The myth of white genocide in South Africa has fuelled far-right violence the world over, including the attack on Christchurch’s mosques. Ross Webb calls on his fellow South Africans to stop helping those who perpetuate the myth and who use South Africa to support their deluded fantasies.
In 1986, a New Zealand man was arrested in Lusaka, Zambia, armed with 1.3 kilograms of explosives, a detonator, and a timer.
His intended target was Thabo Mbeki, an anti-apartheid activist and one of the leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) living in exile. The man arrested outside Mbeki’s home was Christopher Martin, from Whakatāne.
Martin had been living in Johannesburg, South Africa, for a few months and from there he made his way to Zambia on a mission to assassinate leaders of the ANC for the South African apartheid government. When Martin arrived outside Mbeki’s house and began preparing the explosive, he was spotted by guards and, after a shootout, he was captured and imprisoned. His plot failed, and Mbeki survived.
Mbeki would later become the president of democratic South Africa after Nelson Mandela. Yet his son was not so lucky. Six years before Martin’s planned attack, Mbeki’s son disappeared in South Africa while attempting to join his father and other anti-apartheid activists in exile. He is assumed to have been killed by agents of the white government, but his body, like those of hundreds of others who disappeared while resisting white minority rule, was never found.
When Martin was released from a Zambian jail and escorted home by ex-All Black and High Commissioner to Harare, Chris Laidlaw, he remained silent on his shadowy career in the military underground which eventually led to his capture and imprisonment. But he did admit to one thing: his concern was for ‘justice and stability for South Africa’.
In other words, he wanted to prop up white minority rule, and kill in order to do so, in the face of massive international and domestic opposition to apartheid.
Martin, a New Zealander, was just one of many right-wingers from around the world who fought to maintain white minority rule in South Africa. His attempted attack occurred only five years after the 1981 Springbok Tour sparked a vigorous anti-racist movement in New Zealand that challenged the government, challenged deeply entrenched racist attitudes both at home and abroad, and expressed a powerful act of international solidarity with black South Africans under apartheid.
As Martin arrived home after his imprisonment, he would be greeted by a protest organised by anti-apartheid activist John Minto.
Then and now
The story of Christopher Martin points to many of the ways that New Zealand and South Africa’s politics have historically intersected. But it also points to the globalised right-wing obsession with South Africa that motivated Martin and persists in feeding far-right movements to this day. The same ideas that led Martin to Lusaka in 1986 has continued to inspire far-right violence around the world and led the Christchurch shooter to kill 50 people at two mosques on 15 March 2019.
It is an idea that the white world is under threat and a ‘white genocide’ is upon us. South Africa is central to this theory. If apartheid South Africa inspired international right-wing support and the service of mercenaries like Martin, then post-apartheid South Africa has inspired right-wing condemnation and is used as evidence of white genocide in action.
The connection between New Zealand and South Africa is also relevant for another reason. Like me and my family, many whites left South Africa in the 1990s and have made New Zealand their home. And while ‘white genocide’ largely remains a fringe idea of the far right, nowhere in New Zealand is the idea more accepted and more mainstream than in the white South African community.
The ‘white genocide’ myth
The shooter in the mosque attack was a white supremacist who believed, among other things, in the ‘white genocide’ conspiracy theory. This isn’t surprising. South Africa has ‘become a twisted meme for the far right online’, a ‘global delusion’ and the far right ‘flavour of the month’. As others have already pointed out, the idea of white genocide is an ‘unfounded, racist, and flatly conspiratorial’ theory that lies at the heart of the attack last week, and many other acts of right-wing violence over the past few years. Dylann Roof, who killed nine black people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and Norwegian far-right mass murderer Anders Breivik, and who killed 77 people, also believed in white genocide and cited South Africa to substantiate their claims. Roof bore the apartheid flag in some of his photos.
But in recent years we have seen the myth picked up and perpetuated by right-wing Canadian provocateur Lauren Southern, British right-wing commentator Katie Hopkins and Fox News presenter Tucker Carlson. The latter prompted US president Donald Trump to tweet about the issue, propelling a right wing fringe idea into the mainstream.
