Late on August 22, US President Donald Trump launched into some trademark Twitter diplomacy. After apparently watching a segment on Fox News, the President felt moved to instruct Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to “closely study the South African land farm seizures and expropriations and large scale killing of farmers.”
Newsroom editors scratched their heads. State Department officials scrambled.
The South African government, which had spent months gingerly navigating the Trump presidency, swiftly hit back. Officials called the tweet “unfortunate” and “divisive” and hauled in the US Embassy’s Chargé d’Affaires for a dressing down.
South Africa is engaged in an intense debate about equitable land ownership and righting the wrongs of a racist past. The government wants to allow land expropriation without compensation in some cases.
But why, after barely touching on African issues during his administration, had the American president chosen to focus on a domestic debate in South Africa?
And, more importantly, how had the fate of a few thousand white South African farmers become a regular feature on Trump’s favored Fox News?
The ‘genocide’ online
South Africa has become a twisted meme for the far right online. A favorite for extreme right-wingers like Katie Hopkins, a British provocateur, and Laura Southern, a Canadian alternative media personality, who have developed a substantial following.
There is no shortage of extreme voices on South Africa. Posts about white genocide and land grabs are everywhere on Facebook or YouTube.
Spend a little time, though, in this alternative media universe, and the name of one South African will keep cropping up: Simon Roche.
Roche is ubiquitous, doing interviews with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and ultra-right media like Red Ice, or appealing directly to his followers on social media from an overstuffed leather couch.
“Hello I’m Simon Roche. We represent the white people of South Africa, who are presently being told that they can expect to see a genocide against them,” says Roche in a fundraising post. The video has more than 800,000 views.
He is the public face and a leader of the Suidlanders, roughly translated from Afrikaans as Southerners or South Landers. The Suidlanders believe South Africa is heading toward a brutal race war where whites will be targeted by blacks.
Their members come from across the country, and from a cross-section of society. They are farmers, business people, and suburbanites, organized into more than 30 districts across the country. What unites them is their race — they are exclusively white — and their genuine belief in their founder’s doomsday prophecy.
The Suidlanders are planning for the evacuation of their members to rural South African refugee camps they will set up.
“I don’t think it is racism. I don’t get up in the morning hating black people”
Simon Roche, a leader of the Suidlanders
There is a key distinction between the Suidlanders and South Africa’s khaki-clad hate groups of the past like the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) or Boeremag that focused on aggressive nationalism.
The Suidlanders cast themselves as victims and they push that myth far beyond South Africa’s shores.
“The online strategy and propaganda of the Suidlanders uses the same tactics as terrorist groups for recruiting members,” says an official of a South African intelligence agency who is not authorized to talk publicly.
The Suidlanders claim their membership is now more than 130,000 strong. That figure is most likely inflated, says our source, but something impossible to verify since they do not keep membership lists.
The South African government is concerned enough, though, to have undercover agents embedded inside the group, according to the source.
Ultra-right-wing groups have always had some appeal to fringe elements in South Africa. The ongoing land debate has given oxygen to the myth of white victimization like never before.
With the Suidlanders
Down a dirt road, and through the cracked fields of corn husks, a perfect circle of imposing green eucalyptus trees rises over the parched early-summer farmland.
The ring of trees is the exact dimension of the circle of wagons during the Battle of Blood River on December 16, 1838, where a few hundred Afrikaaners defeated thousands of Zulu fighters without losing a single life.
Inside SUVs and pickups and camper vans, families set up their tents and gather in small groups chatting, shielded from the outside world by the trees.
The Suidlanders’ newest district organization is on a camping weekend — and they agreed to let us come.
A whistle sounds and about 50 men, women and children filter into a corrugated iron hall. On the stage are flipcharts with handwritten lists in Afrikaans.
“Suidlanders – Ezekiel 20:45,” one is headed.
“The word of the Lord came to me: ‘Son of man, set your face toward the south,’” the biblical prophecy reads. “I am about to set fire to you, and it will consume all your trees both green and dry.”
Jan Fourie, a ramrod-straight man with a black beard arching along his jawline, stands in front of the group holding a dog-eared family bible.
