A society divided: land, farm attacks and #WhiteGenocide

[Note that the caption for the image at the top of this page should read “A campaign to raise awareness on farm murders. Photo: Twitter/Marius Müller” Source: eNCA. For some reason, WordPress won’t let me add a caption to this image]

This is a difficult article to write, mostly because the debates in this area have become so polarised and overly-sensitive that any attempt at navigating their fraught waters inevitably ends with some readers collapsing your words onto one side of the aisle or the other. Trying to traverse the middle ground turns your words into a cipher where readers see what they want to in them. Regardless, we forge ahead. I think it’s important that we interrogate the emotive topics that divide our society now more than ever.

This is not a post about the statistics behind farm attacks nor the legitimacy of the #WhiteGenocide meme in the South African context. Rather, this is an exploration of the groups involved and the ways in which these debates are shaping our society.

These are deeply rooted issues for all South Africans and to dismiss The Other’s point of view is to condemn us all to conflict. We need to understand that white conservatives’ reactions come from a deep fear and anxiety about their place in South Africa, their experiences of violent crime, and their connection to the land that their ancestors poured their blood (not only as the aggressor), sweat and tears into, and which has been in their families for generations. The land they toil over defines them. Similarly, many black South Africans’ reactions come from the existential angst and anger that emerges from being rootless in their own country for generations. At its heart, these debates are about a common need to feel safe and connected to the earth that birthed us all. That commonality needs to be recognised and harnessed for nationhood rather than used to divide.

At it’s heart, these debates are about a common need to feel safe and connected to the earth that birthed us all. That commonality needs to be recognised and harnessed for nationhood rather than used to divide.

To try and understand where each of us is coming from, we need to expose ourselves to the other side’s point of view. Listen then to the frustration in Ernst Roet’s video blog here to try and understand the human needs that drive AfriForum, whether you agree with their interpretation or not. And then, for a moment, cast aside the noise of party politics and make it your business to empathise with the terrible way in which dispossession grinds our people into gristle, from land invasions in Cape Town to assassinations in KZN. Recognising our common humanity will save us.

Here are the crib notes for this article:

  • The topics of land expropriation without compensation, farm attacks and white genocide are polarising our society in a way that I have never seen before in my years of analysing Twitter data
  • The conservative white community on Twitter is not a single, homogenous group. It appears split between the ‘moderate’ AfriForum approach which champions farm attacks and the Suidlanders’ approach which emphasises solidarity with the international white right community, including through the use of the #WhiteGenocide meme…
  • …which is just another example of our local debates merging with international debates to create one global mono-culture (or at least a Western mono-culture)
  • Despite this, there is little evidence yet in this data for a large-scale, effective, coordinated campaign from the white right (unless you consider the global alt-right machinery as just that) although there are certainly local individuals working at putting these networks in place and their efforts appear to be gaining attention (which is what prompted this article)

So, with that context set, let’s dive into the data…

One meme, two meanings

To start with, let’s take a look at the global use of the #WhiteGenocide hashtag so that we can juxtapose it against its use in the South African context. This hashtag meme was originally created by white nationalists in Europe. It was meant to capture the belief that, due to an influx of foreigners (especially refugees) into majority-white countries, (white) natives would soon be out-numbered and their DNA would be irreversibly mixed with the immigrants’ leading to a “white genocide” of the locals. This is still the way that the hashtag is used in the US and numerous European countries. This prominent tweet by British far-right activist, Mark Collett (extracted from the dataset below) captures the gist of it well:

Enter South Africa – the white man’s only significant presence on the continent of Africa, and a place where so many separatists’ and nationalists’ dreams of a pure white state momentarily came to fruition in the second half of the twentieth century. Some believe that the white community here is under attack, with the vanguard of that attack focusing on the symbolic pillars of that white society: the self-sufficient, pioneering farmer… or ‘boer’.

The use of the #WhiteGenocide hashtag in the South African context is the latest example of global Western culture seeping into South African discourse. We’ve borrowed both the identity politics incubated in the US far left (the Rhodes Must Fall movement, for example, borrowed heavily from the Black Lives Matter movement), and the counter-narrative incubated in the alt-right.  These intellectual imports have South Africa caught betwixt a rock and a hard place with few popular analogies and philosophies of our own to draw on to explain our unique reality (aside, perhaps, for Frantz Fanon, who himself was an import from the African diaspora in the Caribbean, but perhaps close enough). The result is that the egalitarian, humanist ideals of non-racialism have been cast aside in favour of a hierarchy of the aggrieved.

