POLITICS

On right-wing monsters and media myth-making

Marie-Louise Antoni writes on the media's obsession with fringe "white genocide" views in the farm murder debate

What is most striking about the national debate on farm murders is surely the gaping hole at the centre of it, roughly the size and shape of magnanimity. Instead, the current and clearly expressed threat to the property rights of white farm owners – and the well-founded claim that farmers have been particularly vulnerable to violent attack over the past two decades, with government nevertheless failing to prioritise this crimes – has provoked an extraordinary response from our commentariat, who have done their best to transmogrify an important and serious human rights issue into a grotesque racial spectacle. 

One response to advocacy on this issue has been to try and downplay the problem by claiming that the rate of farm murders is either not out of the ordinary or completely unknowable. The other has been an extraordinary focus by the mainstream media on those who claim that farm attacks constitute “white genocide”, in the sense of a concerted and ongoing mass murdering of a group of people.

Earlier this year, the increase in farm murders and the ANC and EFF-led adoption of a resolution to examine changing the constitution to allow for land expropriation, with the clear aim of redistributing white-owned farmland, attracted critical reporting in the Australian media. These reports included horrific details of farm murders often unfamiliar to consumers of the English news in South Africa, and prompted Peter Dutton, Australian Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, to propose giving special attention to the visa applications of South African farmers.

The onset of the ‘white genocide’ narrative

Writing for the Daily Maverick on 16 March 2018, Greg Nicolson claimed there was a “sustained campaign by white interests groups bluntly trying to convince the world that the matter of white farmers in South Africa amounts to ‘genocide’. In his very next sentence – and thereby imputing this allegation to that organisation – he said it was influential and moneyed groups “like AfriForum” that had “for years fought to protect local white interests”.

He said it was “the hack” Paul Toohey who had taken statistics “cooked up over a braai” to Australia, prompting Dutton’s statements about fast-tracking visas for South Africa’s farmers. But, he said, there was “no factual basis” to say farmers face a higher crime rate and the statistics were “debatable”, because “fact-checking website Africa Check has consistently said [they are] unreliable”.

The Mail & Guardian followed this up with a story on the 23 March 2018 headlined on its front page “White genocide: How the big lie spread to the US and beyond.” In its report, the newspaper claimed the recent increase in advocacy against “white genocide” could be traced to a hitherto relatively unknown South African group called The Suidlanders, who had travelled to the United States last year. What is remarkable about the entire full-page article, headlined Radical right plugs swart gevaar, is that there is no real description of the levels of violence directed against South Africa’s farmers. Instead, the piece brims with oft-repeated keywords and phrases like: alt-right, right, white genocide, extremist, race war, exterminate white people, right wing, extreme right wing publications, right-wing politicians, alt-right agenda, Nazis, fascists, racists, white supremacist, homophobes, anti-Semitic, anti-feminist, conspiracy theorists, racial assaults, violence in defence of whites, Klu Klux Klan, Republican state representative, President Donald Trump, right-wing supporters, Christian organisations, nationalists, global grouping of the right, globalist nationalist forum, white nationalist activity.

That same weekend Sunday Times columnist and former Business Day editor, Peter Bruce wrote a piece headlined Genocide on the farms? Show us the facts. Times. Bruce said he had recently been “turned on for nothing” on social media, and that this was in response to a tweet – one he would later refer to as “quite a mouthful – by AfriForum’s head of community safety, Ian Cameron. 


Bruce claimed he was then “quickly lashed with right-wing vitriol”. This was proof that “you don’t question the ‘white genocide’ story in South Africa without a very rough response”.

The impetus for his piece was that “every time [he sees] a picture of white farmers beaten up by black attackers they are relatively elderly”. He said that “surely” this meant they were no longer farming. This intellectual conundrum sent Bruce on a quest to look for more details, which he said were “impossible” to find. He said AfriForum had figures, and the police had some messy figures, but the “best resource” was Africa Check, who had “tried hard to nail it down”.

What Bruce did not manage to find was that South Africa’s farmers are indeed aging. In 2015, according to AgriSA, the average age of farmers was 62. AfriForum’sstatistics for the 2016/2017 reporting period in addition show that two-thirds (62%) of farm attack victims are between 51 and 100 years of age. And while the stereotype persists that all farmers are wealthy stolen-land barons, many lead hardscrabble lives without the privilege of genteel seaside retirement.

Age distribution of farm attack victims during the 2016/2017 reporting period:

0-20

21-50

51-70

71-100

13%

25%

40%

22%

Source: AfriForum report: Farm attacks and murders in South Africa | April 2017

AfriForum’s US visit

This issue of “white genocide” was again invoked by the mainstream media in reaction to the visit by AfriForum CEO Kallie Kriel and Deputy CEO Ernst Roets to the United States to raise awareness about the threat posed to farmers by farm attacks and the push for ‘expropriation without compensation’.

