If you have never heard of Simon Roche, and you very possibly haven’t, he is the official spokesman for the Suidlanders.
The group, led by the reclusive Gustav Muller, is headquartered in the small Northern Cape town Van Der Kloof, a settlement originally built for the workers who constructed the nearby dam of the same name. The Suidlanders are convinced that South Africa is headed for a cataclysm and their mission is to protect “their people” from the consequences. Their focus is on developing and activating a plan for the protection of the “conservative white minority” when the prophecies of a nationwide civil war by the 19th century Boer prophet Nicolaas “Siener” van Rensburg finally come to pass.
The Suidlanders claim to be a super-large civil defence organisation - with more than 130 000 members - and to be the “largest of its kind in the world”. The images on the homepage of their English-language website leave visitors in no doubt as to their apocalyptic take on current events. For foreigners in particular the message, unmediated by other knowledge, will be grim and highly alarming.
Roche rose to international prominence in 2017 during a fund-raising trip to the United States where he promoted the “white genocide” narrative to alt-right and far-right organisations. Subsequently, an extraordinary number of mainstream British and American publications have sought to frame their reporting on South Africa through him and his organisation. Profiles of Roche and the Suidlanders have appeared in numerous overseas publications, including Vice, CNN, Reuters, Harpers Magazine, among many others.
This focus would strike many South Africans as bewildering given that within white and Afrikaner society the Suidlanders are generally regarded as an organisation, with no significant support base, operating on the far outer fringes. Roche himself emerged from total obscurity in 2017 and remains little known locally, outside of left-wing journalistic circles.
Who though is Simon Roche? Where does he come from? To cut a long story short we spoke to him to find out.
Roche is a person of obvious intelligence and has the gift of the gab in his native English. He is well-read and more than just proficient in Afrikaans and isiZulu. He has an incredible ability to recall many small details which he liberally sprinkles into his narrative during our interview.
Roche has been officially involved in the Suidlanders since early 2017. He has raised eyebrows due to his account of his conversion – related in numerous interviews - from a self-confessed card-carrying ANC member and one-time student revolutionary to the main messenger and public face for this group of conservative, heavily Afrikaans, latter-day preppers.
Roche was born in 1971 and raised and schooled in Amanzimtoti on the Natal South Coast. His paternal family, he explained during our interview, was of Irish stock and he had a very conservative Catholic upbringing. “When I say conservative I mean really conservative...hard-core Roman Catholics. I haven't met an Afrikaans person who had it worse as regards conservatism than we did.” he says.
The eldest of five siblings, he found an early sporting passion in competitive life-saving. An image of a fit, tanned and self-assured young man appears in the 1988 Kingsway High school yearbook, the year he was head prefect.
Roche enrolled in Natal University in 1989 to read law and political science. As part of his coursework he read sociology and this set him thinking about what he was doing.
“I had dreamed of university from a young age and felt sure that it would provide me with an absolute truth. Definitive answers to all the questions I had about the world, law and politics. I was, however disappointed in the polemic and tendentiousness which I encountered. After that my heart was really not in it at all...”
He then discloses that he was “somewhat active” in the ANC.
Really? A genuine card-carrying member?
Asked for the name of his branch, he struggled to remember it. “It was the one associated with the university” he added, before the conversation moved along.
“I wasn't a radical or anything like that in my support of the ANC.” he explains. “Like many others at the time I had watched TV news each night for about ten years and the seemingly increasingly violent nature of developments in the country made an impression on me. I thought we had only two outcomes – either we would be faced with and have to confront a worsening crisis or we needed to take hands and try and fix this problem.”
Roche then related that he had even been arrested by the “Security Branch” in 1990. This is a claim he has often made before in the interviews he has given overseas since 2017. Asked for more details he says he had his collar felt after he forcibly intervened in an incident where the police were “ganging up on one particular black guy which I thought was terribly unjust and so I laid into the cops and threw a few punches.”
That could not have been a fair fight? “They got the better of me”, he admits. He then went on to describe in detail the interior of the Security Police complex he was taken to beneath Durban Railway Station, down to the ship-like waterproof doors in the corridors.