The use of the #WhiteGenocide hashtag in the South African context is just the latest example of global Western culture seeping into South African discourse…

This dynamic of the inter-relationship between the Western and southern African white right is not a new one. Indeed, this fascinating article about the relationship between the white Rhodesian regime and far-right Americans in the 1970s resoundingly resonates with the present. Except, instead of sending mercenary ‘soldiers of fortune’ to fight alongside the white man as happened in the Rhodesian Bush War, we are more likely to find memes lobbed our way via social media and partisan news outlets.

Let’s see what the data says about where South Africa sits within the global #WhiteGenocide discussion. The below network summarises 15,047 tweets that contained the #WhiteGenocide hashtag over two weeks between 16 April and 1 May 2018. To create this network, we connect Twitter users together when they interact with each other by retweeting and @mentioning each other:

“A campaign to raise awareness on farm murders. Photo: Twitter/Marius Müller.” Source: eNCA

The network shows that the vast majority of the usage of the #WhiteGenocide hashtag occurs outside of the South African community and around the original meaning of the meme (i.e. local white populations being ‘diluted’ by the influx of foreigners). However, the South African community, while a minority overall, does represent the single largest community. It contains 9% of users in the dataset and it generated 14% of tweets (making it particularly vocal as well).

While small overall, the South African community represents a uniquely engaged, active proportion of the conversation. We can tell this by the ‘shape’ of the communities in the network. If one looks closely at the other communities, they tend to be focused around a single influencer who likely posted one or two tweets that received many retweets. In other words, these are relatively ‘passive’ engagements where influencers put out content and their followers engage with it in a one-directional flow of information. This is not the case within the South African community though which less resembles the starburst patterns of the other communities than a messy hairball of tight interactions between many individuals. This pattern is characteristic of grass roots engagement of the type we usually see in passionate topics such as Fees Must Fall and other similarly passionate communities. In other words, average users appear to be engaging in these discussions amongst themselves rather than passively following content from a few opinion leaders.

Let’s dive into the purple South African community above in more detail. Here it is in isolation with the sub-communities highlighted in different colours:

This interaction network is a subset of the global #WhiteGenocide network above, focusing specifically on the South African community within that network.

I’ve left the usernames out of the above picture because there are no prominent, well-known influencers in this community (the large nodes represent relatively unknown users who had a tweet go viral within the community) which is telling in itself. And, importantly , there is no AfriForum presence in this dataset. There are absolutely no references to AfriForum, Ernst Roets or Kallie Kriel at all, even by other users trying to pull them into the conversation. This is not to say that they have not flirted with the hashtag because they have as this video highlights. However, given the ubiquity of the hashtag, they have managed surprisingly well to keep their distance from it.

Also of interest to me is the lack of patterns indicative of a concerted campaign around the hashtag. This is not to say that there are not individuals embarking on such campaigns. Indeed, the #ProjectConnectSA appears to be a concerted attempt, as does the news site, SouthAfricaToday.net. Thus, there are concerted efforts out there to drive a #WhiteGenocide narrative but their impact appears to be minimal compared to the Guptabots that pushed the Radical Economic Transformation agenda under the Zuma regime.

…given the ubiquity of the [#WhiteGenocide] hashtag, [AfriForum has] managed surprisingly well to keep their distance from it.

These disparate efforts might start to gather some real steam though if we start to see more US-style organisation emerge. Did AfriForum pick up any tips, tricks or support in this area on their recent trip stateside? Or, will we see the Suidlanders adopting such techniques given their close relationship with the global white right? We’ll know that we’ve entered a US-style information war when we start to see the following shifts occur:

  1. An increase in partisan fake accounts and pages of a higher quality than the hamfisted Guptabots
  2. More YouTube ‘political commentators’
  3. More partisan institutes and think tanks
  4. More partisan news websites of the ANN7/The New Age, Black Opinion, Uncensored Opinion and Weekly Xpose ilk but focused on the right
  5. More meme images shared via social media that simplify and popularise the far right agenda

None of this appears to be happening just yet. AfriForum, in particular, are still playing by the agreed upon media rules so far it seems…

A society divided

AfriForum has done a decent job of avoiding using the #WhiteGenocide meme, instead championing the issue of farm attacks. The picture gets murkier though when we zoom out to look at the overall conversations around the emotive topics of land, farm attacks and white genocide. To create this dataset, I collected tweets that contained terms like ‘farm attacks’, ‘plaas moorde’, #WhiteGenocide, ‘land expropriation’, #LEWC, suidlanders, etc. along with a few specific AfriForum usernames.

