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30 March 2017 18:38 (South Africa)
Opinionista Timon Wapenaar

Stateless brains, brainless states

  • Timon Wapenaar
    t-wapenaar-thumbnail.jpg
    Timon Wapenaar

    Timon Wapenaar teaches English in Madrid, from where he keeps an eye on the never ending Euro crisis, plays Spanish folk music, and directs a small Spanish dorp choir. In his former life, he conducted the Johannesburg Youth Orchestra, and, as orchestrator and composer collaborated with Die Antwoord and Arno Carstens.

Has it occurred to Steve Hofmeyr and those of his ilk that a rewriting of the facts disadvantages us all? Apparently not. The far right in South Africa is attempting – in an opportunistic leap of faith – to align itself with the far right abroad. But what the local camp has yet to realise is that, as always, they are small fry, and unlikely to survive if they don’t learn to fit in.

The building which houses the Provincial Brigade of Foreigners and Borders in Madrid resembles a theme park assembled from Meccano. The swirling, multicoloured sheet metal cone which juts out awkwardly from the centre of the roof immediately brings to mind ice-cream, candy floss and red liquorice, which is fitting, because inside are doled out the Spanish residency cards which allow one to partake of the treats and goodies associated with life in an EU country. In theory. The building is too good to be true, and I stop to take a photo, only to be hailed by a Spanish policeman, who has to go through my phone and delete the photograph.

Because ISIS.

I make my way to the front of the queue and present my papers. Fingerprinted, captured and presented with another form, I am directed to another table, where the problem is discovered.

“Where are you from?”

“South Africa,” I answer.

Confusion. There has been a mistake assigning my nationality, and, just like that, I find that I am now officially “Other,” which is the designation used for Palestinians, Saharawi (the people of the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara) and other “stateless people”. Just as well I had my phone momentarily confiscated and my photograph deleted. You know how we Palestinians can be.

So, for a half an hour, and as far as the EU was concerned, I was a stateless person, which, I think, is a more legitimate claim than the one made on behalf of the Afrikaners by Steve Hofmeyr last month, when interviewed in Brussels.

As usual, the terminology is worked into the discourse in passing, and Hofmeyr and his interlocutors – a moderator whose school blazer makes him look like he just made head boy, and two politicians from the Netherlands and Belgium – tacitly require that we simply accept their definition of words like “stateless” and, with reference to farm murders, “genocide”. While watching the interview, I find myself taking the Lord’s name in vain several times as Hofmeyr and the two Members of the European parliament with him, Gerolf Annemans and Olaf Stuger, glide across a paper-thin membrane of half-facts, making only the barest concessions to logical coherence as they do so. But then again, this is Brussels and the EU parliament, where parody and reality are frequently indistinguishable.

I won’t waste time debunking Steve’s statistics. That has already been done. It is sufficient to note that he continues to trot out figures which he himself retracted over a year ago. Nor will I spend much time on his fawning tone (Afrikaners, apparently, are the “nieces and nephews” of the present-day Dutch and Belgians, relegated to a perpetual, colonial adolescence), or the way his whole trip has been glibly packaged into a some kind of heroic act, complete with three-act plot arc and employing monologues crafted with Steve’s specific brand of self-aggrandizing humility. None of that should come as a surprise. Nor should it be anything less than blindingly obvious that advancing falsehood-ridden, logically incoherent arguments in support of white farmers in South Africa does those same farmers a disservice, whether they realise it or not.

What is important about this trip, however, is the way in which Hofmeyr has been used by the Dutch and Flemish right wing to further their own agenda. Hofmeyr didn’t initiate the trip, you see (even though the image of the lone hero making his long, solitary journey in order to save his people is an attractive one), but was invited, presumably by Dutch publisher Van Praag. The name is pure coincidence, but it is a poetic coincidence, nonetheless. I won’t say that Van Praag paid for his trip, but will merely mention that it would be normal to do so.