On 4 May, editor-in-chief Pieter du Toit kicked off with an opinion piece headlined AfriForum's U.S. Adventure: Playing With Fire, Just Like In Oz. The main thrust of it was the manner in which farm murders and land expropriation had been reported on by the international press, particularly by Newscorp’s chief correspondent Paul Toohey, with which he suggested AfriForum had cooperated closely in his reporting.

Citing the references in the United States to South African farm attacks as a white genocide meme being pushed by right wing opinion-makers in the United States, for their own ideological purposes, Du Toit complained that “this is the environment in which Kriel, Roets and AfriForum are operating — one fired up by ethnic nationalism and deep-seated racial prejudice, where fears are stoked and prejudices reinforced.”

He was also highly critical of Roets’ appearance with the EFF’s Naledi Chirwa Roets on a PowerFM show. Du Toit did not think it worth reporting on, let alone condemning, a long harangue by Chirwa which concluded with the following statement: “So AfriForum is actually a very tiny group of people, and we can’t be concerning ourselves over the feelings of people that are outnumbered […] in parliament, in the demographics of the country, basically in the world, you know, because it makes them feel sad”. Their “nervous condition” was because of what they had “stolen”. The motion was very simple really, she said, and actually “very gracious and generous” of black people, because “[white people] must leave the country and go away”, adding that “white people are acting like they’re homeless, you know, they’ve got Europe, they can go back to the Netherlands, they can go back to, even Australia is like, come guys, let’s give you your visas”.

The following day the North West University associate professor of law, Elmien du Plessis, took to Twitter to post a thread about farm murders and AfriForum’s trip to the United States. She said she believed the tour was “misleading” because of the organisation’s statistics. She then provided a link to an AfriForum report and said, “Much of the information used (and double checked) in this thread can be found here”.

The “here” the professor was referring to was a Facebook group called Busting the Myth of White Genocide in SA (@DebunkingWhiteGenocideSA), which frequently refers to Africa Check’s reports. It is run by an anonymous group of “young activists from across South Africa” who call themselves The Geoffs, with members using pseudonyms like Geoff, Jeffanie, Jofflyn, Joffrey, Jeff, Jeffica, Joff, Geoffandra, Jeof, and Jiff.

It shares remarkable similarities with groups on the other side of the political spectrum, using cartoons and memes and gory pictures to reach its audience. This group also subsequently received a glowing review by the Sunday Times in a piece headlined Genocide myth busters vow to separate white from wrong.

Du Plessis noted there were 74 farm murders during the 2016/2017 reporting period. “At this rate it will take 432 years to kill all the commercial farmers (and families),” she said.

Putting aside the somewhat callous framing of this statement – a generous reading being she meant to disprove the genocide narrative – she then went on to say that, during the same period, 2639 women were murdered. This argument was a replica of one put forward by The Geoffs.

 

The source of these statistics was a Timeslive article, which stated that more than 3000 women and children were murdered during the 2016/2017 reporting period.

“Women and children made up approximately 13% of all murder victims,” the author stated. This would however mean that 87% of all murder victims were adult males, and yet there is not antonym for the word femicide. Instead, those who campaign against the murder of women and children receive generous public support, and rightly so, despite the relative proportions.

Neither the professor nor The Geoffs provided the population size for each group, one of the most basic requirements for anyone with the vaguest notion of how to formulate statistics. It would mean that, if it would take 432 years to wipe out all farmers (she used the commercial farmer population estimate of 32 000), it would take more than 10 000 years to kill all women out of a population of 28.53 million. 

The professor then went on to make a number of statements, including that “13 of the 74 farm murders involved torture. Any form of torture (or murder) is terrible. White people being tortured by black people en masse is not supported by the stats (and is also not my lived experience)”.

Du Plessis claimed that “proportionally no other murders get as much coverage in the media (especially the Afrikaans and international media) as farm murders”. This would make for an interesting study – if it were an honest one done over a number of years and not skewed by the recent spike in media coverage. An even better analysis would be with the proportionality of coverage of cases of white-on-black violence, or even racial slurs and insults, compared to farm murders.

After posting her tweets, the professor started receiving furious replies from people on social media. Later that night, an exasperated Roets posted a video clip from the United States in which he refuted her arguments point by point. Towards the end, he quoted the 16th of August 1936 diary entry of the German Jewish academic Victor Klemperer. This entry was written after Klemperer and other Jews had been pushed out of state employment, the professions and the universities, but before they had been dispossessed of their property (1938) and the Wannsee Conference (February 1942).

