Israel Vision – How the religious cult that drove the Boeremag still flourishes online
The right-wing Boeremag terrorists were in thrall to a bizarre racist belief system called Israel Vision – and the recent parole of a key Boeremag figure has helped reveal that its ideology is alive and well in South Africa in 2022.
Belinda Ameterra was standing opposite a Shoprite store in the Western Cape farming town of Worcester when she spotted the man.
“I saw this guy jumping out of his car and running to put something in a garbage bin,” she says.
It looked as if the object the man was discarding in the bin might be a parcel of fish and chips. Ameterra remembers joking to a colleague about how wasteful white people were with food. Seconds later, the bin exploded. What Ameterra had mistaken for a takeaway was a bomb.
It was Christmas Eve, 1996, and Worcester’s main shopping area was busy and festive, with excited children thronging to get a glimpse of the Shoprite Christmas tree and maybe spot a visiting Santa. Nine-year-old Juanita April’s stomach was blown open. Nine-year-old Andile Matshoba’s leg was blasted off. Juanita died in hospital a few hours later. Andile was killed on the spot, as was 35-year old Samuel Jalile. Andile’s brother Xolani would later succumb to his injuries too.
Minutes after the blast, a second bomb detonated close by. Newspaper reports from the time state that in total, 71 people were injured seriously enough to need hospital attention. All the victims were black or brown.
Ameterra escaped with shrapnel in her hair. Her partner, Marius, who was also on the scene, told Daily Maverick that he remembers people “running and screaming ‘Bomb! Bomb! Bomb!’ I could feel there was blood coming out of my ear. Then I don’t know anything about what happened next.”
The man who planned and executed the bombings with three accomplices was a Boeremag member called Johannes (Jan) van der Westhuizen, aged 45. Van der Westhuizen fled to Namibia after the attack, but was extradited and charged a few weeks later.
Willem Els, currently a counterterrorism analyst with the Institute for Security Studies, worked with the police on the Worcester bombing investigation. He remembers being particularly intrigued by Van der Westhuizen, for one main reason.
“What really struck me was that for this guy, [the motive for the attack] was religious,” Els told Daily Maverick.
Van der Westhuizen was a devoted adherent of a fringe religious group called Israelvisie, or Israel Vision. It is sometimes referred to as a cult. It is also generally discussed in the past tense, as an aberrant but short-lived movement which sprung up in response to the climate of social anxiety in South Africa in the build-up to the transfer of power from a white minority government.
In reality, the Israel Vision belief system is alive and well today. And its supporters in 2022 now have a powerful tool to amplify their message of divinely endorsed racial hatred: social media.
The (second) flight of Jan van der Westhuizen
At the time of writing, Worcester bomber Jan van der Westhuizen is sitting in a holding cell at the border post between South Africa and Namibia. Prisons spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo told Daily Maverick this week that authorities are awaiting the extradition paperwork “to get him back to Upington”.
The Upington Correctional Centre in the Northern Cape is where Van der Westhuizen was a prisoner until 29 April 2022. On that date, he was quietly released on parole. Just as he had done directly after the 1996 bombing, Van der Westhuizen promptly attempted to flee to Namibia. But police had been alerted to keep a close eye on him, says Nxumalo, and he was caught shortly afterwards near the border.
The news of the Boeremag bomber’s release and recapture was broken after the fact, by City Press. It wasn’t just the media who were kept in the dark about Van der Westhuizen’s parole; so too were the family members of the bombing victims and other affected parties: a group which includes Belinda Ameterra and her partner Marius.
Speaking to Daily Maverick, Ameterra could not hide her anger – not just at Van der Westhuizen’s release, but at the fact that he had almost made it across the Namibian border.
“How on Earth could that happen if he didn’t have support?” she asks. “There’s no doubt in my mind that he had support.”
Someone who agrees is Marjorie Jobson, who for decades has been tirelessly lobbying for justice for apartheid’s victims through the organisation Khulumani. Jobson was instrumental in helping organise a meeting between Van der Westhuizen and some of the Worcester bombing survivors, including the Ametera couple, in 2017 – an encounter during which those present say the bomber showed no remorse for his actions.
Jobson has little doubt about the source of Van der Westhuizen’s ongoing support: the supposedly defunct Israel Vision sect.
“Israel Vision still has devoted adherents, mostly in the Northern Cape,” Jobson told Daily Maverick. “These are the people who regularly visited the man in the Upington [prison]. They are still his followers.”
Willem Els confirmed this, telling Daily Maverick that both Van der Westhuizen and Israel Vision still enjoy a “big support base”, members of whom have been assisting the bomber throughout his time in prison.
Followers of Israel Vision should, in Els’s view, be classified not just as right-wingers but also as religious extremists.
“There are few people more dangerous than religious extremists,” Els says.
A belief system with many names
Israelvisie (Israel Vision), Blanke Israelisme (White Israelism) and Wit Teologie (White Theology) are just a few of the South African names for a religious philosophy which originated in the UK in the early 1900s as Israel Identity. Its core belief is that only white people who can trace their bloodline back to western Europe are the true children of God.
