Lessons of Rage in South Africa

By Michelle Chen Apr 06, 2010

The 69 year-old white supremacist leader Eugene Terre’Blanche, the notorious founder of the ultra-right Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) of South Africa, recently died a gruesome death. Authorities say the gory beating and hacking, allegedly at the hands of two farmworkers, was not "political" but motivated by a dispute over wages. But, with the scars of history still raw in post-apartheid South Africa, the murder of an iconic bigot is another traumatic testament to a painful past. Granted, the legacy of the ironically named Terre’Blanche is more pathetic than threatening in retrospect. Though his group never gained widespread political support, he projected twisted grandiosity, parading around on a black horse and flaunting a swastika-like insignia. Time‘s Alex Perry observes from Cape Town:

South African politicians of all color decried the murder of Terre’Blanche, but few would dispute that it followed the pattern of racism and violence that defined his life. Terre’Blanche set up the militant white supremacist AWB in the 1970s, resisting all moves to reform the country’s apartheid system of white minority rule and vowing to take power by force if the regime gave up power. Though three of Terre’Blanche’s "generals" did try to invade the former black homeland of Boputhatswana in 1994 (and were executed in the street) and though Terre’Blanche did once take matters into his own hands (in 2001, he was jailed for six years for assaulting a black gas attendant in his hometown), he was more a vainglorious blowhard than a serious threat to South Africa’s fragile racial make-up.

Nonetheless, Terre’Blanche miserable death may have an outsized impact on race relations in South Africa, coming days after the leader of the ANC Youth League Julius Malema was slammed for promoting an old anti-apartheid protest song containing the words "shoot the boer (dubula ibhunu)." Late last month, the song was struck down in court for inciting racial violence–the subtext being that the song (or perhaps the vilification of the song itself) would fuel "defensive" white-Afrikaner militancy. The Guardian reports that in Ventersdrop in the North West Province, "AWB followers clad in paramilitary khaki laid flowers at the gate of Terre’Blanche’s farm." Here in our stable democracy, Americans concerned about escalating reactionary forces may look to the situation in South Africa as a window into how the absurd can suddenly become mainstream. Political figures across the political spectrum are jarred by the frightening convergence of racial animosity, distortion of history, and systematic brutality, in a nation that prides itself on commitment to democracy and reconciliation. There are many reasons why South Africa’s racial polarization has intensified–stubborn and glaring economic inequality is one major factor, along with the festering frustration among blacks and whites with what is seen as the unfulfilled promise left in the wake of apartheid’s end. This might all seem particular to South Africa’s vicious history of institutionalized racism, which, in terms of legal segregation, ended relatively recently. But one chord that resonates in America and in the new South Africa is the way history stalks communities and reinforces longstanding lines of inequality. In an interview on Democracy Now!, Adam Habib, a South African scholar and activists who until recently was barred from entering the U.S., reflected on the common ground between two countries struggling with a history of racial grievance and denial. He said, "if you want to understand the problems of South Africa, look to the United States and multiply it by twenty times. That’s the nature of what South Africa is in a lot of ways. It reminds me of a mini United States with much more acute problems." Every nation has its "fringe" elements; but it takes a political perfect storm to invite the extremes to creep toward the center. Even in a society that champions freedom, for the people who feel besieged and embittered by the sudden loss of privilege, all it takes is a song, or an act of senseless violence, or a string of provocative images or words on the news, to unleash a ghosts of history with a vengeance.