Death of South African rightist highlights ongoing problems

The death of far-right South African white supremacist Eugene Terre’Blanche, beaten and slashed on his farm near the conservative farming town of Ventersdorp on April 3, highlights the problem that South Africa, the wealthiest, most industrialized and urbanized country in sub-Saharan Africa, still faces in dealing with rural labor relations and land issues, as well as the fruits of deep-seated racism against the Black majority.

News of the murder has set off a political storm. The white right wing has accused the government of President Joseph Zuma, of the African National Congress, of failing to protect white farmers and of allowing the head of the ANC Youth League, Julius Malema, to engage in provocative anti-white rhetoric that encourages violence. Zuma and his government moved quickly to defuse the situation by expressing condolences to Terre’Blanche’s family and promising full prosecution of the murderers, while also calling for an end to provocative rhetoric and actions on both sides.

The agrarian problem in South Africa has been long in the making. When Europeans first settled at the Cape of Good Hope in the 17th century, under the auspices of the Netherlands East India Company, Dutch governors could not or would not control what turned into a rampaging land hunger on the part of Dutch, French Huguenot and other European settlers. The African population of the Cape area was quickly overrun or displaced from their lands. Those who survived ended up as virtual serfs on the large white-owned farms.

After the British Empire took over from the Netherlands in 1815, sections of the Dutch-speaking settler population broke away from the original Cape Colony, partly because they were angered by the abolition of slavery. These “trekboers” fought a series of wars with African kingdoms, and set up two small white-ruled republics in the interior. Many African farmers and cattle raisers were pushed off their lands, which became large-scale white-run farms worked by heavily oppressed Black labor. Particularly galling was the settlers’ custom of kidnapping African children and bringing them onto the farms to work as “apprentices.”

But the hands of the British were far from clean. The most influential British adventurer, politician and business leader in South Africa, Cecil Rhodes, pushed through the 1894 Glen Grey Act which made it much easier for whites, whether Englishmen or Afrikaners (as the descendents of Dutch and French settlers came to be called), to shove even prosperous Black farmers off their land. The two “Boer” wars, in 1880 and 1899-1902, brought little benefit to Black South Africans. The displacement and the exploitation continued after South Africa whites got dominion status (similar to Canada and Australia) from the United Kingdom in 1910. In 1913, the government passed the Native’s Land Act, setting the stage for further displacement.

When the Nationalist Party came to power in 1948, laws controlling the work and movements of the Black majority were made more onerous still, under the apartheid system. But there were always people who wanted to go even further. One was Dr. Albert Herzog, the politician and son of former hard-line Prime Minister Barry Herzog. Herzog junior thought that the apartheid regime of John Forster, a Nazi sympathizer during the Second World War, was making too many concessions to the Blacks. So he split from the ruling National Party and formed the Herstigte (reformed) National Party, hoping to get the support of the Afrikaans-speaking poor whites who had been displaced or oppressed by industrialization and who bore a grudge against the English-speaking white business establishment. Both the National Party and Herzog’s group played on racial prejudice and anti-British feelings left over from the Second Boer War.

Out of Herzog’s group there developed, starting in 1973, a splinter group yet more extreme, the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (Afrikaner Resistance Movement) or AWB, which promotes an ideology that is extreme even by white South African standards. Eugene Terre’Blanche, whose name means “white land” in French, became the AWB’s main leader, claiming that the apartheid regime was too liberal and that the Boers (Afrikaner farmers) should split off from South Africa and form their own state or states, essentially recreating the two little Afrikaner-ruled republics suppressed by the British in 1899-1902.

The idea of splitting off tiny, right-wing Christian and ethnically pure agrarian republics is hardly new in South Africa. But what Terre’Blanche added was the methodology and trappings of 20th century fascism. The AWB’s symbol is similar to the Nazi swastika, and the organization trained and mobilized violent stormtrooper units which even attacked the apartheid government. Like the old Ku Klux Klan in the United States, the AWB terrorized Blacks who tried to defend their rights.

