Written by: Terence Corrigan
An unpleasant underside of South African politics is a certain penchant for aggressive hyperbole. Our politics often lends itself to the apocalyptic and millenarian. Perhaps this helps explain the intrusion into our political debate of fringe ideas. This has been on visible display since US President Donald Trump tweeted his concern about ‘land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers’.
One that has been doing the rounds for over a decade is the idea of ‘white genocide’. It’s a dark, bitter narrative, with a following on the racial nationalist white right. South Africa’s white population, so its proponents allege, is facing an existential threat at the hands of a venal government and a vengeful black population. The violence directed against (white) farmers foreshadows their ultimate extermination.
It is important to make the point at the outset that there is no white genocide. It is a perverse fantasy, with strong racist overtones. Genocide – the extermination of a cultural, religious or racial group – is not underway in South Africa. Present day South Africa offers nothing comparable to the fate, for instance, of the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek minorities in the Ottoman Empire during and after the First World War, that of Jews, Gypsies and other ‘undesirables’ in the Nazi Reich, or the Tutsi and Batwa in Rwanda in 1994. Nor is there anything resembling the mass slaughter carried out by communist regimes in Cambodia, the Soviet Union or China.
To invoke the spectre of genocide is not only incorrectly to appropriate a concept, but to erect a serious obstacle to rational discussion.
Among those who propagate this view are those claim it is out of fear for their future, or out of concern for the future of white South Africans and (among certain emigrés) their friends and family who remain behind. It does nothing of the sort, and merely drives further polarisation.
Yet it has been jarring to see that there exists another audience for the white genocide line. Found both in South Africa and abroad, these are eminently progressive types – activists and journalists, and many ordinary folk – firmly anti-racist in their views. They were horrified by the depiction of South Africa by Fox News host Tucker Carlson and mortified by President Trump’s pronouncement on South Africa.
Yet they showed a particular attachment to the white genocide narrative, not because it is true, but because it is demonstrably false. Its own overblown idiom is a useful foil for obfuscating issues and clouding debate.
So, for example, talk show host Bongani Bingwa recently accused AfriForum of promoting the white genocide narrative – based, it seems, largely on the fact that the organisation had raised farm murders on its tour of America earlier this year. Later, when offering an apology for this (he had been unable to substantiate his claim), Bingwa was careful to qualify it. There was a ‘context’. White genocide, he said, ‘is an invocation that has been used by right-wing supremacists, a lot of them American, who have popularised the theory that there is a white genocide underway. And so the linkage between the seizure, the so-called seizure of white farms, white-owned farms, the link between the so-called large-scale killing of white farmers and white genocide is a popular link that has been made by a number of right-wing organisations.’
Mr Bingwa was far from alone in taking this line. The former ambassador of the United States to South Africa, Mr Patrick Gaspard, wrote in the Sunday Times that ‘the US president is immersing himself in a deliberately provocative “white genocide” lie that is the playground of right-wing extremists’. In the United States, the Southern Poverty Law Centre produced an extended opinion piece that made the same connection. It was also flashed across social media.
President Trump didn’t claim a genocide, but it seemed enough that he had referred to ‘large scale killings’. While one can dispute this characterisation, it is notable that the pushback against the ‘white genocide’ myth has involved denying any sort of outsized vulnerability on the part of farmers, specifically white farmers. Violent crime, the argument goes, is a problem for all, and to focus on the threat to farmers is to reveal some dreadful racist pathologies.
So there is some political relevance to establishing whether farmers are in fact under threat. The assertion that farmers face no greater threat than any other South African owes a great deal to analyses carried out by Africa Check. These are valuable in that they highlight the methodological problems in determining the murder rate in relation to farmers to the general population – ‘it’s almost impossible to accurately calculate such a figure’, wrote one of their researchers.
This message has been picked up and repeated by numerous reputable journalists and media platforms.
Dr James Myburgh – editor of the Politicsweb website – responded by questioning this assumption. ‘It is unclear why’, he remarked, ‘instead of trying to come up with a better estimate they went with the assertion that this was, alone among all the many great mysteries of the universe, fundamentally unknowable.’
Myburgh worked through the available evidence and came up with a decent set of data. Data for farming households could be obtained from Stats SA, and murder victims from the police and from the Transvaal Agricultural Union. Meanwhile, to enable proper like-with-like comparators, it was necessary to try to establish what proportion of murder in the general population matches the broad circumstances applicable to those on farms, in other words, violence perpetrated during robberies (what in German is called Raubmord). While the information is imperfect, it constituted a reasonable estimate, and showed that for white farming households (the group whose security is specifically at issue in this debate), the rate is ‘about four times a plausible national Raubmord rate for all aggravated robbery, and thirteen times the rate for home and business robbery-murders only.’
This suggests, in fact, that they do face a heightened threat. This is by no means not to suggest that other rural dwellers (and indeed, black farmers) do not face threats. It is not to suggest that no groups in South Africa face a threat equivalent to that under which farmers live – an ultimately futile endeavour. It is emphatically not to give credence to the white genocide narrative. But it does show that the murder of farmers is a real, serious and pressing problem.
Why should this be an issue? Dr Myburgh argues elsewhere that part of what is at work here is a perverse strain of political correctness among a number of ‘white and Western intellectuals’ who see in the white farmer a repository of guilt for the sins of colonialism and apartheid. ‘Whenever there is any suggestion that white farmers should or could be considered as “victims” this elevating feeling of virtue is threatened, and there is an emotional, and not always very rational, push back against that.’
The ‘white genocide’ line has provided an opportunity to conflate a falsehood with a real problem, contaminating the latter as a mere extension of the former. Falsehoods are seldom conducive to rational debate and good policy. Both the white genocide narrative, and those who set it up as a straw man are doing no favours to the society they claim to care about.
* Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823.