Politics of fear: Swart gevaar, rooi gevaar, boer gevaar

Who would have thought ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa would take a leaf out of the National Party's book in his electioneering tactics? His comment on Sunday that "the boers" would come back if people don't vote for the ANC can be viewed as fear-mongering and politicking of the worst kind.

Ramaphosa was heavily criticised, with the Democratic Alliance saying he was stuck in the dark ages and the Freedom Front Plus stating the comment was tantamount to racism.

He replied to the backlash on Tuesday, not by saying sorry per se, but saying that it was "unfortunate" that people took his comments the wrong way. He said the term "'boer' has commonly been used by black South Africans to refer to the erstwhile apartheid regime" and, presumably, doesn't refer to Afrikaans people specifically.

But the fact is, in the ANC's hands the term "boer" has completely lost its meaning.

It no longer refers to just Afrikaans people, farmers, or the apartheid regime but has become an amorphous, ominous term posited to instil fear in the populace and drive them to the polls.

It happened in the United States in the 1950s against the "commies", when both senator Joseph McCarthey and former US president Richard Nixon started a veritable witch hunt for communists in the country and warned of the ever-looming threat of global communism and its destructive power. 

Similarly, it happened in Russia during the reign of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, when he posited capitalism as the beast Russia had to protect itself against or face certain demise.

And of course, it happened during apartheid when former prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd warned the republic of '"die rooi gevaar" (the red danger) of communism, a sinister communist force on the borders of South Africa, just waiting for their chance to take power. A sinister communist force that could infiltrate through a Pink Floyd record, or an errant peace sign on a teenager's jeans.

He also warned of "die swart gevaar" (the black danger). "Die swart gevaar" was the fear that black people would take over South Africa. But it was more than that – it was the fear of the imaginary idea of the savage black man who would barbarously kill white men and rape their women. Black people did, of course, come into power, and it went relatively smoothly – with little of the burning, killing, raping and World War III-type of repercussions Verwoerd warned of.

The idea that a nationalist Boeremag could come back into power is laughable.

As Mail & Guardian columnist Verashni Pillay pointed out: "The last time I checked the Afrikaans right-wing could barely stage a take-out of the ANC's top leaders at Mangaung, never mind a full-scale return to power."

Which makes Ramaphosa's statements all the more ludicrous and empty. 

It would be easy to write off his statements as an unfortunate slip of the tongue from an otherwise fairly reputable ANC member, but it is more than that. It is part of a pattern of ANC rhetoric that uses the Machiavellian "us vs them'', "ANC vs boers" mentality that not only instils fear in voters, but threatens to worsen race relations in an already racially divided electorate. 

It is irresponsible, destructive and dangerous propaganda, and should be recognised as such.

As part of his "apology" Ramaphosa quipped: "If South Africa is indeed to move forward, all South Africans, regardless of language or background, need to work together as equal citizens."

Indeed.

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Grethe Koen
Grethe Koen has an Honours degree in political science and worked at an organisation for prisoners’ human rights before joining the Mail & Guardian online team as a sub-editor. When she’s not replacing commas with full-stops and taking out pesky html coding she likes writing about music, gender issues and whatever is trending on Twitter.

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