Before Jacob Zuma resigned the presidency last Thursday, South Africa was in the news for an altogether less promising reason. The British journalist Katie Hopkins went there two weeks ago, saying it was time to bring to the world’s attention the ongoing murder of white farmers. She and her supporters claim the mainstream media have ignored the subject, because violence against whites does not “fit the narrative” imposed on a nation still synonymous with apartheid.
As a South African expat – and one who has relatives among those murdered on the farms – seeing the antagonistic, egomaniacal Hopkins take up this story was somewhat nightmarish. I don’t know if there is, as Hopkins says, some conspiracy of silence surrounding these crimes, but this much seems clear: she has no idea of the complex and volatile political landscape in which she has chosen to meddle. The episode is worth examining, though, because it highlights the wider danger of a culture-wars style of politics being exported from first-world countries to South Africa. This, if it continues, would be a disaster.
The farm murders are difficult to discuss objectively, since the government doesn’t keep relevant statistics, and consequently estimates can be politicised and based on unreliable data. But the Transvaal Agricultural Union – the only organisation with continuous statistics since 1990 – gives a high estimate of around 2,000 killings on farms and smallholdings in that time, not all of which involve white farmers. Then again, numbers are not really the main issue; there are dozens of poverty-stricken communities throughout South Africa with a higher murder rate (the national average, again unreliable, is 34 per 100,000). Rather, what makes the farm murders noteworthy is the nature of the killings, as well as the apparent complicity of police and, perhaps, elected politicians.
The issue of rural land ownership is a deeply acrimonious one in South Africa. For centuries, farming has been synonymous with the culture of the Afrikaners – the descendants of mostly Dutch colonists who, via the National Party, implemented apartheid from 1948-1991. “Boer,” the colloquial term for an Afrikaner, literally means farmer. In the post-apartheid era, the fact that much farmland has remained in the possession of Afrikaners, and of whites generally, has become a political ulcer for the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party.
Groups such as Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters advocate the confiscation of white-owned property, and ANC politicians right up to former president Zuma have echoed their incitements to violence. The new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has already stated his intention to expropriate land from whites.
It’s not without justification, then, that Hopkins speaks about politicians creating “a frame of reference” for attackers, and for the police to turn a blind eye. Political or racial motivation seems especially possible given that, while many of the farm murders are professional executions to facilitate the theft of firearms and cars, many others are gruesome torture-killings accompanied by rape. One of Hopkins’ sources claims the police have actually organised and armed attackers, and frankly, given the levels of police corruption in South Africa it would be surprising if this was not the case.
Hopkins’ reporting, however, is a stream of cheap sensationalism. In one video, titled “Shots Ring Out,” she is interrupted mid-broadcast and sent sprinting back to her jeep as her security detail begins firing their handguns into a nearby verge. Only at the end of the two-minute clip are we told this was merely a drill. Bad timing I suppose. While in South Africa, Hopkins also chose to reveal on Twitter that she is taking ketamine for medical reasons, allowing her to then scold the media for being interested in her drug use rather than her stories.
Much worse than this, however, is that Hopkins focuses on the race angle to a dangerous degree. Her framing of the situation on the farms – and of herself as a crusading “little white woman” – flirts with the suggestion that we should sympathise with the farmers because they are whites. Only in one instance does she give any indication that the farm murders are taking place within a complex web of social and political tensions, and that is when she considers the servile conditions many of the black agricultural labourers continue to endure.
But to understand why Hopkins’ intervention is not just stupid but in fact reckless, we need some more context. South Africa is currently at a crossroads of sorts, arrived at by the ebbing-away of Nelson Mandela’s post-apartheid policy of reconciliation. Mandela managed, at least rhetorically, to insist that progress be measured by the material circumstances of the population at large, rather than as a competition between groups. In a nation with eleven official languages, long carved into four racial categories by apartheid bureaucracy, this was quite an achievement. Nor was its value simply to forgive whites: no one benefits if the government can evade responsibility by deflecting blame onto the old oppressors (consider former president Zuma dismissing the notion of corruption as “a Western paradigm”).
But the promised material improvements have not been forthcoming – especially not under Zuma’s crony regime. A huge part of the African and Coloured populations continue to live without basic sanitation, education, or law and order, while South Africa maintains the highest levels of inequality in the entire world. Unemployment stands at 27%, with youth unemployment double that, and a large majority of managerial positions are still held by whites. The much-vaunted black middle class remains vanishingly small.
In these circumstances, inviting the world’s excess anger and resentment to be aimed vicariously at South Africa is something akin to playing with matches at a petrol station. The last thing the country needs is for its tensions to be compounded by foreign ideological agendas. This process is already underway at the other end of the spectrum, where the university-educated population has begun to adopt ideas from American seminar rooms. There have been demonstrations over offensive historical monuments, discussions about whether white men should have the vote, and all the standard linguistic nitpicking and Foucauldian sermons on power.
The farm murders are a travesty, and they deserve to be recognised as such. By all means let them be brought to the world’s attention. But it really does matter how this is done, and even who is doing it; encouraging South Africa’s politics to become focussed on racial and cultural identity will not be good for farmers, for the millions with urgent economic needs, nor for anyone else. Those pursuing culture wars in secure Western countries, whether from the right or the left, would do better staying out of it.