Before looking at the myths, it is important to acknowledge what is true: land expropriation is a major issue of debate in South Africa today (and as any major policy decision, it should be a matter for debate). Violence continues to plague the country and the fear among both black and white South Africans about violent crime and murder is legitimate (it is the very reason many, like my family, left the country). Major corruption scandals have hurt the credibility of the ANC and done major damage to the South African economy and public trust in political institutions.
These are all very real concerns, and many quite rightly believe that the promise of the post-apartheid ‘rainbow nation’ has not been realised.
What is interesting about the focus on the problems that plague South Africa is the extent to which the narrative of white victimhood has prevailed in these debates, largely with the aid and the backing of global right-wing supporters. A simple search of ‘South Africa’ on YouTube shows how pervasive this idea really is. Others have pointed out that Google searches for ‘white genocide’ have risen rapidly in recent years, concentrated in South Africa, the US and New Zealand.
So what is the case for the white genocide? Many have delved into the question and found little evidence. What is clear is that the theory has been spread not through a debate about the actual murder rate, but by the sharing of brutal images through Facebook and WhatsApp. As James Pogue recently wrote, scrolling through the images ‘is enough to turn you paranoid and almost frantic’.
But the idea is simply not supported by the facts.
Vox outlined how a small lobbying group, AfriForum, propagated the idea that there is a widespread campaign of race-based killings targeting white farmers in South Africa. It concluded, however, that ‘there’s no evidence of a genocidal campaign against white farmers’. The fact-checking website, Africa Check, showed that right-wing claims are ‘unsupported’. CNN reported that the ‘biggest problem with AfriForum’s claims is that they are not true’, citing Gareth Newham of the Institute of Security Studies (ISS), a South African research group, who said: “There is no evidence to support [it]… There is no epidemic of farm murders in South Africa. There is an epidemic of murders”. While there are attacks on farms, they are in fact declining, and there is little evidence of political or racial motivations for the majority of attacks. What is more, these attacks are dwarfed by South Africa’s general murder rate.
Last year, for example, 20,000 people were murdered in South Africa. The majority of those who lost their lives were black, and just 62 of the murders occurred on farms. That is 62 murders in a year, in a country that faces a murder rate of about that many people per day. Moreover, farm murders stand at a 20 year low, and as James Pogue recently pointed out, ‘farm murders’ do not always have white victims. In a recent example, a black man was shot by a white security guard who saw him driving a tractor and assumed he was stealing it. This would be counted under ‘farm murder’.
The same goes for urban and suburban areas. The New Statesman explained that murder rates in the affluent, predominantly white suburbs of South Africa are far lower than murder rates in the poor, predominantly black townships. The author concluded, that ‘if there was any kind of genocide being carried out against white people in the country then the safest areas of the continent’s most dangerous city would not be predominately white’.
Despite the fact that white South Africans still retain the vast majority of farmland, wealth, and continue to reap the rewards of their previous privilege under the new political system, the dominant discussion among white South Africans is one of victimhood under the new regime, a narrative that points to the terrible unease that people in settler colonial nations have about not belonging. New Zealand of course has its own twisted form of expressing this discomfort by denying the validity of tangata whenua claims to this land and treaty rights. And the idea of white victimhood played an important part in Trump’s rise.
Mainstream in New Zealand’s South African community?
Unlike in Australia where politicians such as Peter Dutton and tabloids newspapers have propelled the idea of a white genocide into the mainstream, New Zealand hasn’t had much of a debate about the idea. But in New Zealand, such right-wing myths are not just propagated by the far right. They are also alive and well in the leafy suburbs of the North Shore in Auckland and other places that South Africans have made their homes in New Zealand.
Look at any South African ‘expat’ Facebook page or group and among the discussions around visa applications, places to buy a home, the best schools to send children, and the occasional braai get together for expats, there is the white genocide myth, discussed and reinforced without controversy. There are numerous South African expat community Facebook pages. Some present themselves as a platform to share information to make the immigration experience easier, to connect, share tips etc. But others are intensely and explicitly political, regularly peddling the white genocide myth. In these forums, there are some who dispute the idea, to be fair, but they remain in the discrete minority.
