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Swart Gevaar Redux: The anatomy of fear and violence

Elisha Kunene is a trainee human rights lawyer, working primarily in mining, customary law and land affairs. He spends his free time podcasting about the Constitutional Court of South Africa, being devastated by Arsenal results and arguing about Bernie Sanders. Elisha writes in his personal capacity, and against his better judgment. He accepts hate-mail on at @Eli_Kunene.

During the apartheid era the National Party was not strong enough to maintain the oppression of the black majority through the use of force alone. To remedy this problem the Nats employed a far more dangerous weapon: ideas. The strongest of these ideas was fear. The back-bone of apartheid repression was ‘rooi gevaar’ and ‘swart gevaar’. These terms, Afrikaans for ‘red danger’ and ‘black danger’, captured an irrational and unjustifiable fear of communists and black violence.

The expressions ‘rooi gevaar’ and ‘swart gevaar’ were wrapped in Afrikaans because the Nats were Afrikaans, but in truth they had nothing to do with Afrikaans culture. They were the embodiment of anti-black hatred and authoritarianism. The Nats assured all South Africans, black and white, that tucked in the psyche of every black man hid weapons of mass destruction. We all know how that story unfolds.

On Monday a group of black protesters at the University of the Free State marched onto an empty field in a packed stadium to attempt to prevent a Varsity Cup game from happening. The protesters formed a circle and sang struggle songs while the white crowd booed and jeered at them from the stands. Shortly afterwards the crowd attacked them, viciously beating the protesters and chasing them off the field. While social media had the entire country reeling at what we feared would be the start of a South African race-war, the rugby game continued as scheduled and UFS won. Rightly so, most of the country is both livid and disgusted, but the predominant sentiment, particularly among white English liberals seems to be that this is the result of a hateful brand of Afrikaner nationalism and that UFS rugby fans are a stain on the country’s conscience.


If Tuesday was an act of war, then South Africa’s race war started years ago. This is just a painful reminder of the disregard with which black pain is silenced.

I have never lived in a South Africa where this sort of violence was not common. When I was in first year the UKZN management got frustrated with the protesters disturbing lectures and called the South African Police Services to clear Howard College campus. Protests were entirely peaceful that year; that is until one afternoon a few hours after lectures had been stopped and the white students had all gone home. Left behind was a group of protesters and curious on-lookers (mostly black students who live in the on-campus residences). The SRC leader was halfway through his sentence “They cannot do anything to us, we have done nothing wrong…” when the first smoke grenade was thrown. For a moment nobody moved, more confused than anything. Then we were all beaten and chased off campus with teargas.

That was the first time I saw police beat young men and women, protesters and spectators indiscriminately. That was the first time I tasted teargas. I didn’t even know what the protest was about! I was just black at the wrong place at the wrong time. This happened every day that week and has happened every year since, without fail. When it’s not police it is private security companies. When it is not teargas, smoke grenades, shields and boots, it is rubber bullets, water cannons and arbitrary arrests. I can’t count the number of students I know who have been in holding cells or hospitals for participating in or watching protests too closely. This is the same violence that RMF was subjected to when the police demolished Shackville. The same violence which Wits students wanted to avoid when they criticised the University for militarizing the campus earlier this year. Every year my white friends “condemn all violence and intimidation” when lectures are stopped by the power of song and dance, but are silent when violence breaks out shortly after. Every year white people pretend they didn’t call the police.

It is white fear and not black militancy which more often than not manifests itself in violence. The ability of perpetrators to give legitimacy and moral force to this violence while simultaneously washing their hands of it is the sole reason that apartheid lasted as long as it did. The existence of an unapologetic strain of white Afrikaners who are less incentivised to hide their contempt for black people has been the perfect smoke-screen for a swart gevaar mentality which permeates all sectors of South African life. The ease with which we have exceptionalised racism and pretended it exists only in the comments section of News 24, the White Genocide pages on Facebook, and the crowd of a Steve Hofmeyer concert, is the reason that everyday instances of anti-black violence go largely unopposed. Liberal English South Africans behave as though they were unwilling hostages throughout the apartheid era whenever Afrikaans universities come under fire for being untransformed. Is Afrikaner nationalism the greatest threat to Mandela’s rainbow nation dream? Not by a long shot. The politics of Afriforum and the Freedom Front Plus is just the easiest target because it is the most incoherent, but South Africa’s white supremacy issue is much bigger than that. Whenever race is discussed it becomes apparent that white people are very afraid, and they have been for years, but make no mistake, it is black people who are disproportionately the victims of political violence. The politics of the UFS rugby fan-base is the same politics which motivates the state to protect white attackers from black bodies strewn helplessly on the ground.

This year the fear-mongering reached heights it hasn’t seen in a long time, and it was directed squarely at the young protesters around the country. Even though most black people are protesting over different things, the vocabulary which has been used to describe them is much the same. Liberal South Africa has been committed to diagnosing this disease. The consensus is clear; entitled black students are looking for a fight, trying to take what does not belong to them, threatening the very foundations of our existence. Now ask yourself, was it Afrikaner Nationalists or Adam Habib who wrote this article justifying campus militarisation on the premise that radical protest action is a threat to our very existence as a civilised society? Was it not your liberal white friends who shared this article all over your Facebook Newsfeed? While the UFS rugby supporters ran onto the field to defend their beloved sport, was the Helen Suzman Foundation, which is for all intents and purposes the military wing of the Democratic Alliance, not approving the publication of this article comparing RMF to fascists? Has the word fascist not been thrown around all willy-nilly for weeks now? If we’re prepared to engage in the exercise of identifying threats to South African peace I would suggest that the ideas responsible have not changed in the last few decades. For as long as we are comfortable with white peace being black bondage and subjugation, the least we could do is be honest about it. DM


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