The post Trump fortunes of South Africa’s white nationalists

South Africa's white nationalists are finally in the spotlight, thanks to Donald Trump. Nobody likes what they see.

Kallie Kriel, Afriforum CEO, speaks to students at the University of Pretoria. Image credit Wikimedia Commons user Eduandup.

As the de-facto leader of the right-wing opposition to land reform in South Africa, AfriForum’s deputy CEO Ernst Roets recently appeared before the South African Parliament’s Constitutional Review Committee to provide a high-profile presentation outlining the objections of the white community to “expropriation without compensation.” Having built up a significant profile at home and abroad in far-right conservative circles, Roets perhaps expected to be treated with deference as an authority on the subject, but instead his confrontational address united the country’s entire political class against him. In his statement, Roets accused the ANC of “Marxism-Leninism,” said that the idea that white people stole the land was “the single biggest historical fallacy of our time,” and accused the entire Parliament of being “drunk” on ideology and hatred for white people. In return, as Pieter du Toit notes, his speech was “met with anger, none more so than from the white and Afrikaans MPs representing the ANC, DA and ACDP.” One by one, MPs of all races and parties chastised Roets, calling him “arrogant” and a “disgrace.”

How did we get here? Although South Africa’s land reform debate has been going on for a while, it has largely come with a lack of data and a clear policy. In this vacuum, AfriForum, a white, Afrikaner “civil society” or “lobby group”—a white supremacist organization that has been trying to present itself as mainstream—was able to position itself as the most prominent opponent of land reform, and for a while seemed to be winning the public relations war. Moreover, after launching an international campaign against land reform and sending a delegation to the United States earlier this year, it looked like the far-right had also successfully hijacked the international reception to land reform (helped also by the international networking of fringe group Suidlanders and North American alt-right bloggers). As the myth of “white genocide” in South Africa picked up traction among the white right in Europe and North America, it also seemed to be seeping slowly into the mainstream. Outlets including the Wall Street Journal and the BBC (whose original headline read “South Africa Risks ‘Zimbabwe-style’ land chaos”) irresponsibly echoed the right-wing narrative that land reform threatened to turn South Africa into another Zimbabwe, or perhaps even Venezuela. In Australia, “white genocide” narratives have been disturbingly successful, promoted even by cabinet ministers. Notably, the success of the far-right in spreading its narratives was made easier by the fact that the South African government failed to do any of its own outreach to the international community.

Then, late on August 24, 2018, US President Donald Trump, apparently responding to a segment about South Africa on Fox News, tweeted that he would direct Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to “closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers.” In doing so, Trump mainstreamed the racist conspiracy theories that have been propagated by white nationalists in South Africa and their international supporters. The far-right in South Africa and around the world was jubilant—but if they had expected Trump’s endorsement to rally the world against the government’s plans for expropriation without compensation, it may have actually had the opposite effect, at least momentarily.

Mainstream reporting in response to Trump’s tweet has been surprisingly good—not only have major outlets widely dismissed the content of Trump’s tweet, they have also correctly highlighted its origin with white supremacists. The editorial board of the New York Times condemned Trump’s statement in harsh terms, calling it a “white nationalist myth,” and its news headline reads that Trump “Seems to Embrace Racist Narrative.” Reporting by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, all identified the origins of Trump’s claims with white supremacy groups, and have provided historical overviews with sympathetic (if cautious) appraisals of the need for land reform. Countless explainers fact-checked the claim of white genocide, and debunked the statistics presented by Fox News.

In South Africa, the response from the media to Trump has been both offended and amused. SABC News New York correspondent Sherwin Bryce-Pease posted his immediate critical reaction in a video which was widely shared, and eNCA, a private media company, posted a fact-check video criticizing Fox News for not having its “facts straight.” During my own interview on SABC News, my interviewer himself referred to Fox’s Tucker Carlson’s segment as “a tirade based on a lie,” and “pathetic to say the least.” The editorial of South Africa’s Business Day came out in defense of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and the political process of consultation over land reform. As Africa is a Country’s Sisonke Msimang has argued, the incident may have even backfired for AfriForum: “Trump is held in such low regard among reasonable people” that his endorsement of AfriForum “signaled a setback” for its efforts to win over moderates in South Africa. Outside of far-right Afrikaner circles, Trump’s tweet was not the least bit welcomed.