“You can see how the revolutionary climate is growing in our land. When the anarchy breaks out, we will flee. Moses was one man and he got his people out. You are all like Moses now,” he says in crisp, formal Afrikaans.
The Suidlanders prepare themselves with survival and weapons training. Their leaders are setting up radio repeaters on farms for when the cell network fails.
It will fail, Fourie — a district leader of the Suidlanders — tells members, because the war is imminent — and they will be the victims.
“You need to be prepared for the bomb throwers,” says Fourie, referring to black South Africans. “If you want to just tag along with us, then you are a traitor. I started giving these lessons to my daughter when she was 7 years old. When she was 16 she came to me and said she was getting nightmares. But we need to be prepared.”
Later, Fourie demonstrates what to pack in a grab bag.
One by one, he pulls out the necessities of life on the run from a black rucksack: small bible; compass; maps; backgammon boards; first-aid supplies; any necessary medications; penknife; whistle; playing cards.
“Along with your grab bag, you always need your licensed weapon, your licensed ammunition and your weapon-cleaning materials,” insists Fourie.
The Suidlanders are careful to do everything by the book because they know the authorities are watching.
“We are constantly monitoring the Suidlanders to see if they change tactics or step out of the confines of the law. Should they do this, then we will move on them,” says the intelligence official.
At sunset, the wind whips in, flattening some tents. Thunder and sheet lightning rush in from the West, pelting the campers with rain and hail.
“We are going to eat like kings tonight, in spite of the weather,” says Simon Roche, stepping under an awning and poking his fire with a stick.
“Are you guys alright?” he says in Afrikaans through the deluge to a couple shivering in their two-person tent.
“Yes! … No!” they shout in unison.
Roche leans back on a camp chair and ruminates.
“Ten years ago, we were preparing even then to implement a civil defense plan to safeguard the welfare of our people in the event of a civil war in which our people are threatened. We are further along the timeline,” he says.
“What would you say to the white South Africans that aren’t paying attention to this threat?” I ask him.
“We think they are going to be caught in an almighty cauldron of conflict.”
“There is no evidence that a group of people are killing farmers for political purposes”
Gareth Newham of the Institute of Security Studies (ISS)
Roche talks fast, switching between meandering white supremacist philosophy and lengthy personal anecdotes.
He says the land debate has been a boon for the Suidlanders.
And he praises Donald Trump’s tweet about the matter. “We saw a ray of hope. Maybe there are people out there who know and care and have power and influence. Only time will tell how much is smoke and mirrors — shadows and dust.”
One of his favorite topics, though, is his recent tour of the US.
“We toured for six months last year. The thing that struck us was the classiness of the people who attended our talks,” he says. “They are not your radical neo-Nazi kind of people. In venue after venue, in presentation after presentation, we met sterling young guys — great guys — magnificent manners.”
You may remember the people he is talking about from Charlottesville, Virginia, and the August 2017 Unite the Right rally.
Thousands of white supremacists descended on the historic college town, prompting clashes between hate groups and counter-protesters. A young woman was killed when a neo-Nazi mowed her down with his Dodge Challenger.
“Jews will not replace us,” was a favorite chant at the rally.
The images of those hate groups on the streets of America are still raw, beamed onto phones, televisions and computers around the world.
One of the frames an Associated Press photographer filed that day is packed with Unite the Right protesters holding makeshift weapons and flags: Confederate, American and Nazi.
In the far bottom right of the image, a Unite the Right protester wearing a hard hat and protective glasses has a wide grin. An anonymous face in a sea of racists.
But not anonymous to Carla Hill, an investigator with the US-based Anti-Defamation League (ADL), who actively tracks white supremacist hate groups.
The grinning man is Simon Roche.
A few days later, President Trump faced reporters. Flanked by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who is Jewish, Trump doubled down on his earlier comments about Charlottesville, when he equated white supremacists with counter protesters.
“I do think there’s blame on both sides. You look at both sides. I think there’s blame on both sides and I have no doubt about it,” Trump said.
Asked about the neo-Nazis specifically, Trump returned to the theme: “You have some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people on both sides.”
Roche sent a giddy audio message to the Suidlanders from Charlottesville.
