Taking Red October out of South African exceptionalism allows us to contextualise it. Is this another pathetic leftover of the “olden days” or are we watching a South African version of a global reformation of white supremacists connecting with modernised neo-fascist discourses and politics of self-representation?
Studies of contemporary right wing extremism in Europe, and this includes neo-fascist movements, map out a range of issues generally covered:
Firstly, historic revisionism and denialism. The expression “Hitler… if he would not have done this thing with the Jews… but he gave us highways and decreased unemployment” resonates with Hofmeyr saying about Apartheid “no, I don’t think all of it was wrong but it couldn’t go on forever[…] Hendrik Verwoed gave us good schools, how can I say that’s wrong?”
Secondly, the delegitimising of established parties as corrupt, European or cosmopolitan elites. I am not arguing they are not corrupt but it is interesting to see which arguments are to be found in the merger of the supposedly new true voices of the people.
Thirdly, the call for xenophobic exclusion and localised laager mentality feeding into calls for tighter inner security and border management. These evoke connotations of old symbolism, iconographies, and discourses of an ethnically homogeneous Volksgemeinschaft, whose conservation needs the segregation of those who belong and deserve and those who don’t. The Red October crowd speaks to all of it: the criminalisation of undocumented (and therefore mostly black African) foreigners, the evocation of Angst by presenting themselves as the prime target of violence, acted out by outsiders to their own imagined community.
Fourthly, severe victim mentality. Today “illegal” immigrants are blamed for stealing wealth and women, and consequently the UK immigrant’s anti-racist slogan “We are here because you were there” serves as an unwelcome reminder of colonial rule and slavery, past regimes of theft, racism and violence, legitimised with biological superiority. A notion which is now often replaced by a seemingly more acceptable “Neo-Racism”, accepting equality in principle but stressing difference in culture and mentality. According to this, whites have a copyright to high-end services as argued by Red October “…we have a right to maintain the standard of Education that we are accustomed to in accordance with our culture”, implicitly arguing that other people are used to the sub-standard.
Fifth: memory-aversion. Victim mentality is directly linked to memory politics and the revision of history. Memory of past atrocities are unpleasant for perpetrators and bystanders, as they are linked to guilt. You are seen as a pariah in the international community and the survivors of victimised communities remind the perpetrator, collectively, through their very existence of their past deeds. As such they and future generations are perceived as dangerous and hurtful and constructed as the source of one’s own uneasiness. This can lead to aggression against previously- victimised collectives, now seen as a collective of perpetrators. A framing that enables the presentation of one’s own community as a universal victim.
Modernised mobilisation: Hijacking cultural practices
Contemporary rightwing extremism is based on nostalgic sentiments of former oppressive regimes but today the evocation of tabooed legacies are managed carefully. This includes a steady pushing of boundaries of what is considered as “speak-able” in democratic and post-totalitarian societies and to disguise one’s extremism by appropriating cultural practices of those targeted.
European neo-fascists produce Hip-Hop songs calling directly or indirectly for the extermination of Jewish, black, gay, and other people considered as unworthy; they argue with Marxist Gramsci when criticising globalisation; Red October, citing Martin Luther King on its English-only website, follows that logic, yet borrowing the red, white and black colours of the German National Socialist Party and the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging.
These people know what they do. No point in explaining that Affirmative Action is not a revanchist ANC idea, but a form of positive discrimination based on race and/or gender, national origin, religion to rectify past centuries of violence and oppression; a political tool often applied by majority white governments in countries they like to emigrate to in search for new “comfizones”.
Responses then and now
We are twenty years into democracy now, get over what happened. Germany’s “coming to terms with its past” is a process the collective of perpetrators, including bystanders and their offspring like myself as well as the victimised communities, are still grappling with seventy years later. After the war Germans were exposed by all four liberating powers to “reeducation” (USA), a “reconstruction” (British), “mission civilisatrice” (French), or “antifascist democratic reconstruction” (Soviet Union). In Germany´s militant democracy the swastika is forbidden, the old regimes flag, songs, and striking resemblances to the Third Reich in thought, rhetoric, or political platforms are criminalised.
They are seen as a threat to society, the free democratic basic order as enshrined in the Constitution. Universality in front of the law and equality in the Constitution might regulate blatant racism but what to do when reaching the limits of enlightenment, when encountering either irrationality, organised amnesia, or an unapologetic insistence on racial privilege, modernised and halfheartedly disguised?
Since the eruption of deadly racist pogroms in the aftermath of the German reunification we stopped arguing with neo-fascists. Not with the bald heads, the swastika, boots and bats guys doing the dirty work at the right wing edges of society nor with the brains of the “New Right” in suits, living well-established lives in the middle of society, promoting ethnic chauvinism and a revision of history in parliament and universities.
Anti-Fascist and Anti-racist movements confront them – on the street. Sabotaging rightwing extremist’s public marches and gatherings has spread into wider civil society. Unions, churches, artists, migrant groups, a part of the citizenry is not only positioning itself verbally as opposed to extremists hijacking public spaces, but takes part in marches to materialise a counterforce.
This can generate interesting paradoxes: a neo-Nazi march, framed in such a way the local court had to allow it on grounds of freedom of expression, was prevented this summer by the same municipality through a spontaneous show of all its snowploughs taking up all the space in the Neu-Ulm’s town centre. It seems that “by any means necessary” does work when dealing with white supremacists. DM
Dr Antje Schuhmann works in the Political Studies Department of the University at the Witwatersrand
Mooning is considered a form of free speech in the United States.