“Radical Israel Identity groups advocate strict racial segregation lest there be biological mixing between the races (and thereby between the genetic descendants of God and Satan),” wrote Martin Schönteich and Henri Boshoff in a 2003 paper.
“South African followers of Israel Identity justify their demands to bring back segregationist policies, and establish a white or Afrikaner state, as being a divine right.”
University of Free State theology lecturer Dr Wessel Wessels told Daily Maverick that these groups rely on dubious interpretations of the Old Testament to draw parallels between Biblical Israelites and white Afrikaners. He stressed that their ideas are shunned by contemporary mainstream Afrikaner theology – a point of perverse pride to the Israel Identity believers.
“These groups are not in any ecumenical relation to other churches and believe themselves to know the truth, whilst others are ignorant or explicitly wrong,” Wessels said.
“There is a disgust for anything which these groups perceive to be impure. You can distinctly hear it in their language. They despise the Hellenistic usage of the name Jesus and opt rather for ‘Yahshua’, the Hebrew form of Jesus. Also, they would speak of God as ‘Yahuwah’ or ‘Yahweh’ because it closely – in their opinion – represents the name of God as given in Exodus 3.”
Hand in hand with support for Israel Identity goes a devout belief in the prophecies of the Boer mystic Siener (Seer) van Rensburg, who is claimed to have experienced 700 visions between 1871 and his death in 1926. Siener is popular on the Afrikaans far right, including in organisations like Die Suidlanders, because his prophecies are interpreted as predicting the eventual triumph of a whites-only Volkstaat after great blood loss.
Schönteich and Boshoff write that support for Israel Identity probably peaked in the mid-1990s in South Africa with about 10,000 followers. At the time their research was published in 2003, they estimated that number to be “significantly lower”.
Since the advent of social media, however, there are indications that these beliefs are finding an enthusiastic and growing audience. On Facebook, Daily Maverick found numerous – usually private – groups devoted to Israelvisie, some of which boast thousands of members. The language used by supporters is often coded; on TikTok, hashtags including #yeshua, #Yahweh and #boervolk are the markers of adherents.
A TikTok video dedicated to Siener van Rensburg’s prophecies which proclaims “So far, EVERY SINGLE vision of Siener has come true today” has garnered almost 15,000 likes. In Siener fan groups on Facebook, believers discuss whether climate change could herald the return of a white government to South Africa “when the ice melts”, in accordance with prophecy.
One of the biggest online stars in the Israel Vision community is a man known as the Boerseun van Migdol (real name: Japie van Zyl), who Wessels describes as having cannily harnessed “influencer culture” to the fringe religious beliefs he espouses. The Boerseun van Migdol, who often records his videos in front of a Volkstaat flag, is the subject of a private Facebook group with 13,000 members and counting. There are Pinterest fan pages devoted to his ideas.
What makes tracking support for the Israel Identity beliefs difficult is the bewildering number of differently named splinter groups that have emerged. In a 2015 book, journalist De Wet Potgieter wrote that Jan van der Westhuizen was at that point a member of an Israel Vision spin-off called Dogter(s) van Sion, which maintains a busy YouTube channel.
Other ideologically aligned groups include the New Christian Crusaders, the Faithful Israelite Movement, the Gemeente van die Verbondsvolk (made notorious by British documentarist Louis Theroux in 2000), the Ecclesia Gospel Group, and the Phineas Priesterorde. There are doubtless many more with opaque names that conceal their racist alignment. When the leader of a similar group called the Crusaders was arrested on terrorism charges in November 2019, one of the shocking revelations was that the group had been operating in plain sight on social media for years.
Whatever their labels, these groups all have two things in common. The first is that their beliefs are rejected by “reputable mainstream theologians”, Wessels says. The second is that their beliefs are premised on racial hatred: an ideal for which Jan van der Westhuizen was prepared to kill.
Counterterrorism expert Els does not believe that such groups currently pose a significant security threat to South Africa. For one thing, he points out that believers with apartheid-era military training are getting “older and older”.
Enter the Boerelegioen – seemingly founded to address this exact issue. The Boerelegioen styles itself as “a civil defense movement that enables the citizens to resist the promised slaughter of whites in RSA”. Run by “retired members of the South African Police and SA Defence Force”, it offers paramilitary training to children, in order to “prepare the youth for the onslaught that is coming against them, their future and their history”. Like most of the groups mentioned here, it maintains an active social media presence.
Social media is a concern for Els, who worries that it is fuelling these movements. But in a certain sense, follower numbers are irrelevant. When it comes to religious extremism, Els warns: “You don’t need hundreds of people. All it takes is one person to go out and do something terrible.”
Back in Worcester, the scars from what Belinda Ameterra calls “black Christmas”, in 1996, have never really faded. Although Van der Westhuizen now looks set to return to prison for a long time, his parole and flight attempt have awakened a long-dormant fear in the now 68-year old Amereta.
“What if he comes back to Worcester?” she asks. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.