Expressing his frustration with the intellectuals who should have known better, but had decided to become apologists for national-socialism, Klemperer wrote: “If one day the situation were reversed and the fate of the vanquished lay in my hands, then I would let all the ordinary folk go, and even some of the leaders, who might perhaps after all had honourable intentions, and not known what they were doing. But I would have all the intellectuals strung up, and the professors three feet higher than the rest; they would be left hanging from lamp posts for as long as compatible with hygiene.”

Roets ended Klemperer’s quote by saying, “Of course, we have no intention to harm anyone. We have no intention to harm you for making these statements. We don’t even have the intention to debate you”. Though clearly not a threat, it was a spectacularly ill-advised quote to use given the hostile media environment. Roets’ complaint is however supported by numerous studies done on warning signs and precursors to violence across the globe. Countries like Germany, Rwanda, Bosnia, and even Kenya during the election violence, show the role media professionals, intellectuals and politicians had to play in stirring up ill-feeling between different racial and ethnic groups. Nevertheless, the Huffington Post took the opportunity to post no less than three articles about this “attack” on an academic, and North West University came out strongly saying that it encouraged its academics to provide “thought leadership” on issues of national importance.

Two days later, News24 held space for Du Plessis to provide nuance on this problematic issue with all its complexities. This was widely celebrated by the same journalists and columnists who have written extensively on this topic and tried very hard to convince the public that there was nothing to see here but racism. Du Plessis criticised AfriForum for “their claims” of white genocide. She also found there was a “curious correlation and conflation” between the issues of farm murders and expropriation without compensation, saying she was concerned that farmers protecting their properties meant “to build a fort and to exclude the rest of the world – to build a laager for the expected onslaught of people wanting to take [their] property”.

She put forward the case that it was “irresponsible to paint [the] bigger picture with details” (referring to torture), and said all murders should be condemned equally “without favour or prejudice to any group” because “all life is precious”. She did not say how campaigns against farm murders prejudiced the rights of others.

That same week, Vice-Chancellor of Wits University, Adam Habib, caused a stir on Twitter when he likened Kriel and Roets to Hitler, Idi Amin, and Verwoerd, after Kriel had posted a picture of himself and Roets meeting with the US National Security Advisor, John Bolton.


The Eusebius McKaiser Show

This campaign to frame commentary on the “myth of white genocide” - and impute this position to AfriForum - culminated in a Radio 702 show hosted by Eusebius McKaiser. The panellists were Elmien du Plessis, Adam Habib and Kallie Kriel (see here for the full transcript).  

The topic of debate was less about farm murders or land expropriation, but rather how to characterise AfriForum and their politics. Do they form part of the “hurly-burly” of democratic life, or are they “fascistic”? Habib was not asked why campaigning to defend the safety and property of a threatened and despised minority put one in the same camp as Amin or Hitler. Instead, he was given free rein by McKaiser to attack AfriForum as an “utterly racist outfit” that stood for racism, and complained that he received “the most scurrilous of racist remarks” after posting his tweet. He said it was a “politics of hate” that emanated from the organisation. He added that Roets and Kriel might as well have posed for a photo with the Klu Klux Klan, referring to Bolton, whom he claimed was “one of the most white-wing (sic)” politicians.

Kriel tried to point out that perhaps Habib was being intolerant when he did not provide examples of the organisation’s racism, but then openly compared its leadership to genocidal dictators. McKaiser however then accused AfriForum of making the same “ahistorical comparisons” when “[they] talk about white people facing genocide” and that this was a “callous” undermining of people’s “serious experiences in the 20th century”.

Kriel explained that this was not the organisation’s position, but that it was instead concerned about “serious warning signs” such as hate speech. McKaiser then produced his “evidence” that AfriForum was perpetuating the “white genocide” narrative, and that they were doing so “all the time”. This was in the form of a petition someone at the organisation had shared on its Facebook page more than five years ago, in January 2013. It was in addition not created by the organisation itself. Du Plessis was forced to concede that while the group did not use the term “white genocide” in its offocial documents, there had been “numerous occasions” where they had referred to it. Her evidence for this was that Roets had on 18 June 2017 said, “Swart regeringsamptenare moedig volksmoord teen wittes aan en kom dan niks oor nie.

“I mean, volksmoord is genocide,” she said. Yet as Kriel pointed out the post she was however referring to was a reaction by Roets to Velaphi Khumalo’s infamous Facebook post where he had said that he wanted to “cleans (sic) this country of all white people. We must act as Hitler did to the Jews”. Khumalo was, and remains, a government official working at the Gauteng Department of Sports, Art, Culture and Recreation.

