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What Senekal revealed

Hard truths were exposed as the country focused on Senekal, with the ultra-right diminished and Malema fuelling the fire

  • The Witness
  • 21 Oct 2020
  • PIETER DU TOIT

THE tone for the day’s events last Friday in the eastern Free State town of Senekal was set early in the morning as busloads of EFF supporters, mostly from Gauteng, started filling Van Riebeeck Street in the middle of town.

While many were dancing and singing ahead of the appearance of party leader Julius Malema on the EFF’s events truck, a significant number of supporters were brandishing a weapon of some sort.

There were makeshift (and real) knobkerries being held aloft, golf clubs swung about menacingly, a cricket bat and hockey stick, and various clubs and sticks wielded. Many of the supporters had obviously been drinking, and in the cool of the early morning, the smell of dagga mixed with that of beer and other alcoholic drinks.

Why were they there? Because Malema ordered them to come, many said, with some adding “racist whites” needed to be put in their place. Even that early in the morning — before 8 am — it was clear that it wasn’t only going to be the dry Free State heat that was going to ratchet up temperatures and emotions.

SOME HARD TRUTHS

Senekal revealed some hard truths, many of which have become unpalatable in present South African discourse.

The day’s big story, which from a news perspective should have been the appearance of the two men accused of murdering farm manager Brendin Horner (21), was totally overshadowed by Malema and the behaviour of his red-clad brigands, as everyone knew it would. Violence, mayhem and havoc are the EFF’s calling card.

But the day also revealed the white right as a spent force, and those who felt compelled to expend testosterone by puffing up their chests and dusting of racial epithets from the late 1980s and early 1990s, numbered less than a company of Eugene Terre’Blanche’s Iron Guard. That does not mean white conservatism and nationalism is dead, Afri-Forum deftly and amply covers that base.

Rural crime, including attacks on farmers and those who work in the agricultural food chain — one of this country’s most successful and modern industries — is a deep cause of concern. And the fear that it creates and the frustration it has caused are justified and legitimate. Authorities in this instance cannot be faulted on how they handled the aftermath.

Political opportunism is rife. Malema saw Senekal as an ideal opportunity to exploit race for his own ends, as South Africans have become used to.

The EFF reacted to the violence the week before, and decided to make the Horner death about “arrogant whites” and “the land”. It was, of course, the incitement by the white YouTube right, along with many others in the conservative and nationalist firmament, who helped give Malema a gap.

And organised agriculture is going to have to work even harder to dispel many of the accepted truths propagated by the governing political class about farmers, land and race, if it is going to win hearts and minds.

By the same score, those who view farmers with antagonism will have to accept that many — most — farmers are progressive in their outlook and genuine in their convictions. It will not help anyone if farmers are viewed as a homogenous grouping sharing the same political and social views.

FOR EFF, VIOLENCE THE ANSWER

Shortly before 10 am, after Malema and his deputy Floyd Shivambu whipped up their supporters, the self-styled EFF “commander-in-chief” instructed them to go “and check out our town” until he returned in two hours.

What followed were numerous incidents of criminality, vandalism, violence and skirmishes. And that’s exactly what Malema wanted, because his is a politics of intimidation and violence.

A column of his followers proceeded to outflank a small group of right-wingers who were congregating in a side street and marched straight at them, and it was only after some cool heads prevailed between leaders of the Kommandokorps and those marching at the head of the EFF group that a nasty confrontation was avoided.

But the purpose of the EFF’s foray into town was clear: to wreak havoc. This same column went back into the main street where they trashed and destroyed concrete rubbish bins, breaking them in the middle of the road. They also ripped out stop signs and took down street name signs that they didn’t like.

And when a group of bikers wanted to exit the town, they closed ranks, refusing them passage and pelting them with rocks, bricks and concrete ripped from the pavement. “Fighters” threatened and intimidated journalists who were reporting on the event, and many reporters were shoved or “brushed” with a knobkerrie or stick.

“I’m going to finish you, we’re going to finish the whites,” one said with a knobkerrie in one hand and a full draught beer glass in the other.

But violence was contained in Malema’s words, too. His speech was incendiary, even by his standards. His attacks, as has become expected, were laced with racism and condemnation of whites and farmers, bristling with rage and anger.

And like all demagogues and populists, he is untethered from and unrestrained by the truth or objective reality. But most dangerous of all, Malema does not subscribe to the main tenets of the democratic transition and will tear it up the moment he gets a chance. His speech last Friday confirmed that.

THOSE WHO ARE LEFT

The right-wingers who congregated in a side alley parallel to the EFF’s main camp in Senekal were a sorry sight to see.

They weren’t farmers, as many media labelled them, and they weren’t much of a threat, as many other in the press wanted to portray them. They were instead, as the right wing has always been, a hodgepodge and mishmash of groups and individuals, driven by the Old Testament, nostalgic for apartheid and fundamentalist in their flat view of the world.

What started out as a one-man band, literally, one man with speakers playing Steve Hofmeyr and Afrikaans gospel, later swelled to a group of no more than 50 people, with about six or seven dressed in old SA Defence Force uniforms, a quintet of FF Plus supporters from Johannesburg in tight-fitting camouflage shirts and a couple of old Transvaal Republic flags. A lot of tough talk, muscle flexing and the squinting of eyes took place last Friday.