When we take a bird’s eye view of discussions around these topics, we see that AfriForum and its media faces, Ernst Roets and Kallie Kriel, find themselves sitting firmly within the conservative white right community. No surprises there but this means that while they might be careful to make a distinction between their message and the #WhiteGenocide hashtag, many of their community members might not keep that distinction.

This interaction network captures the wider picture around discussions of land expropriation, farm attacks and white genocide based on 71,852 tweets covering the periods of 28 March – 4 April 2018, 15-18 May 2018, 28 May – 2 June 2018. The diagonal dotted line is an indication of where the two larger groups appear to be separating on these polarising topics.

The first thing that jumps out at me in the above network is how polarised it is. It looks like the top and bottom halves on either side of the dotted line are being pulled apart. This is the first time that I have seen such polarisation in a South African Twitter dataset. The discussions around the anti-Zuma marches did not generate as much polarised debate. Only datasets that include the conservative white South African community, such as the protests in Coligny and the #BlackMonday protest, have come close.

The level of polarisation in this dataset is reminiscent of what US political Twitter discussions look like where there is very little overlap between Republicans and Democrats. A strength of our political discourse has always been that we share common touchpoints in the media and so our debates tend to depart from the same points, based on shared facts. However, this polarisation dynamic lends itself to the creation of well-insulated filter bubbles of the kind that have fractured American society.

The position of the @Suidlanders account at the edge of the conservative white community and close to the international white right community lends credence to reports (linked to earlier above) that they are knitting these groups together, whether consciously or unconsciously via a shared worldview [EDIT] (although this post claims that there are very close links; it’s pretty gossipy though so take from it what you will).[/EDIT]

For one final dive into the data, let’s take a look at which communities were discussing each topic. The below images show the same network as above except that I’ve coloured users who mentioned a specific topic, including white genocide, farm attacks, land expropriation or AfriForum, in green and those that did not in grey:

Embedded networks showing the communities discussing various topics. Users that mentioned keywords of interest are highlighted in green for the three topics highlighted above.

What jumps out for us in these images? Well, white genocide is mostly discussed in the part of the white conservative community closest to the international community where the @Suidlanders account sits. There were few mentions immediately surrounding Ernst Roets, Kallie Kriel and AfriForum’s accounts. Does that make them the moderate voices in that community?

On the other hand, farm attacks are discussed throughout the white conservative community and many of the other communities as well, as is land expropriation.

Surprisingly, AfriForum is more discussed amongst its detractor communities than its supposed strongholds. Indeed, the same parts of the network discussing white genocide (including around the @Suidlanders account) hardly mentioned AfriForum whereas the part of the white conservative community that didn’t mention white genocide much did discuss AfriForum. Again, does this mean that AfriForum represents the moderate conservative white community whereas the more far right white community discusses white genocide and fosters ties with the international far right community?

Pulling it together, this data seems to show evidence for two groups within the conservative white community: the ‘moderate’ AfriForum group and the more ‘extreme’ group characterised by the Suidlanders movement. A possible flaw in this thesis is Roets and Kriel’s recent tour of the US where they hobnobbed with the Breitbarts and InfoWars of the world who feed the narrative of the same far right international community, [EDIT] where they met with the whose who of the right wing [/EDIT] raising questions about how distant from the global white right narrative they can really be? However, this data does not show that they are necessarily reflecting those news outlets’ narratives back onto their own community in the way that the more extreme far right contingent is.

In summary…

So where does this leave us? Clearly we are failing as a country to find a middle ground on these important issues… at least on Twitter. Groups like the BLF and the EFF feed anger and prejudice on the left, while a battle rages for the soul of the conservative white right between the stance championed by AfriForum and the global far right’s narrative.

Is AfriForum actively pushing an effective counter-narrative (for example, through their dogged focus on farm attacks rather than white genocide) or is it just a matter of time before the international white right narrative fully colonises our local conservative white ccommunity? Is this dataset perhaps just a snapshot of a deterministic process mid-completion? I’d like to give our countrymen more credit than that. Indeed, as I write this, I see that President Ramaphosa is attending the centenary celebrations of the Afrikanerbond (née Afrikaner Broederbond) which says something about bridge building…

 

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