Van Praag is in the business of selling books, and in this case the book, Minderheid in eigen land: Hoe progressieve strijd ontaardt in genocide en ANC-apartheid, (“Minority in one’s own country: How progressive struggle resulted in genocide and ANC-apartheid”) is by Dutch politician Martin Bosma, who accompanies Hofmeyr on his speaking tour. Bosma is leader of a faction within the PVV (“Party for Freedom”), a Dutch populist right wing party with ties to Marine le Pen’s Front Nacional, and one of those which the European Central Bank was referring to, when only last week it indicated that populism posed a threat to European stability.

Hofmeyr’s trip also coincided with the German parliament’s vote to use the word “genocide” to describe the massacre of Armenians in Turkey a hundred years ago. Can we really use the same word to describe both the murder of 1,700 mostly white farmers since 1994 (a shocking statistic nonetheless) and the murder of more than a million Armenians over the space of a few months? Turkish president Recep Erdogan disagrees so vehemently that he recalled the Turkish ambassador to Germany. Hofmeyr’s own reading of the term would have us believe that the motive for the murder can be used to define it as genocide, a development which threatens to render the term near useless. I wonder if it has occurred to Hofmeyr that to weaken language in this way would also weaken it when applied to instances of organised, state-sponsored mass exterminations of the kind which killed tens of thousands of white and black South Africans who were forced into British concentration camps during the first years of the last century.

But back to Martin Bosma, who has, in the words of his fellow party members, something of a “boeren hobby”. Upon closer inspection we find that when Hofmeyr refers to Afrikaaners as the “nieces and nephews” of the Dutch and the Flemish, he is actually parroting the patronising description used habitually by Bosma. The flag of Orania (the famous Free State gated town) hangs on the wall of Bosma’s office, and he is frequently heard to say “We will all have to move to Orania,” referring to what he sees as the inevitable decline of the Netherlands in the face of specifically Muslim immigration. He wrote Minderheid in eigen land as a warning: it is his contention that, due to immigration and the “Islamisation” of the country, in fifty years the Netherlands will look like South Africa does today. Which is silly. In order to prevent this happening, his party has a list of proposals which would appear to have been crafted by Donald Trump if they had not predated Trump’s rhetoric by several years. If the PVV had their way, Muslim immigration to Europe would be completely halted, headscarves would be subject to a medieval tax of €1,000 paid annually, and the Quran would be banned outright.

The story of how Bosma’s book came to be published underscores the impeccably ironic timing of Hofmeyr’s visit. Minderheid en eigen land is also an assault on the Dutch left wing, laying the blame for the current state of affairs in South Africa at the feet of the Dutch left for supporting the ANC during the last decades of the apartheid regime. The book’s original title was Handlangers van de ANC-apartheid: Hoe Paul Witteman, Maartje van Weegen, Freek de Jonge, Wim Kok en Adriaan van Dis racisten, communisten, plunderaars en kampbeulen helpen (“Stooges of the ANC-Apartheid: How Paul Witteman, Marten van Weegen, Freek de Jonge, Wim Kok and Adriaan van Dis help racists, communists, plunderers and concentration camp bullies”). The story goes that PVV leader Geert Wilders placed an internal party ban on the book’s publication, on the grounds that criticism of the ANC in general, and of Nelson Mandela in particular, would be bad for the party’s image. That was in early 2014. By May 2015, however, the book had been edited to toe the party line, generally toning down criticism of Mandela, and moving the epilogue, which had been dedicated to a Utopian vision of Orania, into the middle of the book. Nonetheless, completely fabricated “facts”, which Bosma claimed to have taken from Stephen Ellis’ important book External Mission: The ANC in exile, 1960–1990 managed to survive into the print edition. For example, in Minderheid en eigen land, Bosma states that an ANC delegation met Stalin in 1960. Stalin died in 1953. At the time, Ellis pointed out this and other errors, as well as the fact that his book made no mention of a supposed meeting with Stalin, but Bosma doesn’t let an obscure fact like the year of Stalin’s death get between him and a good piece of propaganda.