In 1994, after a long struggle carried on by the ANC, the South African Communist Party and others, apartheid finally came to an end with the first non-racial democratic vote in South Africa’s history and the election of liberation hero Nelson Mandela as president. But the AWB and other white extremist groups vowed to block, by force if necessary, efforts by the new government to undertake the herculean task of dismantling the political, administrative and cultural mechanisms of apartheid. The AWB regarded the white farming population as a key part of their national constituency.

Today, there are about 50,000 white farmers in South Africa. The post-apartheid government has opted not to abruptly chase them off the land and divide it among the Black rural poor, as some wanted. But it did restore land to some African communities who could prove that the land had been taken from them since the 1913 law (which was repealed). It also redistributed some government land. A plan of helping Black farmers to buy land from whites on a “willing seller-willing buyer” basis moves with agonizing slowness. Lately, the government has been planning the confiscation of land, with compensation. It has also developed labor codes to improve the treatment of farm labor, but evidently there are serious enforcement lapses, with many documented abuses including beating and killing of farm laborers.

Eugene Terre’Blanche had faded from prominence, after having done a stint in jail (three years) for administering a crippling beating to a former employee and assaulting a gas station attendant. But he was still the head of the AWB, and upon his death, the most right-wing elements mobilized against the government and the ANC. There have been many murders of white farmers in recent years (at least 1,500, maybe more). These attacks appear to result from a boiling up of anger of against local conditions perceived as oppressive, as well as common crimes, rather than a centrally orchestrated campaign, and government officials have pointed out that in fact there have been many assaults on Black farm workers by their white employers. Initial police reports indicate that Terre’Blanche was killed by two of his employees in a wage dispute. However, the reinvigorated AWB, who were out in force at the funeral on April 10, and others on the right are using the incident as an organizing tool, accusing the authorities of not protecting the farmers. They also accuse the ANC of promoting hatred against Afrikaners. In particular, they accuse the leader of the ANC Youth League, Julius Malema, of stirring up hate by his flamboyant rhetoric and particularly his insistence on singing one of the songs or chants of the anti-apartheid resistance movement. The song, “The Cowards are Frightened,” includes lines such as “shoot, shoot” and “kill the Boers.”

The vast majority of the 3 million Afrikaans-speaking whites are not farmers, but blue and white collar workers, small businesspeople, professionals etc. However, there is a strong cultural attachment to the memory of the farm, the legends of the “Groot Trek” and the suffering inflicted by the Boer Wars. The white ultra-right, plays on these feelings of nostalgia and victimhood, the latter of course stimulated by the farm attacks, as an organizing tool. Understanding this, the government of President Zuma has taken a conciliatory approach following the death of Terre’Blanche, ordering swift prosecution of the culprits. The ANC ordered Malema and other members to stop singing the “Cowards are Frightened” chant, to which he grumpily acceded.

But the root cause of the farm killings has to be dealt with. As the South African Communist Party (SACP), which along with the ANC and the COSATU trade union federation constitute the governing Tripartate Alliance, put it:

“If the allegation that Terreblanche’s [sic] murder arose out of a wage dispute is true, it calls upon all of us, especially government, to strengthen the effective regulation and the labour inspectorate on farms. Over a period of time the SACP has strongly campaigned for building the capacity of our Department of Labour to inspect and enforce legislation protecting the vulnerable. This ought to be attended to urgently given continuing reports of abuse of especially the most vulnerable workers, farm-workers and domestic workers. The SACP calls for a speedy solution to the challenges facing our broader land and agrarian reform, including the convening of the long overdue summit of farm-workers and farm-dwellers.”

Dennis Lauman contributed to this article.

Photo: Apartheid-era sign on display at District 6 Museum, Cape Town, South Africa. / CC BY 2.0





Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.