He was charged he says, with inciting a riot, crimen injuria, resisting arrest and assaulting an officer of the law. “Here I was at 19 and terrified. I was nipping straws. My dad had to get a lawyer for me and eventually, as the judicial system of the time was sympathetic to the inevitable transition, the charges were dropped. I was lucky as, technically, I was guilty.”
At the end of his second year at university, however, having scraped a pass, Roche decided he was not going to continue, even though he could have done so, and told his parents he was dropping out. “They were bitterly disappointed as, of course, the ideal in a conservative family like mine is that the first born son was to be a lawyer or a doctor.”
In continuing this part of his history he re-visits the aspect of seeking absolute truth with some interesting phraseology about the lack of real hard facts at university. “You know that no matter if you are pro-ANC, pro-liberal, pro-this or pro-that it does not matter. If absolute truth is what you are searching for and you discover that it is all propaganda...left or right...it's immaterial, if that's not what you want, it doesn't count.”
In those days, if one was at university the national service obligation for young white males was deferred. Having dropped out Roche then had to report to the South African Defence Force in January 1991. At this stage national service was reduced from a two year stint to a single year.
“I went to Potchefstroom to the Krygskool Danie Theron which was the army intelligence school.” He cut short his tenure there as he motivated for, and was granted, a move back to Durban to be able to participate in competitive life-saving.
“I managed to get moved to Natal command in what was called CS2A which involved covert intelligence collection. As I had not completed my tweede-fase (second phase) in Potch and had no rank, I served out the remainder of my time in the military as a clerk.”
The obvious question was, of course, how well an ANC member was received within the military intelligence apparatus – as lowly as his position at Natal Command was?
“It hung over me like a pall.” he relates, “You know, like when you are a kid and you have done something naughty every time you are among the adults you wonder if they know something they are not telling you or if you are going to be found out somehow. I was in continual dread of being uncovered as a renegade.”
Having been demobbed at the end of 1991 he found employment as a retail assistant at a diving shop on the Victoria Embankment in Durban. At some stage, however, his father discovered that he was smoking dagga and he was summarily expelled from the Roche home.
“This was a huge, life-changing event,” he says. “I was young, had nowhere to live and a limited income. So I landed up staying in the Dalton migrant labourers’ men's hostel. We were thirty six men to a tiny room with two per bunk and the others on the floor. Here I learned deep Zulu.”
This is obviously a matter of pride to him and he expanded on how this had assisted him later in life.
“You know, if you speak isiZulu to people in KZN they really love it. If, however, you can speak it like they do, as I learned it in the hostel, they idolise you. They feel they can trust you. That and the fact that I used to be an ANC member opened many doors for me later on. It is a formative experience that gives you credibility in certain circles. Forever. I am unaware of any other white person aside from Johnny Clegg that has ever actually lived in a hostel like that. This proved my sincerity with their cause beyond a doubt. What white boy leaves a comfortable middle class existence and goes to live in a hostel?”
Out of the family home he now needed extra income. A friend of his was doing odd-jobs in the entertainment industry. He passed on to Roche small sideline parcels of work: putting up posters for the events and driving performers and their staff around the city whenever there were big concerts. “That was how I got my start in the events industry.”
“Then, a lady in the diving industry sent word to a group of us that she was working on Zanzibar Island and had numerous jobs open for us if we wanted them. So I left the diving shop, sold off my poster placement business to raise cash and hitch-hiked my way to Zanzibar.”
Roche's friends recall that he set off with a pocket of potatoes on this trip. “I thought that was the answer to feeding myself all the way to Zanzibar. I reckoned if I had at least one spud a day I would be fine.” In total, he recalls, the trip took about 14 days.
During his time on Zanzibar, Roche says he contracted malaria and various other tropical ailments and had to come back home to recuperate. He then went back a second time in early 1993 and took along some pals. This time, however, with white South Africans being more welcome in the rest of Africa they were able to make use of the railway between Lusaka and Dar es Salaam. He then returned home again at the end of 1993.
“From then to the end of the Rugby World Cup in ‘95 my buddies and I did odd-jobs for Big Concerts and made additional cash by burgling crayfish.”
“In 1996 Michael Jackson had a concert in Durban and I ran the working crews and made quite a bit of money for a young, unqualified guy at the time. So I decided to go to Israel to work on a Kibbutz. I worked on the Sea of Galilee catching fish, legally this time. It was the adventure of a lifetime.”