What happened between early 2014 and May 2015? Well, European politics, which had already been veering to the right, lurched even further in the direction of outright xenophobia and tribalism in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks and the growing refugee crisis in the Balkans. A political space had now opened up for the book, and the PVV would no longer look quite so loony in standing behind it. It is sobering to think that without the confluence of Wahhabi fanaticism, a thuggish Syrian dictator, and a rudderless EU, Hofmeyr’s visit would probably have been impossible.

Hofmeyr frequently echoes the PVV line, emphasising how white South Africans, “known for their work ethic,” struggle to find jobs in Europe, while billions are spent on “strangers and refugees” who “illegally climb from boats through the fences”. Awe-inspiring. Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis die by their hundreds (over 700 drowned in the Mediterranean in the last week of May alone) trying to escape the meat grinder of the Middle East, and Hofmeyr casts them as opportunists who have the cheek to throw themselves at the European borders, an act which would be illegal, were it not for a highly obscure piece of international law called the Geneva Convention which gives these vreemdelinge the right to seek asylum.

Ai tog. Speaking as a Senegalese (thanks to another Spanish data-capturing error, the Spanish Ministry of Labour thinks I’m Senegalese) who works two jobs and earns less than the Spanish minimum salary – without, I may add, collecting a cent in benefits or handouts – I find Hofmeyr’s assertions risible, to say the least. If Hofmeyr thinks it’s hard for a white South African to get a job in the Netherlands, where language presents only a small barrier (the Dutch are famous for their grasp of English), he should contemplate having to do so in Spain, a country with a 23% unemployment rate, where neither English nor Afrikaans are understood, and where the labour market has been subjected to Troika-mandated “reforms”. Then he should contemplate having to do it in Greece, which makes Spain look rosy by comparison, and which, despite having been fiscally reformed into economic oblivion by the Troika, has been saddled with the task of dealing with the refugee crisis by the very same Brussels and den Haag Eurocrats who toast Hofmeyr in fine Dutch restaurants. Or perhaps he should contemplate doing it in a country like the Netherlands, where 20% of the population supports a party which advocates the prohibition of the book of your religion.

Amazingly, it gets even better. Hofmeyr’s Facebook post is worth quoting (in translation): “My words were: ‘My people would never dream of financing terrorism in Europe – why did you do it to us…’ A heavy silence reigned. Only Martin Bosma (PVV) nodded his head.”

The lack of historical scope is breathtaking. In one gust of hot air, the Dutch left wing has been compared to Wahhabi fanatics, and the ANC has been transformed into Al Qaeda. In his Facebook post, Hofmeyr then lets slip that the comparison comes from Bosma’s book.

But what would any three-act plot be without the trials and tribulations of the hero? And thus it is that Hofmeyr must overcome a predictably overheated campaign of Facebook indignation which sees his talk at a Dutch restaurant cancelled. There is a measure of hypocrisy and cowardice at play on the part of those who agreed to host a talk moderated by someone like Martin Bosma, only to cancel it because of someone like Steve Hofmeyr. Where was the chanting Facebook mob, with their digital pitchforks, when Geert Wilders described Greece as “the European junkie?”

There is a greater hypocrisy in Hofmeyr supporting a political party which has roughly the same platform as the African ultra-nationalists: “Our country for us alone. Everyone else: either tug your forelock, or get out.” This hypocrisy, although it may not be articulated by them, is certainly felt in the more militant wings of the ANC and EFF. Hofmeyr is handing it to them on a plate. What is worse, he is linking it to the defence of white farmers. Any international sympathy which might be garnered for white farmers has now been irrevocably associated with a rabid bunch of Dutch xenophobes.

