South Africa occupies an important position in the global imagination. It is a place where the dream of non-racialism informs the political project of nation-building, a dream that has inspired the world. It is also a place still marred by racism and exclusion, with one of the highest Gini-coefficients globally. Over the past few years, South Africa has again emerged among global far-right white supremacists as a place where white people are believed to be persecuted.
The delusion of white genocide
The dominant narrative is one of conspiracy, implying complicity of the South African state in a process of ‘ethnic cleansing’, and particular racist vitriol is reserved for South Africa’s radical left parties, the Economic Freedom Fighters and Black First Land First.
The charge is nothing but absurd. South Africa’s constitution of 1996 – which former US Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg regards as a model for the world – is firmly based on the principle of non-racialism, a principle inherited from the Freedom Charter (1955). Moreover, white South Africans remain an exceptionally privileged group, in terms of employment, income and landownership (as can be seen in the 2011 South African Census, and the 2017 Land Audit). And while crime is certainly an issue in the country, it affects everyone’s life and there is no evidence that murders are racially motivated (as shown recently by Amil Umra).
Facts not withstanding the myth and delusion of a white genocide has been spreading globally. It is a prototypical example of hysteric fake news, of misinformation and propaganda.
Africa emerges yet again as a ‘heart of darkness’, a ‘foil for Europe’ and a ‘metaphysical battlefield’
These racist discourses have been around for several years, but it seems that they have been gaining traction in 2017 and 2018. They are increasingly treated as facts, not far-right propaganda, and have moved into mainstream discourse within a transnational network (on the transnational connections of far-right and white supremacist groups, see also Ico Maly’s recent book).
On Change.Org, for example, one finds several campaigns that petition for white South Africans to be treated as political refugees, and be granted asylum in their preferred countries of destination. These petitions have titles such as Accept persecuted white South Africans into Australia (created May 2017), Stop Farmer-killings and white genocide in South Africa (created October 2017), and Allow all white South Africans the right to return to Europe (created February 2018). Many petitions have in excess of 20,000 signatures from people around the world – indicating the global appeal of whiteness campaigns.
White supremacists and the white genocide myth
The Australian minister of Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, responded to these calls and suggested recently that visas for white South Africans should be fast-tracked, thus furthering, as Jason Wilson has argued, a far-right agenda in Australian politics.
The South African government responded swiftly – and quite rightly – with outrage. Yet, Dutton is not alone, and while the Australian Foreign Minister rejected his proposal, other Australian polititians have supported his call.
The myth and delusion of white persecution has a long-standing presence in North America and Europe, and in early 2018, a number of media personalities – who are clearly associated with the far-right press – arrived in South Africa ‘to document’ the lives of white South Africans. These included Lauren Southern, Katie Hopkins as well as Jonas Nilsson. These visits have resulted in the production of videos, promoting narratives of white peril to a global audience. The videos are available on YouTube, where they receive worrying levels of support from around the globe.
Facts not withstanding the myth and delusion of a white genocide has been spreading globally
The videos are short and provocative, characterized by the extensive use of emotives. These are utterances (verbal and visual) that – following J.L. Austin’s speech act theory – do not describe facts (contstatives) or change the world (performatives), but rather translate feelings and emotions into words and other signs. And they do so within the context of an ‘emotional regime’, controlling the range of emotions that are experienced by the audience (the terms ‘emotive’ and ‘emotional regime’ were introduced by the historian William Reddy).
A dominant theme are the tears of white women – a persistent pattern which Angela Helm, contributing editor at The Root, captured in the title of her column, Cry me a river of white tears, white South African colonizers. Other themes are ‘men preparing for war’, ‘stockpiling of food’, ‘weapons’, ‘violated bodies’ and carefully edited images of ‘black rage’. These are interrupted by slow shots of the South African landscape, the mystical farmland. The story line is stereotypical and unchanging: white innocence destroyed by black violence.
Why is Euro-America’s far-right so interested in South Africa? It seems that the interest goes beyond an imagined white solidarity. There are strong links to the anti-immigration agendas in Europe and America, rooted in an irrational fear that white people will become a minority, marginalized and oppressed by ever growing numbers of darker-skinned migrants. South Africa is read as the apocalyptic future of the West.
South Africa as a symbol of white fears
Thus, on the YouTube channel Founding Fathers Resurrected News (or FFRNews) one of the clips is titled ‘South African Farm Murders – A Warning for America’. The link between the global and the local can also be found on the webpage of the South African civil defense group Suidlanders, which actively lobbys globally, especially in North America. The group is preparing itself for what they call the ‘coming violent revolution’, a revolution and ‘race war’ that they believe will also be ‘the future of the west’.
Across various online spaces South Africa emerges as a symbol of white fears, strengthening white supremacism – and its delusions – beyond national boundaries. It is a continuation of the racist colonial tropes that are all too familiar from the conservative-liberal canon: Africa emerges yet again as a ‘heart of darkness’, a ‘foil for Europe’ and a ‘metaphysical battlefield’, as Chinua Acheba had put it in An Image of Africa. The global online visibility of far-right white supremacists might be new, yet their ideological arsenal is old and links up with a long tradition of Euro-American discourses and delusions about Africa.
A note on terminology: I do not make use of the term Alt-Right. It is a catchy term, combing an emphasis on digital media – the alt-key on the computer – with a self-representation of being an ‘alternative’, that is, new or different, far-right right. However, this very claim, that it is a new or different right, is an euphemism. It hides the long-standing racist and supremacist agenda of those who identify as such behind a seemingly benign descriptor. (See also Michelle Gao, A Nazi by Any Other Name, 2018).