Once the belief of far-right-wing thinkers, the conspiracy theory of the existence of a white genocide has been rejuvenated in this era of fake news. The notion that there is a deliberate plan and organised effort (supposedly orchestrated by global political elites) to exterminate the white race has rapidly moved beyond the cultural wars of identity in America and Europe.
Through the exploitation of the fears, frustrations and anxieties lodged deep into the minds of white South Africans by their history, the myth of white genocide has slithered into South African political discourse, becoming an increasingly popular talking point, in recent years. Even the imaginations of the most moderate of white citizens are sometimes unable to resist its horrifying allure.
There is no evidence of white genocide in South Africa. Statistically, according to Africa Check and the Institute for Security Studies, whites are much less likely to be murdered than people of colour. But conspiracy theories don’t compel belief with facts. Rather, how information is organised, manipulated to illustrate a story that nourishes existing biases and prejudices, is paramount to the success of narratives like white genocide.
Now we must ask, what are the fears, frustrations and anxieties of some white South Africans? Where can they be located in the country’s history and in the socio-economic realities of the present? Most important, how have white citizens, our government and civil society as a whole, since 1994, failed to deal with these issues?
A perspective that often invites and then nourishes a belief in white genocide is the opinion that the country post-apartheid, in varying degrees, has been generally unfair or unjustifiably hostile towards its white citizens. This unreasonable hostility or “anti-white” sentiment is supposedly evident in affirmative action policies, the “hateful” rhetoric of certain political parties targeted at white citizens, the opinion pieces in reputable newspapers that “constantly” single out white people as targets for harsh social criticism.
Evidence to counter this paranoid pessimism isn’t difficult to provide. A report by the World Bank viewed racial inequalities to be persistent in post-apartheid SA, with those worst affected by poverty being black. According to the South African Human Rights Commission, in a 2017/18 report, 64% of black citizens and 41% of coloured citizens live in poverty, while that circumstance is only maintained by 1% of the white population.
This mentality of victimhood isn’t just the result of a lack of knowledge. Rather it is a historical outcome, a condition that has now become the inheritance of many (not all) white people, even those born after apartheid. It can distort your perception of reality, numb the capacity for empathy and weaken the minds ability to reason. It is birthed by the ignorance and fear which flourishes in the mental landscapes of some white people and its horizons seem boundless.
Specifically, I mean ignorance as a dim and narrow awareness or disinterest in the lives of those outside one’s social or cultural realm. The struggles and joys, the dreams and desires, the cultures and traditions, the complex humanness of those degraded as fundamentally different become something of a mystery to those comfortably oblivious to social worlds beyond their own.
Of course, a lack of social consciousness isn’t a trait exclusive or inherent to being white. It is a particularly human struggle that cuts through categories of race, class or gender. For example, the cruel persecution of the LGBT+ community was somewhat dependent on straight people knowing very few, if any, gays or lesbians, or not caring to know them and only being told of the existence of “fags”, “sodomites” and “dykes”, but not of ordinary people like them.
Liberals sometimes make the error of thinking racism is primarily propelled by hatred. But I think fear, more than a zealous hatred of a certain group, is the nurturer of bigotry. Apartheid succeeded in creating and spreading such fear, founded in and fostered by ignorance, primarily through its policy of segregation. This policy was driven by both an urge to maintain white rule and use black people as sources of cheap labour.
Therefore, relationships between people of colour and whites were generally marred by inequality. We only knew each other as Baas and boy or Madam and girl. To imagine those that one uses as tools – for comfort, pleasure or profit – as people whose value is more than instrumental, whose worth, by virtue of being human, is no lesser or greater than your own, becomes a colossal challenge to the mind that has seen people as “things” for decades, if not centuries.
This state of mind, which depends on a slumbering moral conscience, was intensified by the geographical distances between citizens. Seldom sharing public life (in schools, parks, shopping malls, cinemas, bars or beaches), results in a hostile existence amongst strangers. The result of this era of division? Most of what was known about black people, by the majority of the white citizenry, was understood through the grim lens of propaganda – propaganda of the white supremacist variety.
The white gazes that look upon black faces as different, maybe as inferior, as faces whose bodies are imbued with an affinity for violence or as black bulks whose blood brews with a craving for revenge, such a perception is a historical artefact that can be traced back to colonial rule by the British. White fear in 2019 is the cumulative effect of institutions like apartheid pressing down on the psyches of its subjects.
Fantasies such as “swart gevaar” (meaning black danger), the paranoia that black rule would mean whites being “driven into the sea”, served to portray the black majority as “barbarians” intent on ruthless retribution. Such propaganda allowed the National Party to turn fear into a device that both suppressed political dissent (through bolstering support for the police state) while gaining the submission of white citizens – who else would protect them from the chickens coming home to roost?
It would be naïve to think that the end of apartheid was anything other than its political dismantling. The economic barriers erected by the regime have not been broken into brittle rock; therefore, the social attitudes inequality and poverty created have persisted into the present. Here, by having few creative and effective policies to drastically reduce inequity, the government has failed its people, allowing righteous anger, understandable resentment and cynicism to grow amongst poor and working-class people.
Conversely, many white people still interact with black people on unequal terms and in exploitative relationships. Black and white people may share public spaces but still often as strangers.
Considering the inheritance of ignorance, and that it often flowers as fear, the seduction of minds by the propaganda of the alt-right isn’t surprising.
Traditionally, white supremacists have relied on an embrace of racial machismo to instil a sense of false pride amongst alienated white people. In the past decade, however, the mantra of white persecution has become a magnet for mobilising support. The propagation of their propaganda primarily occurs online. Daily or weekly exposure to articles bemoaning the plight of poor whites living destitute in squatter camps, graphic images of brutal farm attacks as evidence of black rage against whites appearing with regularity on one’s Facebook or Twitter feed, sensational YouTube videos loaded with rhetoric and carefully selected “facts” – these processes assault the mind in order to strengthen biases and confirm irrational but vivid fears.
The solution? It isn’t white people forever engaged in apology for the past; shame and guilt (for atrocities committed in your name and from which you benefit) while understandable are not productive. Rather, a process of critical introspection, within white communities, among families and of course within white individuals, absolutely must begin.
The past can’t be ignored or erased, it can only be understood. Since the present is made possible by the past, an understanding of history – how it tints our attitudes or how it impacts on the political context of the present, for example – is indispensable to navigate current moments and plan for the future. A person or group of people who dismiss the past as insignificant condemn themselves to the fortune of a traveller in an unknown wilderness with no compass.
Self-examination isn’t enough to stifle the popularity of conspiracy theories like white genocide. The world recently witnessed the destructive potential of myth in the killing of 50 people in Christchurch, New Zealand. The terrorist was acting out of a belief in a global plot to “replace” white people; he wanted to “show the invaders that our lands will never be their lands”.
To weaken political fantasies drastic changes will have to be made to our economy and political institutions because economic instability, excessive inequality and social fragmentation are the ideal environments for extremists to boost antagonisms, heighten tensions and eventually enact violence. DM
"We are surrounded by story." ~ Alice McDermott