The fierce, emotional debates around land the last few months have markedly increased the political temperature and the levels of intolerance across the racial divide. Only centrifugal forces such as AfriForum and the EFF have benefited from this.
White South Africans feel more vulnerable and insecure now than in the last two decades, race rhetoric has increased from right and left on the political spectrum and attitudes have hardened. The period until next year’s general election will be decisive in terms of social cohesion.
This affects white people most, being an 8 percent minority. It means the party they overwhelmingly support, the DA, will have to have its wits about it to navigate the stormy waters. The DA is unique in this respect because parties such as the ANC, the EFF, Freedom Front Plus and UDM do not seriously attempt to garner support across the racial divide.
While I’m not convinced that the drama around Patricia de Lille is racially motivated, it is clear that the DA is struggling with the complications of its cross-racial membership.
Most black DA supporters think and dream differently about the party’s style and end goals than most white supporters, it would be fair to say, and that was to be expected.
The challenge is to manage these differences and the question is whether its leader, Mmusi Maimane, has the gravitas, political skills and courage to do that.
There is a good cohort of full-blooded progressive white people in the DA who do not always see eye to eye with the old-style liberals in the party. But my suspicion is that perhaps a majority of DA supporters vote for the party because they see it as the most effective way of keeping the ANC in check, rather than because they associate with the DA’s stated social-democratic ethos.
Many of these voters are actually closer to AfriForum’s reactionary identity politics. It is telling that the Freedom Front Plus, where AfriForum members actually belong, draws much fewer voters than the number of paid-up members of AfriForum and its parent body, Solidarity.
This seriously undermines any effort by the DA leadership to cultivate a sense of shared values and ideals among its members.
As South Africans fight about land, identity, history and privilege, this contingent will grow and the space for a search for commonality will shrink. The more rigid white attitudes become, the more assertive and impatient black attitudes are bound to become.
The truth is that AfriForum is now totally dominating the socio-political discourse among white Afrikaners and has a strong influence on the broader white society.
AfriForum leaders dominate the opinion pages of most Afrikaans newspapers and is treated with reverence in news stories and regular interviews. Just last Sunday the biggest Afrikaans newspaper, Rapport, did a soft interview with AfriForum’s Ernst Roets (he called farm murders “ethnic eradication”), published a mostly unquestioning report on AfriForum’s trip to America to garner support among right wingers on the land and rural security issues, published a long opinion piece by AfriForum leader Kallie Kriel and topped it up with a piece by Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Groenewald explaining that we’re in the last phase before a full-blown genocide of Afrikaners. The right wing has properly weaponised rural insecurity as an existential threat and mobilising tool.
No other interest group, NGO or political party even remotely has a similarly booming voice in the Afrikaans media. AfriForum is further sanctioned by soft editorials and columns by prominent members of the Afrikaans commentariat.
Those Afrikaners who are critical of AfriForum’s politics are aggressively demonised, insulted, belittled and even threatened. I last experienced such intolerance with the extreme right wing in the 1980s – an aggressive intolerance that is only equalled by the EFF today.
The rest of South Africa’s people don’t buy the concept of white victimhood that AfriForum trades in – their lived experience and their environment prove the opposite. The patience with white fellow citizens who abuse their privileged positions in society for the selfish furthering of their own causes have worn off.
When Roets described the clamour for land expropriation without compensation as “racist theft” while the rest of the country is focusing on intense debate to find urgent solutions for the land question, he crossed a line that should not have been crossed. His statement was echoed many times over by his followers.
The DA leadership now has the virtually impossible task to help its white supporters face the uncomfortable realities of post-Zuma South Africa and to embrace peaceful coexistence in a situation where they won’t be pampered any longer – and at the same time become a party in which more and more black South Africans will feel at home.