“A lady from Big Concerts tracked me down in Israel and asked me to come and work on the U2 concert in August ‘96. After this I moved to Johannesburg and got a lowly placement at a firm called Gearhouse which was world famous in the events industry.”
Roche then went on to detail how he had worked his way up in the industry and had, in time, been asked, due to his ability to make connections with people of all groups, to be the front man for many important conference assignments involving the ANC. “Some of the work I did set world records,” he enthuses.
An oft told anecdote he re-visits in our interview involves his father visiting him in Johannesburg in around 2000, after the birth of his first son. Although never married, Roche has three children. “Two live with their mother and the third with his mom. It is heart-breaking having your children grow up in a different home but I am proud to say I have excellent relationships with my children.”
During this visit his father gave him, he says, a copy of the book by Adriaan Snyman on the prophecies of Siener Van Rensburg. “I casually flipped the book back to my dad after reading it and told him the work was full of inconsistencies, had logical flaws all over the place and could not be taken seriously. To this day it is still a point of contention between us that I did not hand the book back reverently – as one handles a bible.” The words of the prophecies had, nevertheless, lodged within his memory.
Over the next few years Roche worked for and with various events firms. Fast forward to 2007.
“At that stage I joined a very large events firm called VWV Group. The group is huge and it counted among its clients the ANC. There I was able to sustain my ongoing involvement with government contracts, one of which was the December 2007 ANC 52nd Annual Conference at which Jacob Zuma was elected ANC president. During the plenary session of the conference there was some trouble and disruption. The ANC's security people removed all outsiders from the room leaving the 5000 delegates, a skeleton staff of 5 black technicians and myself.”
“I was also involved with the inauguration of our president in 2009 and was also briefed to plan the funeral event for the late President Mandela about 5 years before he eventually passed. The ANC knew that they had to have a plan in place for when the inevitable happened and I was the project manager they wanted.”
So, he then went to work at Shell House or with the government?
“No, my party membership had lapsed way back while I was in the army. I had lost all interest in politics then. This briefing came about as I was with the company that had run several events for the party.”
“During the briefing by public works for the funeral one of the guys talking to us used three phrases I had read in the Words of a Prophet book by Adriaan Snyman nearly a decade before. The first was 'As you know, he is deemed a saint by the world.' Then they said 'He will lie in state in a glass coffin.' and finally 'Dignitaries from the whole world will come to the site of the grave to pay homage.'
“I was shocked! I first thought I was making a mistake and had not remembered the phrases correctly. The next morning I had a meeting in Parkhurst and popped into a second hand bookshop to dig out a copy of the book before my client arrived.”
After the meeting Roche grabbed the book and dashed home. “I called my boss and told him layers of lies about why I would not be working for the rest of the day. Then I lay on my sleeper couch and read the book again. And there they were. The exact phrases used by the guy briefing us relating to how the world viewed the president whose funeral I had to arrange. It was incredible!”
“I was filled with a sense of awe. Of all the billions of people on the planet, I was in a briefing where the same words written by a Dutch Oom a hundred or more years before had been spoken to me. The exact same words!”
Roche related this entire chain of events as akin to a Damascus Road experience.
On Christmas Eve 2010 Roche had an accident in Durban. “I was declared dead at the scene but survived. However this made me take another look at my life. I was in a stressful job in Johannesburg and I wondered what it was all for. So I tossed it all up and went to stay in Cape Town where my brother was living and initially helped him with his company. As time passed another events company called AV Alliance employed me and I became the GM. Among many of their contracts was the technical contract for the Cape Town Convention Centre. So I was once again back in the events industry.”
Three years later and he was back in Johannesburg. The move was at the request of two female black businesswomen “related to Minister Radebe”. This was to help set up a meat importing company specialising in organic beef from Botswana.
Roche was made a director of the Pure Beef Company on 10th July 2014. The address given for the entity is a house in Parkhurst owned by two other listed directors, Marang Setshwaelo and Phindile Mkhabela. In the event the meat venture never got off the ground as planned but, according to other interviews Roche has given, he was allowed to live in the servants’ quarters of the property. He says that in addition he sometimes got paid minimal amounts for doing ad-hoc work in an events company which the two businesswomen also ran.
