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Jacob Ware is a research associate for counterterrorism and the Studies program at the Council on Foreign Relations. His research focuses on global far-right terrorism and countering violent extremism, and his work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, CNN, War on the Rocks, and in the academic journal Studies in Conflict & Terrorism.
As white supremacist militancy has raced across the Western world, it has not spared South Africa from being swept up in the chaos. Domestic South African white supremacist movements both inform white supremacist movements elsewhere, and at the same time are influenced by global trends on the extreme right.
South Africa, of course, has its own long—and painful—history of white supremacism. The formal apartheid system, which governed the country for over 40 years, institutionally oppressed the Black population, concentrating political, economic, and judicial power exclusively in white hands. Since the 1990s, when apartheid finally collapsed, race relations have remained raw, and the white population still holds much of the economic capital. The country remains one of the world's premier examples of the postcolonial challenges in managing racial tensions and promoting a sustainable national identity in a democratic context with the rule of law.
Accordingly, South Africa still inflames the passions of white supremacists around the world. Dylann Roof, murderer of nine African Americans at Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015, was in no small part inspired by white supremacism in southern Africa—his Facebook profile picture showed him in a jacket emblazoned with the flags of Rhodesia, a bastion of white supremacy before it achieved independence as Zimbabwe, and apartheid-era South Africa, and his manifesto was published on a personal website titled “The Last Rhodesian.” The centrality of South Africa to the white supremacist struggle around the world has been summarized by the radical website American Renaissance in March 2018: “the fate of white people around the world is linked to that of the Afrikaners.”
Within South Africa, there are periodic reminders of the enduring threat of white supremacist violence. In 2019, for instance, four members of the “Crusaders,” a white supremacist group, were arrested for plotting attacks against Black targets. The Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (Afrikaner Resistance Movement), founded in 1973 by noted white supremacist Eugène Terre'Blanche, also remains active today. The group apparently boasts around 5,000 members, and in 2010, members of the group were arrested for plans to attack Black townships in the wake of the murder of Terre'Blanche—which some claimed was racially motivated. The plotters, based in Pretoria, had also threatened foreigners and players traveling to the country for the 2010 World Cup. And in 2002, a far-right group calling itself the “Warriors of the Boer Nation” claimed responsibility for a series of blasts targeting the township of Soweto, in which one woman was killed.
The transnational white supremacist threat has manifested itself in devastating attacks in the U.S., Europe (especially Norway and Germany), and New Zealand, where an extremist murdered 51 in twin attacks at two mosques in Christchurch in March 2019. And the same networks responsible for violence elsewhere have reached Africa's southernmost state. The Base, a neo-Nazi organization whose members have been arrested for major plots in Maryland and Georgia, had recruited in South Africa. And Simon Roche, a senior figure in the Suidlanders, an Afrikaner survivalist group, marched with other white supremacists at the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally in August 2017—an event at which a young woman was killed in a far-right car ramming attack. One is always tempted to dismiss such activism if it hasn't yet manifested in violence—but as one Cape Town-based journalist recently wrote, “We laugh at the far right because it makes them seem less frightening, but it doesn't make them any less dangerous.” After all, in the age of social media radicalization and lone actor terrorism, all it takes is one.
As the threat remains contained, South Africa's counterterrorism measures should surgically target more extreme fringes. Confronting race-based conspiracy theories—such as the false claim that Black South Africans were killing white farmers that was infamously tweeted by President Trump in August 2018—is essential. It can be pursed both through promoting truthfulness online and marginalizing proponents of hate speech. South Africa's intelligence agencies, meanwhile, should be aware of international networks' and groups' efforts to recruit and radicalize within the country, while continuing to maintain vigilance over groups active in South Africa itself.