The current phenomena, in which liberal democracies have become overtaken by the now-global far-right nationalist movement, has been a prominent topic of media coverage in the past few years. However, a majority of the coverage has focused on the Global West: The French Front National, the U.S. Trump administration, and the rise of populism in Italy and Hungary have been garnered high levels of media coverage and scrutiny.
However, the West’s shift in favour of far-right nationalism has had an impact upon other parts of the world as well, and the influence of white nationalist groups has had a particularly strong impact upon South Africa. Although the normalization of aggressive identity politics has grave humanitarian consequences in any part of the world, the alt-right’s influence upon South Africa is particularly dangerous in light of the fact that the country is only a little over two decades out of Apartheid.
White identity politics in South Africa gained traction earlier this year when news of the country’s “farm attacks” made international headlines. According to South African journalist Karl Kemp, these attacks consist of “robberies and murders directed at isolated farmers, often involving brutal torture and sexual abuse.” While alt-right [names] such as Lauren Southern—the subject of Kemp’s piece on the alt-right’s influence in South Africa—allege that such attacks are indicative of ‘white genocide’ as a form of retribution for apartheid, the truth is more ambiguous.
According to Africa Check, the government has tracked farm attacks in South Africa since 1997. The South African Police’s findings indicate that farm attacks reached a peak in 2001, then declined until 2006 and have stayed more-or-less constant at around 70 murders per year ever since. Private organizations have also tracked farm murders, many since before 1997, and their findings have contradicted those of the police. Both AfriForum and the Transvaal Agricultural Union, have recorded a dramatic increase in farm attacks since 2012 and it was estimated by AfriForum, that the 2016 farm murder rate was 156 per 100,000. However, these estimates are unreliable due to the fact that they are based upon the Institute for Security Study’s research, which was only intended to be used as an estimate.
Many political actors have been quick to label the farm attacks as an assault against white South Africans. For example, Australia’s Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton controversially offered to afford white South African farmers “special consideration” for humanitarian visas, in light of the “persecution” that they face in their home country. This ignores the fact that white farmers are not the only victims of farm attacks: the exact figures are unclear, but there is general consensus that large proportions of black South African farmers have been victims of farm attacks as well.
International scrutiny of attacks against white South African farmers increased in part however, it comes as a result of the fact that the South African assembly is now considering a new bill that would allow the government to expropriate white farmers’ land. News of this reform has increased instances of “land grabbing,” or the illegal seizure of land, and raised concerns among white farmers that will fall victim to the notorious attacks. This fear has led to white South African farmers taking precautionary measures. Just days ago, stories of former Israeli soldiers training white South African farmers in self-defence made international headlines. This militarization of South African farmers proves ominous when examined against the backdrop of a large increase in far-right support and influence in South Africa, and it is likely that these most recent efforts will escalate tensions between the white farming community and black South Africans.
South Africa’s farm attacks must be looked at in the wider context of South African society. South Africa has been plagued by violence since long before the end of apartheid, and it is consistently recognized by organizations such as the United Nations for hosting one of the world’s highest murder rates.
Although farm attacks have been noted for their particular brutality, it is an unfortunate fact of life in South Africa that violent crime is not uncommon. This does not excuse the farm attacks in any way, as violence and brutality should never be considered a norm, but it rather suggests that instead of zeroing in on the specific issue of farm attacks against white South Africans, political actors should take a holistic approach towards reducing crime in South Africa.