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Covid-19 ‘a breeding ground for conservative right-wing conspiracies’

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Benjamin Klein was born in Durban and moved to Cape Town in 2011 to pursue studies in Law and English. He holds a PhD in English from the University of Cambridge and writes intermittently for South African media on topics related to literature and the arts and social and environmental justice.

The narrative of white marginalisation and oppression has proved an ideological mainstay for many white South Africans, yet the imperative to dismantle and engage critically with this narrative positioning remains integral to the goals of national reconciliation and social cohesion in a post-Covid-19 world.

Although President Cyril Ramaphosa was widely hailed as a champion of public health following his announcement of a nationwide lockdown during his speech delivered on Monday 23 March 2020, it was not long before the initial surge of patriotism and brief moment of what appeared to be national cohesion dissipated into bitter division and resentment, much of this surfacing along the firmly entrenched racial and political fault lines that continue to characterise our post-apartheid democracy.

Beneath the veneer of political disagreement, a surge of conservative right-wing extremism has been blowing up, and with it, an affliction of online news articles and social media posts declaiming well-worn and rehearsed clichés of reverse apartheid and white genocide. 

Of course, much of this online content has been produced by white conservative interest groups such as Afriforum and Solidarity. The challenge recently mounted by these two groups in the Pretoria High Court over the use of race as a criterion in allocating Covid-19 relief to businesses attracted a scourge of allegations of “reverse racism” online and on social media platforms. Yet what is perhaps most worrying is how the Covid-19 environment has created the space for many of these ideas to enter mainstream politics, as facilitated by opposition political figureheads such as John Steenhuisen and Helen Zille.

The introduction of Covid-19 lockdown measures to South Africa has provided a breeding ground for conservative right-wing conspiracies to flourish among white South Africans and interest groups, ranging from outrageous videos accusing the South African government of complicity in deliberately contaminating Covid-19 testing kits, to the idea that lockdown restrictions are merely a ploy to further marginalise the position of whites within South African society at large and hence quicken the onset of an impending white genocide. 

The rise of Black Lives Matter protests in the US and abroad following the police-sanctioned murder of George Floyd has likewise enjoined many white South Africans to assert their own lives against their perceived marginalisation with messages such as White Lives Matter, or Farmers Lives Matter. One particularly pervasive social media post compares an image of George Floyd’s face to the brutal killings of white farmers, asking why the murder of a single black man should prompt worldwide protest when white farmers are being butchered en masse.

These spectacular false analogies should not mask the more subtle forms of racism that have flourished since the spread of Covid-19 to South Africa, from white liberal saviours attempting to “teach” their black domestic workers how to wash their hands while singing Shosholoza for 20 seconds (as was revealed by a video that went viral on social media), to the more ubiquitous sharing of doctored images and memes insulting the Minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

The examples of conservative right-wing conspiracies and racism I have so far cited need to be fully distinguished and contextualised. The example of a white woman teaching her black domestic worker how to wash her hands is in no way fully equivalent to the sharing of Farmers Lives Matter messages on social media, or Helen Zille’s proclamation that there are more racist laws today than there were under apartheid for that matter, each deriving from different, albeit ultimately related white ideological strands.

The wild conspiracy theories and allegations of white marginalisation and oppression that have come out of the Covid-19 lockdown cannot all be reduced to the cognitive dissonance implied by white fragility. Indeed many are deliberately politicised in order to pander to particular support bases or further political aims and objectives long in the making.

Nevertheless, I find it extremely useful to conceptualise these disparate components as manifestations of a broader structure of what the sociologist Robin DiAngelo has recently called “white fragility”, particularly in light of the vast disparities and socio-economic inequalities that Covid-19 has made visible. If Covid-19 has forced South Africans to encounter anything, it is the crippling racial disparities and socio-economic inequalities that continue to shape life 25 years after the dismantling of apartheid. What is particularly tragic is that these socio-economic faultlines will likely determine the course that the pandemic takes, especially as the economy begins to reopen and the public transport system resumes.

Covid-19 has rendered visible the realities of white privilege that broadly structure the society we inhabit. This is confirmed by the images many of us have seen of comfortable white middle-class families braaiing in their spacious backyards under lockdown, juxtaposed with the cramped and impoverished conditions of the vast majority of the country’s black population.

It is precisely this confrontation with the realities of widespread structural racism enabled by the pandemic that has prompted particularly peculiar and intensified forms of white fragility, that is, a psychic defence mechanism intended to shore up the contradictions exposed by the pandemic.

For DiAngelo, white fragility is a powerful affective response (anger, fear, guilt, outrage) triggered by the suggestion that being white has some kind of meaning and significance beyond mere skin pigmentation. It is indeed a defensive response to the suggestion that one is racist or complicit in a racist structure that affords privileges to some and hardships to others.

However, it is also more than this. As she argues, white fragility, in fact, fulfils a powerful ideological function by restoring equilibrium, as the challenges to one’s privileged position within society are repelled and racial comfort is restored.

The wild conspiracy theories and allegations of white marginalisation and oppression that have come out of the Covid-19 lockdown cannot all be reduced to the cognitive dissonance implied by white fragility. Indeed many are deliberately politicised in order to pander to particular support bases or further political aims and objectives long in the making.

However, we also cannot ignore the ways these theories and allegations have been intensified by variations of white fragility prompted by the stark realities that the Covid-19 environment has forced us to encounter. It takes a pandemic to expose the contradictions of the society we live in; it takes bizarre fantasies of white victimhood to restore equilibrium and racial comfort.

For many white South Africans, the patterns of racial privilege exposed by the lockdown environment do not bode well. Such exposure sits uncomfortably with a deeply internalised narrative of white marginalisation and oppression in the new post-apartheid dispensation – a narrative that has given rise to elaborate charges of reverse apartheid and white genocide, among others, over the past few decades.

The fact that Covid-19 has provided a breeding ground for conservative right-wing conspiracies and white supremacist messaging is both unfortunate and deeply troubling. This is not because such messaging is plainly false and ideological, but rather because it detracts from a far more urgent conversation concerning structural change and transformation.

Many commentators around the world have noted how the current pandemic offers a unique opportunity to reimagine the kind of society we want to live in. Such an opportunity presents itself to South Africa as well, if society is willing to seize it.

The narrative of white marginalisation and oppression has proved an ideological mainstay for many white South Africans, yet the imperative to dismantle and engage critically with this narrative positioning remains integral to the goal of conjuring new possibilities for national reconciliation and social cohesion in a post-Covid-19 world. DM

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