AfriForum left on the fringes

Far from casting the issue in terms of “both sides” and legitimizing “white genocide” as a position worthy of debate, the effect of Trump’s tweet on mainstream media has thankfully been a denouncement of extremist right-wing narratives, endless fact-checking, and a cautious defense of land reform initiatives. Conversely, AfriForum, which was likely expecting to see more positive reception from the fallout, has instead been met with some hostility, with Ernst Roets repeatedly forced to defend his organization from previous controversies.

For all its attempts to pass itself off as respectable civil society organization promoting “minority rights” in South Africa, AfriForum can’t shake its links to white nationalists. Perhaps aware that these associations are hurting its image, AfriForum’s statement in support of Trump tried to distance itself from white nationalism: “The fact that there are small groups of white nationalists who try to hijack the battle against farm murders, does harm to a justified case, while denialists of farm murders try to discredit the battle by falsely trying to connect it to peripheral figures.” Roets repeated this view in a recent podcast appearance, in which he also suggested that talking about “race war” was not helpful. It is not obvious who Roets is talking about, but it is likely that he is referring to Suidlanders. This supposed disavowal of white nationalism would be more compelling, however, if Roets did not continue to associate with extremists, or appear on their podcasts.

Just in August, Roets returned to the podcast of far-right Afrikaner Willem Petzer to discuss land expropriation. Petzer himself just gave an interview to right-wing radio host Jesse Lee Peterson to discuss the “radical evil socialist” South African government, and last month hosted provocateur and Proud Boys leader Gavin McInnes for a conversation which touched on white genocide, antisemitic theories about “globalists,” and endorsing neo-Nazi sympathizer Faith Goldy in her candidacy for Mayor of Toronto. Petzer has also recently made a fawning documentary about the whites-only town Orania, which Roets has proudly shared.

Around the same time, Roets appeared for the second time in four months on the podcast of alt-right Canadian Stefan Molyneux, who has also conducted racism-inflected interviews on South Africa with the likes of Lauren Southern, Katie Hopkins, and Simon Roche, the head of Suidlanders. During Roets recent interview, Molyneux, who regularly promotes racist IQ theories on his podcast, also referred to “diversity”—which he defined as “races trying to live under the same legal system”—as a failed “experiment.”

Another significant figure is Afrikaner musician Steve Hofmeyr, who is perhaps the most prominent supporter of AfriForum, and who is included in the acknowledgements section of Roets’ new book. Hofmeyr recently went on Willem Petzer’s podcast, in which he claimed that Afrikaners were being “eradicated,” and that they will realize in ten years that there had been a genocide. Hofmeyr has also been sharing articles on South Africa by conspiracy theorist website Infowars, tweeting support for apartheid (read his replies), retweeting in support of a neo-Nazi demonstration by the Nordic Resistance Movement in Sweden, and has met with a German MP from the fascist political party AfD about their “remarkable mutual grounds of understanding.”

There are other important far-right figures who are not directly associated with Roets or AfriForum, but who are nonetheless quite familiar in exactly the same social circles. Such figures include Jonas Nilsson, the Swedish author of Anarcho-Fascism Nature Reborn, who most recently created a film called “The Boer Project: South Africa A Reverse Apartheid?” In the film, he speaks to the leadership of Suidlanders and the far-right National Front, describes Swedish opposition to apartheid as support for the “black socialist takeover,” and warns Swedes that if Europe doesn’t “wake up” to non-white immigration, they will end up in the “same situation.” Willem Petzer, who promoted the video, hosted Nilsson on his podcast in which they discussed how Sweden’s involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle was based in their experiences in a “homogenous” society (and that therefore Swedes were “naïve” about the reality of multicultural societies), and they agreed that both of their countries were suffering from the consequences of multiculturalism.

