White SA: It’s the progressive forces vs conservatives
The state can only tamp down on public expressions of hate, which is not a long-term solution
An estate agent tweets that black people are monkeys, another hurls racist abuse at police officers, who keep calm while facing the barrage. The proprietor of a B&B refuses to host black people.
What is wrong with these people? Didn’t they get the memo that racist and discriminatory behaviour is now against the law in SA?
The justice system is limping badly. Prisoners awaiting trial languish in inhumane conditions because they can’t afford bail. Dockets are lost. Shaun Abrahams is the national director of public prosecutions. Schabir Shaik plays mean rounds of golf, possibly with KPMG executives.
Yet the system does work on occasion. Vicki Momberg was convicted on charges of crimen injuria and sent to jail. “Kill the boer” was deemed to be hate speech. The state has the legal architecture, the ability and the will to apply the law to repress overt racist acts. Finished and klaar? Far from it.
Okes, chill out. Take a deep breath and exhale slowly. All white people are asked to do is not commit a crime
Apartheid’s architects were active supporters and admirers of Adolf Hitler and Nazism during the 1930s and 1940s. The ideology of apartheid has a direct link to and inheritance from a significant part of European fascism, hence the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging’s use of a three-quarter swastika.
The state of European politics illustrates how repression of bad ideas is an insufficient response. Throughout Europe the far right is emerging from the shadows. Ideas once repressed are now part of mainstream politics.
In Hungary, Viktor Orbán recently won the national election on a far-right, anti-immigrant platform. France, Italy, Greece, Denmark, Austria, Poland and even Germany have seen right-wing politics move into the mainstream. Fortress Europe is becoming real. I’ve been in eastern Europe for the past month; there is a shocking amount of neo-Nazi graffiti in the cities.
After the Second World War the Allies and the Soviet Union reinstated Nazi officials to run West and East Germany. In the 1950s a wall of silence was built around the past, which was only partially confronted in the youth rebellions of the late 1960s. The Baader-Meinhof Group was the most extreme and violent form of Germany’s generational conflict over the country’s history.
But despite Germany banning the swastika and other Nazi symbols, Holocaust denialism and Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf, right-wing politics is now a central part of the German political spectrum and national gestalt for a variety of complex historical and contemporary reasons. In 2016 Mein Kampf was unbanned in Germany and quickly became a bestseller.
Like in post-war Germany, a wall of silence has been raised about the past and the contemporary culture of white SA. In the national elections in 1989, the National Party, Conservative Party and Herstigte Nasionale Party received a combined total of 1,725,251 votes — 79.9% of the total white vote. The Democratic Party managed to win 431,444 votes.
Perhaps those 1.7-million people who chose kragdadigheid over democracy in 1989 have all emigrated to Australia and integrated so well that Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton is now begging for more of them. But that is unlikely. Most of apartheid’s supporters are still in SA, standing around braais and moaning among themselves that the k*****s have taken and broken everything.
Penny Sparrow, Stellenbosch neo-Nazis, the Waterkloof Four, racist attacks at the University of the Free State and more are not just individuals gone wrong but expressions of a broader problem within white South African culture. They are, so to speak, what pops over the top of the wall.
The problem isn’t just the caricature of a potbellied man wrapped in the old South African flag, swilling Castle lager and ranting about how quotas have destroyed the Springboks. Peer through the wall and you will find uncles who were in the special forces, bigoted grandparents, nephews with chips on their shoulders about affirmative action, mothers who pray that their precious daughters will not bring home black boyfriends. This is the cultural milieu that produces racist estate agents.
The state’s response to hate crimes is to punish offenders on behalf of the body politic.
What constitutes a hate crime is determined by the Constitution, a remarkably progressive document intended to protect and promote individual rights regardless of colour, class, religion, sexual orientation, etc.
But apparently for some, the state’s actions are a race-based tyrannical oppression. Okes, chill out. Take a deep breath and exhale slowly. All that white people are being asked to do is not to commit a crime.
As the state of European politics shows, the state can’t eradicate nationalist, racist and fascist ideas through legal measures alone. These ideas are a matter of culture, not law.
The state can only tamp down on public expressions of hate, which is not a long-term solution. Unless addressed through some cultural nonlegal means, racism will continue to fester, passing down the generations like a particularly nasty hereditary disease.
But just as not every German is a neo-Nazi, not every white South African is a racist. Nor is white South African culture monolithically racist. Instead, there is a cultural conflict inside white SA between conservative and progressive forces, and it is ugly.
It exists within families, across generations, among neighbours and in communities. And unless progressive forces win this conflict, there will be a steady litany of racist acts. What Momberg’s case asks of white South Africans is: which side are you on and what are you going to do about it?
• Taylor is a postdoctoral fellow in philosophy at Stellenbosch University.