On the very day of the Christchurch attacks, I saw the administrator of a South African expat Facebook page condemn the attacks, attack those who shared conspiracies suggesting it was fake, but at the same time suggest that while there was ‘outrage’ about the Christchurch shooting, the world was ignoring the ‘genocide’ in South Africa.
It’s not just online. Last September, members of New Zealand’s white South African community marched down Queen Street in Auckland to protest farm attacks. Perhaps some came with genuine concern about the place they used to call home and the violence that plagues South Africa. But they also came with signs reading ‘stop white genocide’. We have also seen calls for the return of a racist Afrikaner holiday, the unfurling of apartheid era flags at rugby matches, and comments from South African-born news presenter Heather du Plessis-Allan that the Pacific Islands were “leeches”. I’m not suggesting that these represent the views of all white South Africans, but as far as I have seen, these have gone seemingly unchallenged by the South African community in New Zealand.
We need to stop the myths…
…and we need to do something about this. White supremacy and the myth of white genocide have been at the root of a wave of right-wing violence in recent years. But what concerns me is how mainstream and accepted the notion of a white genocide is in South African communities, especially online. And it persists despite these events and despite its association with Dylann Roof, Anders Breivik, and now the Christchurch shooter.
There has been much talk over the last week about the best way to fight the racism that fuels people like the Christchurch shooter. Many have suggested the need to challenge racism in our daily lives and in our own communities. Some have pointed out the connections between daily acts of racism and the spread of racist thinking and violence inflicted on the Muslim community in Christchurch. As we saw in Christchurch, narratives and ideas such as those about the white genocide have the power to produce real violence, with devastating consequences.
The community of which I am part of – the white South African community – has, of course, a fraught history with racism and one that lingers on. It is one that has always troubled me. I know the South African immigrant community and I’ve heard the uncritical adoption of the white genocide myth. I’ve seen it all over social media. I have no doubt that some South Africans are genuine when they seek to challenge the violence and corruption in the country. Yet, in propagating the idea of white genocide, they are supporting a right-wing conspiracy that has no basis in reality.
Many of us don’t buy the myth and we need to challenge it. And because the global delusion is centred around a country we come from, we have a responsibility to do so, to get the facts straight and challenge those who use South Africa as a cautionary tale for the rest of the West. There is no doubt that South Africa is plagued by numerous seemingly unending issues, and that every murder in the country is a tragedy, but for these to be used to feed a far-right narrative based in lies can only exacerbate the problem. If there are dystopic aspects of South African society today it is not that of the bleak caricature of Western demise that the right wing describes, but rather a social and political breakdown caused by grotesque inequality.
There is a view that we should not give air to the views of murderers like Roof, Breivik and now the Christchurch shooter in case they inspire future attacks. As John Cassidy of the New Yorker writes, however, “that’s a lot to hope for”. Perhaps by discussing their views, picking them apart, and calling on those who continue to propagate such views, either intentionally or inadvertently, to stop, we can work to stem such ideologies and keep them where they should be: on the fringes, not the mainstream, of New Zealand life.
Of course, to prevent the same thing happening again requires larger changes than arguing around a braai. It requires changes to gun law, government efforts to take on big tech enterprises whose profit-driven algorithms are designed to lead viewers down a rabbit hole of more and more extreme information and provide easy answers to complex problems. We also need a new way of dealing with the alienation and nihilism that tends to lead young men to the far right, and in some cases, to violence, and a grassroots anti-racist campaign to challenge mainstream flirtations with the far right. We need a broader understanding about the history of our country, one that allows us to recognise that through tolerance and empathy, our differences in this country can represent a genuine strength.
In a small way, tolerant white South Africans in New Zealand can contribute to this project, one that they have been silent about for too long. We know, however, that simply stating facts doesn’t change minds. Nor does outright condemnation. But we can slowly chip away at these ideas, and the best way to do so is with the people we know. So I’m calling on white South Africans in New Zealand who propagate far-right myths to stop. You may not make the connection between Islamophobia and the supposed ‘white genocide’ in South Africans, but those on the far right have, and will continue to do so.
When you propagate such views, you are supporting and encouraging a transnational far right movement that wants to foment race war. And this lies at the very root of why 50 people are now dead in Christchurch. Like all pernicious weeds, the myths that inform the far right must be pulled from the ground before they can take root.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.