Nilsson has been hosting conferences to discuss his documentary both in Sweden and in Pretoria, with promotional materials that feature the colors of the old apartheid flag and other Afrikaner nationalist symbols. Steve Hofmeyr attended his conference in Pretoria, as did a Swedish anti-Islam “journalist” named Ingrid Carlqvist, who came to “beg for forgiveness” from Afrikaners for Sweden’s past opposition to apartheid. Carlqvist explicitly tied the current situation in South Africa to non-white immigration in Sweden: “we have been fooled into giving our country away to foreigners, just as we have been fooled into believing that you must give away yours to the ANC.”

Neither can AfriForum escape the shadow of Lauren Southern’s racial agitprop documentary “Farmlands,” a shoddy production released earlier this year that first presents a completely misleading picture of South Africa, and then offers the white population only two solutions: racial segregation (a la Orania) or racial civil war (a la Suidlanders). In January, Roets had thanked Southern for “raising awareness about our situation in South Africa,” but he has not shared her full documentary (neither has he criticized it). Nonetheless, her film is ubiquitously shared across social media, and it is interpreted by everyone as consistent with AfriForum’s own advocacy project.

Fake news

It has been an incredible success for South African white nationalists that in a matter of virtually a year they have won the attention and support of international far-right networks, and their fringe narrative has now been amplified by the President of the United States. Fortunately, Trump’s tweet has not quite brought their white nationalist ideas into the mainstream, for he was immediately and roundly denounced by virtually all legitimate media organizations around the world. In the first test of the diplomatic fallout, UK Prime Minister Theresa May publicly supported South Africa’s land reform ambitions, which has triggered fury over her supposed betrayal of white South Africans (or as Hofmeyr put it, May has “just pronounced a second genocide over the Boer nation of South Africa”).

Nobody should be smug about this media consensus, however, for it will not stop the spread of white genocide theories in alternative media or in the dark corners of the internet—after all, Trump’s supporters and Afrikaner nationalists in South Africa already dismiss mainstream media reports as “fake news,” and disapproval from the New York Times will certainly not change their minds.

In response to the overwhelmingly negative media coverage to Trump’s tweet, the far-right in South Africa and elsewhere has been incensed with what they believe to be a dishonest and failed media. AfriForum’s CEO Kallie Kriel has criticized so-called “#FarmMurder denialists worldwide,” and Roets tweeted that South Africa’s media has a “SERIOUS credibility crisis.” Suidlanders posted a video warning conservatives to “Beware the Media” which used the term Lügenpresse (a German word for “lying press” which is associated with Nazis and now common on the alt-right). Circulating among far-right Afrikaners online include a video titled “The Media are LYING to you about South Africa” by podcaster Conscious Caracal, who has also called the mainstream media “dishonest” and “often malicious”; several popular cartoons criticizing the media coverage by far-right political cartoonist Jerm; a discussion between Steve Hofmeyr and Willem Petzer about “the media’s lies“; and a series of  “Boer Testimonies” in which individuals tell their personal stories about the plight of white people, bypassing the gatekeepers in the media.

Thanks to the “fake news” phenomenon, no mainstream consensus is capable of fully containing these ideas. The South African far-right will continue to push their white genocide narratives, and the international alt-right media will still be more than willing to facilitate them, as they are useful for their own ideological objectives. Platforms like YouTube will continue to spread far-right extremism far more effectively than credible journalism ever can. It is more than likely that Trump’s endorsement will assist these theories in becoming more hegemonic within conservative circles, possibly even moving them closer towards the political center.

Yet it is not South Africa which should feel threatened by the spread of these theories, where the audience for this message is impossibly small. Rather, the motive behind the international far-right’s obsession with South Africa has always been to further their own domestic agendas—as such, white genocide narratives threaten to further poison the politics in North America and Europe, where they give fuel to burgeoning ethno-nationalism and anti-immigrant hatred.

Predictably, even though Roets’ presentation to Parliament was roundly condemned by the press and MPs of all backgrounds, it was widely celebrated within right-wing Afrikaner circles, who are rallying around AfriForum and claiming to sign up new members. Less predictable is whether AfriForum will continue to play an outsized role in the land reform debate, or if they have finally damaged their own precarious legitimacy for good.

Further Reading