Pieter Mulder, Freedom Front Plus (FF+) leader and deputy minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, is standing by his controversial statement during the State of the Nation debate in Parliament last week about the racial history of land ownership — but it is unlikely to win him support from rightwingers outside his small party.
“When the government says the willing-buyer, willing-seller principle should be reconsidered but they don’t put another option on the table, then people hear that there will be land grabbing, nationalisation; that this will be Zimbabwe,” Mulder said this week.
As a member of President Jacob Zuma’s Cabinet, he regards himself as the go-between for the government and commercial farmers, including those on the far right.
“There is sufficient proof that there were no Bantu-speaking people in the Western Cape and northwestern Cape,” Mulder said.
For him that is the starting point for a debate about tenure, ensuring investment in productive land and, ultimately, food security.
If any issue could resuscitate the far right into a semblance of life again, it will start with land redistribution. But, even if that happens, Mulder will not be the paragon of the counterrevolution.
Land ownership is a sensitive issue
Land ownership is not only a deeply fraught topic in South Africa’s public, everyday political discourse, but in rural areas and small towns in many parts of the country it makes for important conversation among farmers and those in their immediate economic circle. It is also the last stalking ground for the fragmented and factionalised organisations that house Afrikaner extreme nationalists, especially those groups who argue vehemently that they are not white supremacists, although they have racial ideology at their core.
Land is perhaps the last issue that gives such groups, the kind exemplified by the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, any constituency whatsoever, or it will be when Nelson Mandela, inevitably, dies. Fear of a mass slaughter of white people in the Nag van die Lang Messe (Night of the Long Knives) following Mandela’s death or funeral — depending on your exact interpretation of the “visions” of Boer prophet Siener van Rensburg — still provides a certain cohesion.
But that mythology tends to attract a fringe following and its usefulness as a political device has a definite expiry date.
Fear of what is described by these extremists as the “mass genocide” of whites through co-ordinated attacks on farms — intended to drive white farmers from their land, in the minds of believers — has something of the same effect.
Without their reverence for land, in the first place, and the belief that South African politics ultimately revolves around who gets to farm it, the shrinking, fading far right would be even smaller than it is.
The uncertainty surrounding land-reform policy and the growing belief that there will be some type of forced eviction provide much of the sway such groups still have. It is also arguably the last chance they have to avoid utter irrelevance.
Mulder’s controversial statement — that black people have no valid historical claim to at least part of the country — is held as a selfevident truth at some town hall meetings and around some braaivleis fires and will have struck a chord in some of those quarters.
But it is extremely unlikely that Mulder will attract a new constituency to his marginal party by raising such historical issues. The far right has long considered the FF+ and its leaders as traitors to the cause. It goes back to when now-retired co-founder Constand Viljoen effectively prevented open racial warfare by participating in South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994.
Mulder is also considered a traitor for accepting a Cabinet post in an ANC government, something with which he has seemingly made peace, even if he believes his position on land redistribution proves he has not been co-opted.
“I’m told that I’m naive, that there is a hidden agenda,” he says of meetings with groups of farmers in some parts of South Africa. “They don’t accept my answers any more.”