On May 2, representatives of Afriforum, a controversial South African organisation, travelled to the US on a mission to lobby the US government to take a stance against what they called a “racist theft” of land in South Africa.
Afriforum had launched an international campaign to stop the South African government from making constitutional changes that would allow the state to appropriate land without compensation and resettle thousands of landless black peasants. The measure would affect predominantly white South African landowners.
Afriforum CEO Kallie Kriel and his deputy Ernst Roets met representatives from USAID, staffers with Republican Senator Ted Cruz, and controversial National Security adviser and longtime Republican hawk, John Bolton.
As their tour ended with a media storm in South Africa, Gaza came into the international spotlight. The Israeli government and its allies in the West were rushing to gloss over the mass killing of peaceful Palestinian protesters who had marched to demand their occupied land be returned. Western media rushed to parrot Israeli rhetoric that Hamas was responsible for the civilian deaths.
Palestinians, just like South Africans and other dispossessed peoples around the world, have been facing a concerted effort by ever-growing right-wing forces to obfuscate their reality. This is part of a broader campaign around the world to normalise colonialism, white supremacy and privilege, and rewrite history.
It is not a coincidence that it is now that an organisation like Afriforum is reaching out to a US government that is staunchly supportive of Israel and is engaged in applying its own racist policies.
Historical revisionism in South Africa
Beyond lobbying against a law that could affect rich white landowners in South Africa, Afriforum has engaged through its public statements in systematic historical revisionism. In the past, the organisation has called consequences of apartheid “so-called injustices”.
In a recent interview, its CEO Kriel claimed that apartheid “was wrong” but was not a crime against humanity. He also appeared to believe that apartheid and the Holocaust could not be compared. He said: “[A] crime against humanity is the gassing of six million Jews in gas chambers. In my view, you cannot equate that to the 700 people that were killed by the security police during apartheid.”
What this narrative aims to do is to dissociate South African apartheid from other crimes committed in the name of white supremacy and privilege.
This wild, ingenious and unsympathetic observation demonstrates an anti-liberal attempt to amend historical truths, manufacture new moralities and retain white economic and social privileges.
To “remember” that apartheid was much more than the killing of “700 people”, one just needs to walk around the resource-starved black townships like Tembisa, 40km north of Johannesburg, or visit an informal settlement in Cape Town, where thousands of very poor and marginalised black people live. Then one should visit a traditionally white Johannesburg suburb like Randburg, Rosebank, or Bedfordview, and see what post-apartheid white wealth and prosperity looks like.
Colonialism and apartheid created a massive underclass of poverty-stricken folks who, despite welcoming the policy of racial reconciliation Nelson Mandela supported, and accepting the skewed economic situation that accompanied the founding of the new South Africa in 1994, must bear the incredible indignity of flimsy, hurtful and inconsistent interpretations of the violence bred through colonialism and apartheid, and its effects.
And Afriforum is not the first political actor to peddle this revisionist brand of calculated recollection. In March 2017, former Democratic Alliance (DA) leader, Helen Zille celebrated colonialism and asserted how that historical injustice introduced benefits that previously disadvantaged blacks should be thankful for. She tweeted: “For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water.”
Then, despite the public outcry against this and subsequent tweets, in June 2017, she went on to say: “There is a big difference between genocide and colonialism. The holocaust was a deliberate attempt to murder 11-million people. There is a difference between colonialism and a deliberate genocidal project.”
Historical revisionism is one of many tools that the likes of Zille and Kriel have to continue the fight to maintain white privilege. What is worrying is that their narratives find acceptance not only within South Africa but also abroad. Kriel and his associate were clearly well received in the US.
White supremacy and continuing oppression
But beyond whitewashing the reality we live in, these statements – “Apartheid in South Africa is not holocaust”, “Apartheid is not a crime against humanity”, “Colonialism is not genocide” – have another sinister goal.
What this narrative aims to do is to dissociate South African apartheid from other crimes committed in the name of white supremacy and privilege and to whitewash them.
They aim to cover up the truth that apartheid in South Africa was just one of many expressions of a worldwide race-based system of domination and privilege that to this day feeds wealth and prosperity to the selected few whites at the top.
It is for this same reason that Zionists (despite themselves suffering from the crimes of white supremacy) rush head over heels to claim that what is happening in Palestine is not like South Africa’s apartheid and that the comparison is “malicious” and “slanderous”. It is for this reason that they fear and vehemently denounce the outreach between the US movement Black Lives Matter and Palestinian activists.
It is for that reason that they insist on presenting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a “religious issue”, which needs “inter-faith dialogue”. It is for this reason that they claim that it is religious “extremists” who are responsible for violence, that it is “terrorist Hamas” that is responsible for Israeli killings in Gaza.
Indeed, last week, Naftali Bennett, Israel’s education minister, went as far as saying that unarmed protesters gathering at the fence near the border should be treated as “terrorists”.
The rhetoric caught on. White House deputy spokesperson Raj Shah ascribed responsibility for the killings to Hamas and declared squarely that “Israel has the right to defend itself” from unarmed protesters. Spokespersons for various other Western governments mumbled the same accusations and called for “restraint” on “both sides” as though this is a conflict between two equals and not between an occupier and the occupied.
That Israel is finding such staunch support in the Trump administration and that Afriforum thought they’d find understanding in Washington is unsurprising.
Trump came to power riding on the wave of white fears that their privilege might be lost, and since then has fostered them. He has also not been shy about his own racism, making disparaging remarks about people of colour and a whole continent, and has sought to ban Muslims from entering the US. The far right and its revisionist agenda have found plenty of support from his administration.
Curiously, there have also been people of colour who have joined that project and have attempted to whitewash the history of slavery. Housing Secretary Ben Carson referred to slaves as “immigrants” last year. This year, rapper and Trump supporter Kanye West declared that slavery was “a choice”.
Indeed, one can see the same strategies of playing down crimes, of manipulating language, of systematically undermining established historical truths from South Africa to Palestine to the United States.
In the face of this powerful and deliberate campaign to recalibrate collective and individual moralities, modify historical memory, and justify heinous crimes, we have to resist.
We have to insist that our experiences of white supremacy oppression are real and they don’t end with the end of slavery or the collapse of the apartheid regime. We have to make it clear that we know Gaza in 2018 is Soweto in 1976 is Selma in 1965.