“They were very good to me and looked after me even though the main business idea had come to nothing. As it turned out the meat industry in Botswana is like Eskom here. All state run and legislated so there is no room for outsiders to play in that space. It was during this time that I spent more and more time on the internet and on survivalist bulletin boards. That is when I started writing under a false name Frederick von Strass on the survivalist and Suidlander websites.”
In time Roche met members of the local Suidlander group and also the leader of the organisation, Gustav Muller. One thing led to another and once they became aware he had been behind a number of articles about the group on the internet he did more and more writing for them and also translated their action plan into English. “At one stage I was invited to go to Van Der Kloof but I had no means of doing so. The group made it possible and so I had a little holiday there.” This was all while he was still living in Parkhurst.
It was during his increasingly close association with the group and its members that Roche asked one of the group what it was that they most needed. “We have enough members, we have a plan. What we need is money.” he was told.
Roche then applied his mind to a plan to help the group with this quest. “It occurred to me that we needed to seek funding in the USA. There are many conservative groups there and I felt certain they would be responsive to our needs.” Roche began by sending appeals to 930 churches he had downloaded from a website called Right Wing Watch. “Not a peep. Nobody responded.”
He did, however, secure several online interview opportunities, including one with a show run by someone involved with another local nationalistic movement involving King Gaob Khoebaha Calvin Cornelius III and the Sovereign State of Good Hope.
Roche is quick to distance himself and Suidlanders from that and other similar movements, however. “While Mel did give us an interview I must stress that, although asked to assist their group if possible, we do not support the ideas of the group she represents. We do not believe secession from the Republic, by any group, is a viable option.”
Roche went on to explain that Suidlanders is very careful to follow the strict precepts of the law and cannot afford to take any risk of being seen to be involved with activity which can be claimed to be hostile to the state.
In January 2017 the Suidlanders launched a new and professional looking English-language website. This was all part of a push to improve the profile of the organisation internationally. This led to further interest from the online media in the United States and Roche decided that it would be better for him to actually go to the USA and meet with some key groups rather than attempt things via remote control. The trip was funded, in part, by a large donation from a Suidlander member who was inspired, Roche says, "by my willingness to give up my job and career to go tour the USA for the organisation”.
In a message to the Suidlanders on the 7th February 2017 Gustav Muller announced this upcoming trip, and appealed for further donations to help fund it: “these are extremely expensive undertakings and the money that has been received so far came into our hands in a way that can only be described as a true miracle.”
So it was that Roche and the groups' head of internal security, André Coetzee, flew to the USA for three months. Roche ended up extending his stay for a further three months. On this trip Roche searched out, and did numerous presentations to, various alt-right, far-right and white-ethno nationalist organisations, podcasters and radio stations. Many of these are available online. His journey through the US was soon picked up upon by liberal and left-wing organisations and publications which monitor the far-right in the United States. A Mail & Guardian report in April 2018 summarised Roche and Coetzee’s approach as follows:
“They lobbied various alt-right groups, including people who have been publicly described as Nazis, fascists, racists, white supremacists, homophobes, anti-Semitic, anti-feminist and conspiracy theorists. Some have served time in jail for racial assaults and others regularly advocate violence in defence of whites. These include the likes of David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, a Republican state representative and an avid US President Donald Trump supporter, and David Spencer, a Nazi sympathiser, who coined the term “alt-right” to attract a new generation of right-wing supporters.”
In 2018 Roche was also the subject of a Lauren Southern online documentary, Farmlands, in which one of Roche’s fellow directors in the Real Beef Company, the prominent ANC-linked businessman Thabo Mokwena, was also interviewed.
This effort by the Suidlanders to link up with white extremists in the United States and promote a “white genocide” narrative has had the effect of poisoning the well for mainstream Afrikaner organisations, such as AfriForum, that tried to raise concerns around the ongoing problem of farm attacks, and the ANC’s lurch in late 2017 towards pursuing the Expropriation Without Compensation of white-owned land. After Tucker Carlson on Fox News raised these issues in August 2018, and US President Donald Trump tweeted about them, the push-back from the left was that this was all just part of a ‘white genocide narrative’ concocted by ‘neo-Nazis’.
Roche insists the Suidlanders are not right wing at all.