“Colonel” Franz Jooste, a former “officer” in Terre’Blanche’s Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) and his fellow travellers from the Kommandokorps, made an impression, but only because of the “browns” they wore. And apart from the FF Plus muscle, and a group of bikers roaring on the back of their iron steeds, the right wing was tiny and insignificant.

Much more concerning was a larger group of khaki and two-tone clad Afrikaners who wanted to enter town when the EFF sprawled all over. Stopped by the police forming a human barricade on the outskirts of town, they seemed much more organised than the right-wingers caught in the EFF’s earlier pincer movement. Led by Hein Marx from an organisation called the United Liberty Alliance, they tried to convince local police officers they didn’t want to confront the EFF, but that they merely want to see what was happening.

And while Marx and others were in conversation with the police, it was the youngsters at the back who were spoiling for a fight: “Dis nou die tyd, kom ons vat hulle!” (Now is the time, let’s take them), said one teenager who added he was from Pretoria.

Another, wearing khaki camouflage from head to toe, a balaclava and what looked like a backpack and leg guards with everything from Rambo serrated knives, a Victorinox compass and a torch, shouted: “Pas die man langs jou op!” (Take care of the man next to you!)

Up the road, on an open field where officials and volunteers wore navy blue shirts and handed out pamphlets, Afri-Forum held its protest. It is Afri-Forum that represented the conservative and nationalist elements of Afrikanerdom. Not Jooste and his cohorts.

FARMERS’ FEARS ARE LEGITIMATE

Near the end of his rambling speech, Malema declared that there are no farm murders occurring in South Africa.

It is uncertain whether he was using a metaphor, or if he was simply ignoring Horner’s death, but from conversations with locals in Senekal it is abundantly clear the farming community — land owners, farmers, farm workers and local businesspeople — are suffering from widespread crime. From organised stock theft to murder and house robbery, crime is creating an environment of fear.

Horner’s death received a lot of publicity because it was gruesome and because he was part of a privileged community that could get the message out.

That does not discount or ignore the reality of other killings, whether it’s in the township of Matjhwabeng outside town or further afield.

But because crime is a national issue, and felt by every South African of every conceivable hue, it equally does not nullify farmers’ increased sense of vulnerability as an economic and not a cultural or a racial group.

Police Minister Bheki Cele’s and Intelligence Minister Ayanda Dlodlo’s presence in Senekal in the past week acknowledged that. And the criminal justice system, in this case, seems to be working.

No one’s life is worth more or less than anyone else’s. But those active in the agricultural economy deserve to know that their government will do what is needed to protect them.

POLITICAL OPPORTUNISM

There is no better proponent of political opportunism than Malema.

The violence during the accused’s first court appearance gave him all the leverage he needed to make it a race issue, arguing that storming the court was tantamount to an assault on the state, which equals an assault on black people because the state is black, however tenuous that might be.

Malema, supported by his second-incommand Shivambu, jumped at the chance, and last Friday launched wave after wave of attack on white South Africans and farmers, accusing them of stealing land, declaring them visitors who will be tolerated if they are obedient and turning an issue of criminality into an issue of dispossession.

It was neither the time, nor the place, but Malema changed the narrative.

On the flip side, the flowering sub-culture of white separatists, Afrikaner ethno-nationalists and a cohort of so-called “podbros” used the chance to mobilise support for their cause.

Mimicking the world of conspiracy theories that have sprouted among the American alt-right, they have in recent times inflamed and incited thousands of followers who have rejected the “mainstream media”, and they were a major driver of propaganda which led to the first Senekal incident.

Their ideology is driven by a rejection of the state and animosity — if not downright hostility — towards the democratic project, and it is often peppered with subtle and overt racism.

AfriForum, skillfully maintaining an official distance from many of these operators, but never denouncing them, has cultivated a symbiotic relationship with many of them, and its leaders regularly appear on Internet broadcasts alongside them.

AfriForum, much like the EFF, saw an opportunity with Senekal to mobilise its base, to increase its membership numbers and to amplify its message of separate development.

FARMERS HAVE A BETTER STORY

Progressive farmers, which seem to be the vast majority, do not see themselves primarily as part of an ethnic or cultural group, but as part of an economically active one.

That the majority of them happen to be white and Afrikaans is a function of history and heritage, and much has been done over the past years to drive development and land reform, something which the country’s most important and certainly most significant farmer’s union, Agri SA, has taken ownership of.

Farmers need to tell suspicious and antagonistic South Africans, many of whom carry intergenerational pain dating back to before the 1913 Native Land Act, a better story.

Thanks to a weak government and poor governance, increased crime and corruption, as well as rural decline, farmers have become both susceptible to overtures by right-wingers who have entered the market, and easy targets for Malema’s race politics.

To take the sting out of political attacks, farmers need to let South Africa see their agricultural development projects, their land redistribution schemes and their support for emerging farmers.

Conversely, those who insist on the caricature of a farmer as big, bearded and armed with a Mauser, must be prepared to be convinced otherwise.

Many of those who committed violence in Senekal two weeks ago weren’t farmers, and weren’t from Senekal.

But they did enormous damage to those farmers who simply want to see fairness and justice.