The fact is that farm murders are in decline, and the way in which the decline was achieved is the most important part of the story, and not only because Hofmeyr claims that the term genocide is applicable because the authorities have knowingly turned their backs on the problem. The facts of the matter seem to indicate otherwise. In the financial year 2015/16, a total of 49 farm murders were reported, down from 80 in 2010/11. In addition, the SAPS has declared farm murders to be a priority crime. How was this achieved? Well, through engagement between farmers, stakeholder groups like Afriforum, and the SAPS. Unfortunately for the fearmongers, and those who want to turn the issue into a cheap political point for rapid consumption by the Dutch far right, considerable progress has been made in tackling the problem, due to an unglamorous programme of dialogue, cooperation and coordination.

Fast forward to the present, and Geert Wilders is using the outcome of the recent British referendum as fuel for his own campaign, calling for a referendum on EU membership in the Netherlands. Marine le Pen is pushing hard for the same thing in France, where anti-EU sentiment is even greater. In a post-Brexit interview with Der Spiegel’s Susanne Koelbl, Wilders shows little respect for reason, or indeed for the intelligence of the Dutch citizen he wants to lead. When asked about the way in which the Leave campaign in Britain willfully misled voters, Wilders launches this piece of Jedi-level obfuscation: “I haven't promised anything for the future. Instead, I have said what I would have done differently in the past.” Similarly, he displays a lamentable lack of understanding when it comes to monetary policy. He complains about the ECB’s monetary easing, and asserts that leaving the EU would allow the Netherlands to regain control over its monetary policy. So far so good. Koelbl, however, presses the issue further, and, in a moment of incredulous irony asks him, “What currency would you like to use after you leave the euro zone? The yen, perhaps?” It is a fairly good indicator of Wilders’ standing in Europe that a normally staid and serious publication like Der Spiegel would publish that question. But thank heavens they did, because the answer takes us deep into the realm of the new magical thinking which is so beloved of the new European far right, because Wilders, while certainly not committing himself to any course of action (talking about the future is bad, remember) floats two options: go back the guilder, or “we could still follow the euro”. And by doing so hand Dutch monetary policy to the ECB.

It’s enough to make one’s eyes water and one’s spleen ache. Wilders, Farage and Trump all understand something which the ANC has been taking advantage of for years: facts don’t matter. People vote with their gut. As if on cue, Hofmeyr’s post-Brexit Facebook post underlines the point, cramming maximum conspiracy-tinged fantasy into minimum space: “We try independence because we have been slaves for so long.” Sometimes I wonder if people like Trump, Farage, Hofmeyr, and our gallery of ANC quote machines don’t operate so far outside of the commonly accepted bounds of logic and reason by design, so as to make riposte all the more difficult.

The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on. Hofmeyr’s visit rated only three paragraphs in only one of Holland’s major newspapers. His has been the role of exotic sideshow attraction, of the Saartjie Baartmanesque variety, to be poked and prodded, and to parrot back the lines which he has been given. Good for a bit of spin. The PVV doesn’t really care about Afrikaners, in the same way that Donald Trump, who has just been publicly endorsed by Geert Wilders (for whatever that’s worth), doesn’t really care about the American lower middle class. As European politics lurches even further to the right, the battle lines have been drawn clearly: defend European civilisation against the onslaught of the barbarian hordes. With the EU facing a perfect storm of diplomatic, civil and economic crises, one would hope that Europe could find better heroes than Geert Wilders, Martin Bosma, and Steve Hofmeyr. And as for Afrikaners, who face a rising tide of EFF-inspired vitriol, one can only hope that they come to their senses and say: “Nee, Steve. Hierdie goed is te belangrik om deur jou ge-Bono te word.” DM

  • Timon Wapenaar
    t-wapenaar-thumbnail.jpg
    Timon Wapenaar

    Timon Wapenaar teaches English in Madrid, from where he keeps an eye on the never ending Euro crisis, plays Spanish folk music, and directs a small Spanish dorp choir. In his former life, he conducted the Johannesburg Youth Orchestra, and, as orchestrator and composer collaborated with Die Antwoord and Arno Carstens.

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