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Complicit in a tide of hate and violence

Kaffirhater, ProudSA-whiteboy, 1994 Sucks, General de la Rey and Houtkop. These are just some of the monikers used by South Africans on the white supremacist website Stormfront that has been linked to close on 100 hate-crime murders.

The Southern Poverty Law Centre, an American civil rights advocacy group, has called Stormfront the “murder capital of the internet”.

“A typical murderer drawn to the racist forum stormfront.org is a frustrated, unemployed white adult male living with his mother or an estranged spouse or girlfriend. She is the sole provider in the household,” writes Heidi Beirich, who leads intelligence projects for the law centre, in an online report titled White Homicide Worldwide.

She continues: “Forensic psychologists call him a ‘wound collector’. Instead of building his résumé and seeking employment or further education, he projects his grievances on society and searches the internet for an excuse or an explanation unrelated to his behaviour or the choices he has made in life.”

The centre’s two-year study into Stormfront claimed that this website – founded by Don Black, who was a grand wizard in the Ku Klux Klan and a member of the American Nazi Party – is “an electronic home and breeding ground for racists”.

It says that Black is unapologetic for the murders allegedly linked to his site, and confirms that he still runs it and receives donations from its members.

One such supporter is Stormfront forum member Vlamme (Flames in Afrikaans), who has been active on the site since 2008. To date, Vlamme has generated some 3 318 posts.

The content Vlamme creates on Stormfront forums includes posts with headlines such as “Crowd hacks cattle after truck overturns”, “Boereoorlog standbeeld aan die brand (Boer War statue set alight)” and “Whites in South Africa granted asylum in Canada”.

The content on the site is among the most pejorative you’ll find online. Much of it is pure hate speech. Subjects discussed on the site’s South African forums – described as “issues and pro-white activism in South Africa” – predictably include white genocide and how to get out of this country.

Postings focus on local news items like “Zuma sings Shoot the Boer”, some take the form of jokes and others recommend the “best” city for whites to live in. The answer to that last question, apparently, is Cape Town, followed by Bloemfontein and Pretoria. A user named Boer Resistance chimes in: “What about the Tokai neighbourhood of Cape Town? Is almost 90% white!”

Another user, Wit Wraak (white revenge), responds: “Lots of Jewish up on the back of the mountains there, from Bishopscourt, Constantia to Tokai … personally, I’m looking at a klein dorp somewhere in the semi-desert Noord-Kaap and become self-sufficient with wide spaces around, so I can make things to check terrorists coming from miles away.”

The local chapter of Stormfront posts videos such as the one headlined “Videos of nasty apartheid era South Africa peaceful and prosperous”. The clip shows no black people or suffering during apartheid, only whites enjoying the privilege that this era legislated at the expense of others.

In its 2014 report, the Southern Poverty Law Centre says registered users of Stormfront have been “disproportionately responsible for some of the most lethal hate crimes and mass killings since the site was put up in 1995. In the past five years alone, Stormfront members have murdered close to 100 people.”

The centre lists the hate crimes and murders associated with the site, which include:

• Buford O’Neal Furrow Jnr, who committed the Los Angeles Jewish Community Centre shooting in August 1999. Furrow shot three children, a teenager and an elderly woman at the centre before killing a Filipino-American postal worker.

• Richard Scott Baumhammers, who, in April 2000, killed his next-door neighbour, an elderly Jewish woman, after which he went on a spree that would leave four more people dead and another paralysed.

• Ian Andrew Bishop, Stormfront Youth member, who, in April 2002, at the age of 14, killed his brother whom he thought he was gay.

• James “Yankee Jim” Leshkevich, who created some 5 000 posts on Stormfront before strangling his wife and hanging himself.

• Texan Curtis Boone Maynard, who killed his ex-wife and shot his teenage stepdaughter, severely wounding her, before turning the gun on himself in April 2010.

The most notorious killer associated with Stormfront is Anders Behring Breivik, who, in July 2011, triggered a bomb in Oslo, Norway, that claimed eight lives and injured hundreds. He proceeded to a youth work camp at Utøya Island and shot and killed 69 people, mostly teenagers.

“At the time of the killings, Breivik had been a registered member on Stormfront for almost three years,” the law centre report reads. Breivik was convicted and sentenced to 21 years’ imprisonment in August 2012. Some Stormfront members responded to the verdict by claiming he was a “prisoner of war” or a “hero”.

The centre’s Beirich profiles the kind of person who shifts from “wound collector” to killer. “His escalation follows a predictable trajectory. From right-wing anti-government websites and conspiracy hatcheries, he migrates to militant hate sites that blame society’s ills on ethnicity and shifting demographics,” she writes.

“He soon learns his race is endangered – a target of ‘white genocide’. After reading and lurking for a while, he needs to talk to someone about it, signing up as a registered user on a racist forum, where he commiserates in an echo chamber of angry fellow failures where Jews, gays, minorities and multiculturalism are blamed for everything.

“Assured of the supremacy of his race and frustrated by the inferiority of his achievements, he binges online for hours every day … He just gets angrier. And then he gets a gun.”

Beirich claims it is a myth that racist killers hide in the shadows. “Investigators find that most offenders openly advocated their ideology online, often obsessively posting on racist forums and blogs for hours every day.”

Fanie du Toit, the executive director of the Cape Town-based Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, says that a “toxic mix” of racism, fused with political and economic marginalisation, radicalises people who then go online to find their “clans”.

On sites like Stormfront, says Du Toit, “people stoke each other’s fires, and it becomes a cycle of the reinforcement of racism. And then someone gets their hands on a gun and shoots. The anonymity that the internet offers is perfect for people like this. The internet and forums like Stormfront enable people to express their hate without having to take responsibility for it,” Du Toit adds.

But what can be done to counter the hate or counter any threat to public safety from people and sites such as these?

Du Toit says Stormfront should be actively monitored by South Africa’s intelligence services. “We do need to be on top of this and to know who these people are. We do need to profile them, because they can be dangerous.”

He adds: “It is difficult to close these things down. If you close a site down in one jurisdiction, people just go elsewhere or the site opens in another jurisdiction.”

The most pragmatic advice that Du Toit offers is a social justice antidote to extremism. “I have a sense that one is more effective against extremism – particularly white extremism – by living the alternative confidently. By this I mean confidently living in a racially diverse and mixed society and economy,” Du Toit says.

“Drawing people in – and making the new look enticing and the old ridiculous – is the most effective way to deal with the ultra-right wing, rather than to fight fire with fire.”

Du Toit adds: “If you dignify these kinds of people with a battle, they become what they’ve wanted to be all along, which is freedom fighters. But if you confidently live your values, you force the other person to live in your world of human rights and equality. Society best fights radicals by switching the light on in what is a dark room.”

The complication with this remedy, however, is that South Africa’s experiment in democracy is not working as well as it should.

“We are sitting with a leadership crisis in government; we are sitting with a discredited executive and now we have a trust deficit [with SA’s electorate],” says Du Toit. “This is why people revert to their ethnic enclaves and why this old radicalism is resurfacing. Because you don’t have a middle ground that is strong enough any more.”

And when the middle ground is lost and trust is breached, the big divide and unbridled passions ferment, creating a potent rage.

Mandy de Waal is the founding editor of OpenlyCurious.co, a new journalism project that aspires to create intelligent, well-crafted content for thinking people

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