“We are not rabid like the AWB and groups even more radical than that. We are legally constituted. We are not involved with anything illegal. No members may have illegal weapons and nobody is allowed to plan any offensive tactics or operations. We are simply here to look after our people in the event that civil unrest rises to such a point that the conservative white minority is targeted or endangered and they might have to leave their homes and congregate in an area where there can be a critical mass for defence. All this is permitted by the Geneva Convention.”
In an article in Rapport newspaper in 2010 Jacques Pauw reported that the Suidlanders were so riddled with police spies that it was “for all practical purposes” a Crime Intelligence front organisation. The police had spent millions on this operation, infiltrating some 200 paid informants into the organisation's ranks, the purpose of which was to collect information on right wing activity in the country. To this day the Suidlanders are suspected in conservative and Afrikaner right wing circles of (still) being some kind of state intelligence front, and widely shunned as a result.
“Ja, I know about those claims” Roche comments. “We have them constantly. Also claims that we made millions in the USA and have used the money to feather our nests. Firstly, we categorically deny any involvement with the state security apparatus. We have often said we are not linked to the state in any manner. The critics say we are. We say we are not, cross our hearts and hope to die. You will never resolve these opposite views and prove one or the other until, heaven forbid, we have to activate our plan and people will see we were genuine.”
And the millions in donations the Suidlanders are alleged to have received from the US?
“Well, the truth is we did not make a lot of money out of the USA trip. If we did, there would be questions from several South African banks as well as SARS.”
Roche did, however, relate that it cost his colleague and himself about $280 per day to be in the US, including a rental car and "...staying in the cheapest motel chain we could find..." Once Coetzee returned to South Africa “for family and personal reasons”, that came down to around $140 per day. This additional period of his stay was funded he says, in part, by many small donations from members of the churches and groups that gave him a platform.
As for the rest of the extended journey costs, Roche explained, he put a lot of debits on his personal credit card. The group does have a PayPal link on its English language site and some of the early funds sent via that route were used, he says, to settle his credit card bill until the direct costs from the USA trip were amortised in full.
At the 15 ZAR to 1 USD exchange rate of the period this places the eventual cost of the tour at well over the R550 000 mark. At "...$20 (R300) here and $40 (R600) there..." Roche maintains that the trip did not raise lots of cash and was not what they had hoped for.
So the Americans were a hard audience to please?
“The public, and especially the right wing in the USA is milk-toast. They are so politically correct it is not funny. They do not wish to be seen, for the largest part, to be supporting whites. If I was a black Ugandan, truck-driving, lesbian, HIV positive, single mother of seven I would have been welcomed with open arms.”
He adds that “at no stage did we get large contributions. The largest single donation we got was, as I recall, $2000. If we had been given huge amounts, surely by this time there would be a chorus of people saying 'Oh yes, we gave them a hundred thousand and they gave them five hundred thousand.' But it is just crickets.”
What do his former business associates and clients in the ANC and within the events industry think of his damascene conversion and current way of thinking?
“Some say it is treasonous to my former colleagues and others claim it is racist. I disagree. If I am paying for my children to go to school but not paying for my neighbour's kids that does not mean I hate my neighbour. I am merely looking after my own which, in terms of international law and our constitution, I am permitted to do. Just as long as I do not cause harm to my neighbour or impact on his life in a negative or hostile manner what is the problem in my planning and preparing for possible future eventualities as I see them?”
This then is the extraordinary journey that has taken Roche from living in the backyard of a Joburg property owned by ANC-linked business people, to living with his three Jack Russels in a modest home provided by the Suidlanders in Van Der Kloof. A journey too that has taken him from complete obscurity within South Africa to international fame and notoriety.
What of the future then? Where does Roche see himself in ten years from now?
“To be honest, I don't know. This is hard work. The attacks are constant. Accusations about us personally and as a group arrive thick and fast. Our detractors even single out our families and children at school. I'm just human and I am not sure if my health will allow me to withstand the pressures of this work ad-infinitum. So we shall see. The work is meaningful to me, however, and I feel I am doing something vital. I will carry on as best I can for as long as possible.”
So, in this, has he, at last, found the absolute truth for which he has been yearning?
“Yes. I would say so. It makes sense to me in a deep, personal way.”
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