ON November 15, 1988, exactly 35 years ago, Barend “Wit Wolf" Strydom cold-bloodedly shot and killed eight black people on Strijdom Square in Pretoria, injuring 16 others.
On January 10, 1992, Vrye Weekblad investigated right-wing terror and asked on the front page: Is Northern Ireland our future?
On June 25, 1993, the AWB's “stormtroopers" burst through the doors of the Codesa conference hall in Kempton Park.
On the eve of the 1994 election, one of the biggest fears for the new democratic South Africa was whether right-wing militants, many with close ties to the old military and police, would plunge the country into a bloodbath.
Thirty years later, we barely think about the possibility of right-wing terror. The hotheads talking about a racial bloodbath now are black: the EFF (they call their “stormtroopers" “ground forces").
The irony is that a movement seen by many South Africans as right-wing racists, Solidarity/AfriForum, is one of the main reasons for the irrelevance, I would almost say emasculation, of the far-right extremist front.
“We are not right-wing," AfriForum leader Kallie Kriel tells me. “We are forward-looking conservative."
However you see the politics and ideology of the Solidarity Movement, the fact is that today it is the only bull in the Boere kraal.
Instead of threatening war, we see Kriel and the brain behind Solidarity, Flip Buys, as part of high-level strategic national discussions; with a special relationship with former president Thabo Mbeki and his foundation. They assist black communities with agricultural projects and sometimes fight for black and brown in court, gradually improving their negative image among black South Africans.
They're not exactly my cup of tea but no one can deny that Buys has built a formidable empire in two decades that no one, not even the ANC and the government, can ignore any more.
An ethnic empire, yes, but an efficient, productive empire, in stark contrast to the ineffective state and failing ANC.
Historian and public intellectual RW Johnson has high regard for Solidarity and wrote some time ago that it “is quite explicitly building a state within a state".
Terre’Blanche is still dead
Oh, the AWB still exists — well, kind of, because after Eugene Terre'Blanche was killed by a worker on his farm in 2010 there wasn't much left. And now we have quite a few who want to take the place of Terre'Blanche's AWB, including the Kommandokorps, the Boerelegioen, the Suidlanders and the Bittereinders. Also the Boere-Afrikaner Volksraad, the National Christian Resistance Movement, Israel Vision and Daughters of Zion. (And perhaps one or two more far-right groups have formed between my research earlier this week and writing this.)
A researcher who has infiltrated the far right and therefore doesn't want her identity to be revealed tells me none of these organisations has much substance beyond Boer nostalgia and wild rhetoric around the braai fires and on social media.
“It's more theatre and blowing off steam than preparation for a revolution," she says. “Their mouths are too big, the police know everything about them."
I've been wandering down the social media rabbit holes of the far right for the past two weeks, and that's my impression too.
I get the feeling of fearful people, especially certain personality types, who feel uncertain in the new order and would rather cling to what they and their parents saw as “normal".
They want to belong somewhere, they're looking for a tribe. They camouflage their insecurity and fragility with machismo; a romanticising of the Boer commando, the soldier on the border. Rifle in one hand, Bible in the other.
They are racist, yes, and sometimes very much so. But it has its roots more in fear than a sense of white supremacy, and they have little in common with the alt-right white supremacists in America and Europe. (On the far-right websites and social media, it was clear that people are crazy about Siya Kolisi.)
They see themselves as victims, martyrs. They particularly mobilise around farm murders and a fear of land confiscation, although the high crime rate and the provocative racial statements by Julius Malema also feature strongly in all their Facebook posts and YouTube videos.
Much of it is Old Testament, memories of a distant past
Look at this somewhat bizarre video on the Boerelegioen website:
But should we be concerned that these movements could threaten our stability?
Kallie Kriel doesn't believe so; he calls them “marginal figures": “I don't think we need to take them seriously at all. In terms of stability and as a real threat, they are very small, much smaller than they were in the run-up to the 1994 elections."
Right-wing militants don't have many success stories to celebrate. Former Colonel Willem Ratte of the Pretoria Boerekommando went to prison, as did the leaders of the Boeremag, Chris Hani's assassins Clive Derby-Lewis and Janus Waluś, and more recently Harry Knoesen of the National Christian Resistance Movement.
But the turning point was the AWB's invasion of Bophuthatswana in March 1994 — a total fiasco and humiliation. The image of three men in khaki lying injured in the dust alongside an old grey Mercedes and later being shot to death is burned into the volk's memory.
Terre'Blanche had threatened war for years, but when his chance came he wasn't at the forefront and his “soldiers" were caricatures. So much so that the more respected General Constand Viljoen immediately abandoned his advanced plans for a resistance effort by soldiers and former soldiers and participated in the 1994 elections.
Kriel agrees. “It was a significant turning point in history. I would think there was probably a lot of fear among black people of the AWB, but with the Bophuthatswana invasion, it disappeared like mist before the morning sun and the AWB actually became a mockery.
“In terms of the psyche of Afrikaners who could be influenced by paramilitary men in uniform making radical statements, it was a moment of truth: hot air doesn't create a future for you. It was a more important moment when people realised this is the path of failure."
But if Flip Buys had not transformed the white Mine Workers' Union into Solidarity in 2001 and built it into one of the most powerful, influential movements outside party politics, right-wing extremism might have filled the vacuum in the face of a failing ANC and a stumbling state with a growing culture of populism.
The movement is politically and socially very conservative, exclusively Christian, and mobilises Afrikaner nationalism. Farm murders, the Afrikaans language and the fear of land expropriation without compensation are high on its agenda.
But it is also pragmatic and decent, increasingly so. No more talk of war, no overt racism, no “white genocide" rhetoric. AfriForum even has a brown sister organisation, Kaapse Forum.
For the first time since the splits in the National Party — the Reconstituted National Party (HNP) in 1969, the Conservative Party in 1982 — there is a movement on the Afrikaner right that has a strong voice in the national mainstream.
Solidarity is not only an effective trade union; it has established a vocational training college, Sol-Tech, and a tertiary education institution, Akademia. AfriForum is the movement's active Afrikaner civil rights group, then there are Sakeliga, Helpende Hand, the agricultural organisation Saai, Maroela Media, Kraal Publishers, the FAK, Pretoria FM, Forum Films, Kanton Properties and more. The movement is active in rural and suburban security.
Kriel: “Afrikaners are intelligent people. They see what works and what doesn't. They have seen the damage the AWB did.
“We had to show that an alternative approach can be successful. Many of the guys just relied on people's anger, but you also have to show that you can take a strong stance, go to court and protest, without resorting to bombastic actions.
“The Solidarity Movement has worked hard to create an alternative that says to people: here is a better way to deal with what you are upset about, a better way to achieve things than just being reactionary.
“It cut off the oxygen for the far-right groups."
My researcher source had a final warning. “Even if the far-right organisations are weak, there is still the possibility that one or two crazies will one day take a gun and shoot people or plant a bomb. A Barend Strydom figure. If there is a violent reaction from black radicals, the dynamics could change."
♦ VWB ♦
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