“I wish I was American because I would have smacked… I don’t know how many, but a good few of them needed a hiding. The guys did a superb job,” Roche says in his voice note, referring to the beatings meted out to counter-protesters, “The people behaved themselves respectfully and decently.”
Investigators from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the ADL in the US say that the Suidlanders and other South African right-wing organizations are successfully taking their storyline of white victimhood to the US.
“American white supremacists support Roche, because they have a long fixation with South Africa as a possible model. A microcosm of what is possible in the United States. They link the fate of white people in the United States to that of white South Africans,” says the ADL’s Hill.
Hill says that multiple groups in the US use South Africa as a wedge issue, trying to demonize all black South Africans to get more people to join their cause.
Heidi Beirich, the director of SPLC’s Intelligence Project, agrees. Her team monitors scores of hate groups in America and closely follows the Suidlanders.
“It is this idea that white people are the victims instead of the aggressors of these processes. But, of course, you have to sell that narrative. You want to be the victim, you don’t want to be the aggressor, or you will get no sympathy. It is like Holocaust deniers trying to minimize the genocide of Jews to salvage Hitler’s ideas,” she says.
But how do South African groups cast themselves as victims? After all, the apartheid government was a notorious aggressor.
To understand, you need to drive around about two-and-a-half hours north of Johannesburg, where private citizens have erected a striking monument. Hundreds of white crosses – each with a name, date and age — form a giant cross on the slope. The date on each cross is the day each person was murdered.
Large white letters fixed to the mountainside spell out “Plaasmoorde” or “Farm Murders.”
The monument has two aims: show how many white farmers have been murdered and give names to the victims — who often barely get a mention in the local press.
“A systematic process of ethnic cleansing is a looming threat in South Africa,” says Ernst Roets, the deputy chief executive of AfriForum, a lobbying group.
Roets sits in his office at Afriforum headquarters in Centurion near Johannesburg. A library of political tomes, including Nelson Mandela’s autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom,” is joined by a small bust of Ronald Reagan adorning the wall behind him.
AfriForum caters mostly, but not exclusively, to Afrikaaners. It fashions itself as a minority civil rights group — the minority being white South Africans.
AfriForum organizes protests and releases slick videos on social media that give horrifying details of farm attacks. Roets is a constant presence in the news media in South Africa.
The biggest problem with AfriForum’s claims about possible ethnic cleansing and farm murders is that they are not true, says Gareth Newham of the Institute of Security Studies (ISS), a South African research group.
“There is no evidence to support that. There is no evidence that a group of people are killing farmers for political purposes. There is no evidence that they are doing it because they are listening to political leaders. It is happening because of crime,” says Newham.
Newham and the ISS independently track farm murders — as well as all other serious crimes. Farmers’ unions like AgriSA also keep stats on farm murders. Both say that farm murders peaked in 2001, at around 130 killings per year. Currently, farm murders are less than half that number.
There were 62 murders on farms in the 2017-18 financial year, according to official police statistics, or around 0.3% of the 20,336 murders in South Africa during the same period.
“There is no epidemic of farm murders in South Africa. There is an epidemic of murders,” Newham says.
More people are killed in taxi violence, in gang violence, by vigilante mobs than in farm murders. More cops are killed. And rises in farm murders are in line with the overall increases in murder rates.
But Newham says that even on a proportional basis, AfriForum’s arguments aren’t valid.
Despite the facts outlined by the ISS, Roets insists farmers are killed in disproportionate numbers in South Africa and that government leaders and some black South African politicians are complicit, citing the incendiary remarks of Julius Malema, the leader of radical opposition party the Economic Freedom Fighters.
Malema has been charged with hate speech for singing a struggle song called “Kill the Boer; Kill the Farmer.” Now he substitutes “kill” with “kiss.”
In June, Malema was criticized after telling a Turkish TV station that he was “not calling for the slaughter of white people for now.”
In an interview with CNN, Malema didn’t row back from those comments.
“No, no, I said I am not calling for the slaughter of white people for now. I will not be responsible for the future. I don’t know what will be happening in the future,” Malema told CNN.
He denied that he is playing into the hands of groups like AfriForum.
“They hate me for speaking equality. And they cannot imagine themselves being equal to monkeys,” he said.
