There has been an upsurge in right-wing activity across the West, in countries usually thought to be stable, contented, middle-of-the-road democracies. Since the global financial crisis began to bite — and especially since the West had to deal with a refugee crisis from countries such as Syria and Libya — most political institutions are either locked in war or in a state of disarray.
In Britain, inchoate dissatisfaction and resentment of immigrants (particularly those who aren’t white-skinned) has led to Brexit, the attempt to leave the European Union and a replay of the kind of “Pakis go home” sentiment that made an ugly impact there in the 1970s.
In the United States, a racist, sexist self-publicist energised the anger of white Americans who felt done down by two terms of a relatively liberal presidency (Barack Obama’s), as well as having been hurt by economic bad times, and so Donald Trump was elected to the presidency. There, he seemed to be turning it all into a bad joke but his grotesque shenanigans, however laughable, serve to distract observers from a deeply conservative programme endorsed by Republican hardliners such as his deputy, Mike Pence.
Even the notoriously liberal and open-minded Dutch saw a rightwinger coming that little bit closer to winning an election.
South Africa seems to be experiencing a similar upsurge, except that the white right-wing never actually went away. It has been bubbling under the surface of public awareness for some time, or bursting forth at irregular intervals from the mouths of racist revisionists, such as the pop singer Steve Hofmeyr.
We’re probably more used to seeing this kind of thing happening in South Africa, and are somewhat less shocked and surprised by it, than bien pensant Europeans largely sheltered by well-organised social democracies. We have memories of the old Afrikaner right, those who clawed their way into government as well as those who stayed on the margins because they believed the National Party — for all its innate white supremacism — was going a bit soft and getting far too enlightened for their tastes.
It’s easy to laugh at such outliers and to dismiss the nature of the threat they pose to South Africa’s two-decade democracy. After all, have such white rightists not been comprehensively defeated by the constitutional demo-cracy set up by the new government of 1994? Have the old redoubts of white supremacy not been destroyed? Even Orania, the cartoon “homeland” of purist Afrikanerdom, is seen as a fairly benign realisation of the dreams of some white separatists — they’re just eccentric old Boers who find it so hard to live in the new South Africa that they have to hide out in a dreary townlet somewhere in the countryside.
But, as we report in this week’s Mail & Guardian, it doesn’t do to simply dismiss such conservatives. The recent controversy over an Australian Cabinet minister’s offer to fast-track visas for South African farmers threatened by so-called genocide wasn’t something that just popped up as the world came to know of the problem. No: it was fomented by backwards-looking South African groups and the same right-wing forces that helped Trump to the top — forces increasingly being marshalled into a global network of crypto-fascists in league with somewhat more obvious fascists.
It was, and is, an orchestrated campaign, boosted by the likes of Fox News. This movement probably has very little chance of reaching its goals in South Africa but it could cause a great deal of trouble, even violence, and we should keep a wide-awake eye upon it.