be restored… In this, it is replicating a pernicious ideology that draws strength from a nostalgia for more separateness, a nostalgia for unimpeded white hegemony.

This impression is only reinforced by the company they keep. Judging by their many interactions on Twitter, Roets and Kriel appear to be quite close to controversial Afrikaner musician Steve Hofmeyr, a man who has repeatedly made news over his comments defending the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 (where white police killed 49 black people protesting the compulsory carrying of passbooks), saying that “blacks were the architects of apartheid,” and other racist statements. In October of last year, Hofmeyer uploaded a video about farm murders titled “SOS to the World from South Africa,” in which he warned white people in Europe and North America that “when you wake up as a minority in your own country, sooner than you think, you will remember this.” Hofmeyr appears to have contributed content to Roets’ new book.

Afriforum  also easily fits within the international far-right landscape. Roets’ Twitter account, with countless comments about preserving “Western culture,” and dismissing criticisms of “white privilege” and “white supremacy,” could easily get him confused for a correspondent for Breitbart or Rebel Media. On his US tour, Roets gave a lengthy interview with The New American (a magazine of the far-right fringe organization and conspiracy theorists the John Birch Society), in which he stated that “South Africa is definitely moving towards Communism.” Earlier in April, Roets participated in a ninety-minute interview with Canadian alt-right podcaster Stefan Molyneux, who propounds racist theories about supposed IQ differences in South Africa. At several points in the interview Molyneux brought up IQ as a way to explain inequality in South Africa, but to his credit Roets dismissed this analysis and pivoted towards ideology (“it’s a software problem, not a hardware problem”).

Disturbingly, Roets also has connections with alt-right media personalities Hopkins and Southern, whose extremist “reporting” on South Africa has been analyzed in detail by Africa is a Country. Roets appears briefly in one of Hopkins’ videos, indicating that he has an interview in her upcoming “white genocide” documentary; and he has reached out to Southern, who later promoted his book on Twitter. Recently, Roets even favorably shared a tweet of hers, saying that “Canadians know more about South African history than many South Africans, it seems…” 

Roets’ endorsement of Southern comes only two months after she was denied entry to the UK for distributing hate literature, which should not come as a surprise considering her openly hateful and extremist views. In a YouTube Q&A about her upcoming “Farmlands” documentary, Southern warned of Africans with “tribalistic mindsets” coming to Europe and posing a threat to white people, implying that democracy cannot easily co-exist alongside non-white immigration. She also opened up about her visit to Orania, a notorious whites-only town in South Africa: she described it as a Boer-Afrikaner-state with its own currency, and then excitedly brandished for the camera what she called an “actual ethno-state dollar.” “Objectively speaking,” she said, “it’s a really nice area.” 

Compared to figures like these, AfriForum’s brand of Afrikaner nationalism may appear relatively more moderate. There is no doubt, however, that the organization is directly benefiting from a far-right media environment that has been built over years by an international community of white supremacists and alt-right provocateurs, mostly in North America and Europe, including Russia. In their bid to raise support for their campaign against land reform, AfriForum has been all-too-willing to legitimize and cater to these far-right voices, playing into their racist tropes, while failing to push back against their language of genocide in any meaningful way. If they have so far been unable to build a respectable reputation for themselves outside of Afrikanerdom, it is precisely because everybody is able to see through this game.

Further Reading