Two-thirds of the way in, McKaiser cut to Stellenbosch and said, “Johan Pienaar on the line. Johan, thank you for calling in.” Somehow Pienaar, a man AfriForum has previously been embroiled in court actions with, managed to get through on the show’s busy lines. Pienaar was an apartheid-supporter in the early 1990s and, as he himself acknowledges, participated in the protest by far-rightwing students at the University of Pretoria on 29 April 1991 in which Nelson Mandela was prevented from speaking and an ANC flag was burnt in public. At some point he flipped from one extreme to another and today he frequently disseminates the hashtag #BoersAreTrash, which he uses to incessantly retweet cases of white on black violence and insults, or to say that #plaasmoorde are a “myth”. He has used more than 100 times.

Pienaar was given a significant amount of airtime to elaborate the case against AfriForum – proportionately equal to the other speakers – with McKaiser chiming in with sounds of approval. Up until this point Kriel had been able to rebuff the allegations made by the panel against his organisation. He was then caught by a lang slap riem. After Pienaar’s discussion, Kriel was given precisely three sentences to respond, in which he pointed out Pienaar’s extremist past. McKaiser now took the gap.

Eusebius McKaier: Hmm, but of course he’s allowed to evolve his views, right? Have you guys evolved your views about apartheid for example? Do you think apartheid was a crime against humanity?

Kallie Kriel : I don’t think that it was a crime against humanity, but I think it was wrong…and…

EM: You don’t think apartheid was a crime against humanity?

KK: Well, then we should declare communism where more than 100 million people…

EM: No, no, I’m not talking about communism, I’m just talking about apartheid, was apartheid a crime against humanity?

KK: I disagree that it was a crime against humanity, but it was a system that…

EM: [Loud whistle]

KK: Because it was a system that infringed on dignity, and, on the dignity of people, but that is a longer discussion, now, what for me is a problem, Eusebius, is that 20% of these farm murders are not just normal murders, um, if there can be such a thing, people are tortured with blowtorches, their feet and hands, there’s an example of the lady where a drill was used through her feet and hands, hot water is used to torture people, and these people are going to try and make accusations [...] because we are fighting against this then maybe we cannot sit around, we have [these] things going on….

Following the show McKaiser then took to Twitter, stating: "Kallie Kriel tells me 'I don't think Apartheid was a crime against humanity.' WTF."

 

And Pienaar posted "that was fun" to the Busting the Myth of White Genocide Facebook page.

 

To which they replied: "We were all listening! Great work Johan!" 

 

Although this was not the topic of the show, and Kriel had not been able to set out his position, this misjudged answer to a question clearly intended to trip him up provided a new line of attack for AfriForum’s critics over the following week.

Conclusion

The notion that there is currently a “white genocide” (in the sense of mass murder of whites or white farmers) is a fringe one held largely by ill-informed Americans with their own peculiar racial fears and obsessions. The tactic being used by elements in the media, and it is an old and disreputable one, is to give huge play to a marginal and easily refutable position, to then loudly “debunk” it, and then claim that this also disposes of completely legitimate and well-grounded minority fears and concerns. Furthermore AfriForum was then itself falsely accused of being a purveyor of “white genocide” claims, in a clear effort to discredit their advocacy on farm attacks and expropriation without compensation. These allegations have been so relentless, and confidently made, that any ordinary consumer of the news would believe that this “genocide” theme is central to that organisation’s messaging.

It is extraordinary the effort by such intellectuals to discuss everything but the real and repeated threats being made against white farmers and their property rights by senior politicians, in the context of ongoing and brutal violence. The organisations who have spent years working on this issue have received little support, much opposition, and sometimes outright enmity. This in stark contrast to media and academic endorsement of other campaigns against the manifold humanitarian abuses plaguing the country.

It is also remarkable that those who are troubled by statistical accuracy rarely bring anything new or constructive to the table, nor do they put forward their own calculations. Formulating accurate statistics for any social issue is never easy, and it is especially hard in a country lacking institutional capacity and political will. It is however harder still under an antagonistic intellectual climate.

Campaigns against farm murders do not negate the reality or existence of other communities who face horrific levels of crime, nor does it infringe upon their rights. All citizens, including farmers, have the right to protest against being murdered or attacked. In addition, any fears, including those of being driven off the land, might well have been quelled by now had the ANC government been forced by public pressure to address them.

The proper role of intellectuals is surely to “bring distant dangers near” so that they can be responded to and avoided in good time, not to pretend that there is nothing to worry about (and belittle those who raise the alarm), until it is too late to prevent a tragedy from happening. No country is immune to violence. Only a decade ago the country experienced a wave of attacks against immigrants, and it was preceded by significant anti-foreigner sentiment.

If writers, journalists and other assorted intellectuals are therefore truly concerned about social cohesion, perhaps it is time they turned inwards, and ask themselves what they are really trying to achieve, rather than gulping red wine and sipping coffee over existential questions, while getting drunk on hits and, ultimately, leaving the public to suffer the hangover.

Follow MLA on Twitter @MLAntoni