South Africa’s Afriforum and Trump’s kiss of death

Donald Trump’s endorsement has hurt white nationalists and their attempt to garner support in South Africa.

Donald Trump
On August 23, US President Donald Trump tweeted that he has asked Mike Pompeo to study the seizing of farms and 'large scale killings of farmers' in South Africa [AP Photo/Evan Vucci]

Donald Trump’s comments referring to “large scale killings” of white farmers in South Africa last week may have mobilised the lunatic fringe in America and served the US president’s narrow racist interests, but in South Africa, they backfired for the organisation that claims it “played a role” in his tweet.

Trump is held in such low regard among reasonable people outside the US that his endorsement signalled a setback for Afriforum, the fascist organisation that toured the US and the UK earlier this year in a bid to call attention to what it calls “the plight” of white farmers.

In both countries, Afriforum met other white nationalist groups and in the US they managed to secure meetings with hapless bureaucrats in the chaotic Trump administration. While the grouping has been careful to stop short of making the false assertion that there is a genocide being perpetrated against whites, it is affiliated with organisations that make such claims and feeds off of a narrative of white victimhood and paranoia.

The facts, of course, are irrelevant to Trump and his supporters who like to jump to quick conclusions. South Africa is a country with a strong commitment to human rights and the rule of law, and the notion that it is embarking on any sort of illegal expropriation flies in the face of reality. At present there is a public consultation process aimed at examining the issue of land ownership.

A land audit conducted by the government in 2017, shows that whites own the majority of privately held agricultural land at 72 percent, although they represent roughly 10 percent of the population. Blacks, who make up 80 percent of the population, own just 4 percent.

In a country where white skin was once a guarantee of eternal privilege, the introduction of affirmative action and other policies designed to redress historical imbalances are experienced by some white South Africans as threats. This feeling is not grounded in reality: White South Africans continue to experience low rates of unemployment and enjoy an excellent standard of living.

There are generally high levels of violent crime across the country, and so there is no question that farm murders represent a problem. The victims of violence on farms are both black and white of course given the large number of farm workers who reside on farms. Sadly, there isn’t enough data to conclude that white farmers are more likely to be killed than the rest of the population nor is there any evidence – anecdotal or otherwise – that farmers are being targeted because of their race.

Since it was established in 2006, Afriforum has worked hard to present itself as a moderate voice that has brought up this issue to national attention. Through polling, the use of data and a media-friendly attitude, the absurdly named group (which includes an allusion to the African continent despite its avowedly racially problematic politics) has sought to position itself as a rational interlocutor in a national conversation about redress, human rights and the question of land redistribution.

In spite of its erroneous claims and dog-whistle politics, Afriforum has successfully capitalised on many white people’s fears that they are losing their place as an assertive generation of well-educated black elites emerges.

In the past year, Afriforum has adopted a global focus. Seeking to appeal to the emboldened environment for racists in the US, Australia and Europe, Afriforum’s global strategy has sought to put pressure on the South African government to better protect its white citizens, who, they argue, are being deliberately targeted on the basis of race.

Their international strategy has been ineffectual. In terms of fundraising, it seems white supremacist groups are big on talk but not keen on giving. Still, Afriforum has been spectacularly good at garnering the attention of populist Western politicians who are eager to use their cause to suit their own domestic agendas.

For example, in Australia, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton caused ripples when he suggested white farmers might qualify for special visas on the basis of claims they are being persecuted. Dutton was of course, playing to a right-wing domestic constituency and his comments are unlikely to lead to any benefit for white South African farmers. In the US, Trump’s tweet indicates he intends to use the issue in the same way.

At home, in South Africa, the attention of a US president many South Africans – across the colour line and the political spectrum – see as unhinged and blatantly racist, has undone much of Afriforum’s work to appear reasonable. As its leaders regroup from what has been a punishing week in their home country, they might want to learn from the alt-right Western politicians they are so desperate to court.

Right-wing hate mongers know that while the world is getting smaller, politics is still local. If Afriforum wants to be a successful white nationalist organisation it needs to win support at home. Flirting with Trump will do it no good in a world where he has little legitimacy. Moderate whites in South Africa now have even fewer reasons to take Afriforum seriously.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.