Red October: latest act in SA’s theatre of the absurd

2013-10-10 00:00

ASKIT on Late Night News with Loyiso Gola showed a mock auction in which political parties bid for various voter types: Model C Woman (going, going, to … Agang), Grass-roots Man (he’s DA man), and AWB Man, whom no one wants. In desperation, the auctioneer gives him a red beret and, hey, the bearded boer is instantly transformed into a Che, attractive enough to make Julius part with your money.

But even back in the real Looking Glass world there’s no such thing as a Wysiwyg.

F.W. de Klerk, for example, has been reinvented as a Buddha in 21 Icons, a “celebration of the lives of South Africans who inspire us with their dignity, strength and generosity”.

And hold onto your Lenin cap for the weirdest act in South Africa’s theatre of the absurd. From the producers of the Rooi Gevaar, starring Steve Hofmeyr and the Supremacists, comes Red October. This is not the other Red October that’s happening at the same time, brought to you by Blade and the Beemers: red is their name and black is their game.

No, this lot of reds are white and to make their point they’ve donned the yellow star of genocide. An online petition calls for “people across the world to raise their voices against the oppression of and violence against White South Africans … No longer will we endure the killing of our people on our farms and in our towns and cities!”

The Red October protest is supposed to take the form of marches today and the release of red balloons to symbolise the blood of innocents.

We’ve stumbled into improbable badlands where the loss of state, volk, language and power is conceived not in terms of democratic levelling but as the conditions of genocide.

It is obviously hyperbolic, hysterical even, to invoke the idea of a white “genocide” in this country. As a result it’s easy to laugh at, or to overreact to it as the spectre of a resurgent apartheid.

Mostly, this talk of genocide (heard mainly, but not exclusively, among Afrikaners) provokes ridicule and alarm simultaneously, which makes it difficult to engage with what the issues might be. That there is disquiet and fear on both sides is clear. To take seriously the complaints of a statistical blip seems silly: much easier to write it off as the paranoia of racist fossils. To ignore it, however, is to imagine that there is no pressure point, and that it does not influence the way we do politics.

The ghosts of the past are not at rest. It is monstrous to steal the legacy of others: to appropriate the language of oppression to shore up privilege; to invoke the Holocaust to rally around the heirs of Hitler.

No one takes kindly to having their history taken away. If this is true, consider this: it’s the 175th anniversary of the Great Trek, one of the foundational myths on which Afrikaner identity rests.

And yet one is hard-pressed to find any reference to it in the general (English) media. Do a Google News search and you’ll find Star Trek. What remains of the romantic narrative of the trekboers is under attack, not just through being ignored but also in the historiography.

Jeff Guy, for example, in his just published book on Theophilus Shepstone, characterises them as “seeking out fresh land, dispersing or capturing the African inhabitants, killing the wild and depasturing the stock”. They “were supported by the labour of bonded herders, cultivators and domestic servants. Their economy was parasitical …”

Moving on, or trying to, the author Dana Snyman wrote in Beeld: “All over the country you can indeed still see the monuments [of the 1938 Great Trek centenary]. Some are badly damaged. Never again will Afrikaners stand together like that. We are now on a different, most likely more difficult, trek — the great trek through the empty spaces that stretch between people.”

Those empty spaces are haunted, and they stretch far. For example, Charles Smith, writing in Volksblad about the TV series Donkerland, asks: “Why the ghosts of land, forbidden love, blood, war and [concentration] camps will not stop boiling in our blood … the fever is passed on from generation to generation … but we wait in vain for an antidote to the fever: The apology that the English have owed us for 113 years.”

This expectation elides the outstanding apology for 1948 to 1994.

Lest one imagines the discourse of extermination to be limited to Dan Roodt and Steve Hofmeyr and their Twitter accounts, it’s not. Last month, Afriforum petitioned the UN to prioritise farm murders. Amnesty International, the White House and the Dutch parliament have been petitioned. At a Minority Rights conference in Holland, a motion was tabled (but defeated) opposing the “genocide” of Afrikaners. At a language conference (also in Holland), it was argued that the ANC is committing cultural genocide by eliminating Afrikaans and supplanting it with English. Street protests in Amsterdam had posters reading “Save the Boer, Stop Genocide”. And, of course, there is the genocidewatch website so beloved of the white diaspora.

The usage of the idea of genocide has overflowed into other areas as a way of framing either an understanding of the way things are, or the way things might develop.

The contrarian Rian Malan was quoted in a book that came out last year as asking: “How do you calibrate the distance between ‘all whites are criminals’ and the gas chambers?”

On one weekend last month, three writers in newspapers invoked a grand blood-letting. In Rapport, for example, Claudi Mailovich, wrote: “Farm murders. For many South Africans this loaded word means the extermination of a volk.”

Even if there is no genocide, and it is just racist paranoia, a study of Beeld newspaper reveals an overarching theme of disintegration, chaos and brutalisation. The level of crime is generally seen as indexical of social dysfunction and government failure, and farm murders are the extreme case. Corruption stories are ubiquitous, the coverage of social-delivery protests is extensive, especially where incompetence and corruption fuse to produce extreme dysfunction. While social structures are shown to be coming apart at the seams, the physical environment also falls victim to neglect, pollution, contamination (generally as a consequence of the same combination of corruption and incompetence).

Epitomising this discourse is the rhino, whose fate is extensively covered. Facing extinction, prey to criminals, helpless in the face of insufficient or poor policing, corruption and superstition, it is not too much of a stretch, in the context, to see it as a metonym for white Afrikaners themselves: under threat of physical extinction (through farm murders), economic extinction (through affirmative action), linguistic extinction (by prioritisation of English), extinction of the social, and even the extinction of habitat due to environmental destruction.

Each of these factors finds expression in the Red October appeal, which, while extreme, articulates a much broader malaise. What it shows, in the political domain, is an attempt to appropriate the discourse of suffering by displacing it from its position in the dominant narrative of liberation and oppression, and through this to secure a moral legitimacy impossible to achieve under the shadow of apartheid.

And, however much it is fuelled by racism, it is nourished too by the Breitling Revolutionaries and ministers who blame anything from their tax woes to domestic violence on Afrikaners. That joke’s also wearing thin.

• This article draws on a paper by the author titled Reclaiming a legitimacy of Afrikaner human-ness through ‘grievability’ in Beeld, delivered at the Sacomm conference in Port Elizabeth this month.

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