Dialogue is failing
AfriForum’s assertive stance on land reform and farm murders has swelled the group’s numbers, but it is often ridiculed by the South African government and ordinary citizens on social media.
Roets says that it is increasingly difficult for them to resolve issues through dialogue in South Africa. Not so in America.
“We were very glad that there was a great acceptance of our concerns,” says Roets.
Roets and Kallie Kriel, the head of AfriForum, went on an extensive tour earlier this year through America, meeting political leaders, visiting think tanks and media personalities.
Roets hit the conservative jackpot with an extended interview with Tucker Carlson on Fox News. Months later, another broadcast of Carlson’s likely sparked Trump’s South Africa-related tweet.
“In our view the impact was massive. And we welcomed the tweet. The core of what he said for us is that there is a recognition that there is a problem in South Africa,” says Roets.
In a chance meeting at Fox News, the pair even managed to hand Roets’ book on farm murders to Trump’s National Security Advisor, John Bolton, and grab a photo with him.
“They are finding people who get some resonance with what they are saying, and these people are ill-informed about what is happening here,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa told CNN in an exclusive interview. “Just as President Trump was ill-informed about the messages that they were beaming out.”
“Those people overseas that are taken in by this message of whites in South Africa being under threat, they are looking at South Africa through the lens of black versus white. And South Africa has long moved away from that.”
AfriForum has been so successful in international lobbying that Australia’s Minister of Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, suggested earlier this year that special visas could be offered for white farmers fleeing South Africa. The group continues to lobby in both the US and Australia.
Heidi Beirich of the SPLC calls Roets and AfriForum white supremacists “in a suit and tie.”
“There are two versions here of white supremacy. A more ‘white-collar’ and a less ‘white-collar’ version. Both are penetrating into the psyche. And once Trump put out that tweet, attention was drawn to this theory of white South African farmers being put under attack like never before,” says Beirich.
“There is no impending apocalypse for white people. This is stoking fears amongst whites as well as impacting voting, elections, views of multiculturalism. Frankly, it is just leading to more racism and hate.”
Roets and Afriforum flatly deny that they are white supremacists. And Roets says the use of farm murders by these groups bothers him.
“There are people who try to make a propaganda issue out of farm murders and try to portray it as something that it isn’t,” he says — something Roets himself is accused of doing frequently.
“You can compare where South Africa is today to where other countries where ethnic cleansing took place just two or three years before it happened. I am not saying that we are at that point, but to try to deny that it is a possibility is very naive,” he says.
Hutus with more guns
The sky has cleared by dawn and the Suidlanders are shaking out their wet camping gear.
A tall man with thinning hair, a goatee and a Gore-Tex jacket approaches us.
Hein Human works for an agricultural organization in the Free State, a province south of Johannesburg.
“I watched a video on YouTube of Simon Roche and didn’t consider it too much. Then, a few months later, YouTube suggested another video from Roche that they thought I would like. I watched that,” he says, “it just clicked for me.”
Later in the morning, Human and the others listen intently to a security briefing by a young security specialist named Ern.
Using a Powerpoint display, he gives a detailed explanation of the Rwandan genocide, in which around 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered by Hutu gangs in a 100-day orgy of death.
On the top line of his Powerpoint (in Afrikaans): “Our ‘Hutus’ have many more weapons.”
White supremacist groups are gaining strength globally. Their members are skewing younger, and by cloaking their racism in victimhood, their racism is becoming more broadly palatable — on the ground and on the internet.
In South Africa, their ideas are being magnified by the more mainstream activists of AfriForum and given more oxygen by radicals like Julius Malema.
It is a dangerous mix.
“With people focusing on race, we are not able to focus on the real problems, which are really to do with the economy, with poverty, and with unemployment and inequality. That is why this is so damaging. It makes it more difficult for our country to solve our problems,” says Gareth Newham of the ISS.
“Right-wingers in the US are saying ‘All we want is what our grandfathers had.’ That mantra was repeated time and time again in the US,” says Simon Roche.
I am standing with him at a Suidlanders bonfire in the center of the ring of trees.
I ask him if he thinks that their ideas are driven by racism.
“I don’t think it is racism. I don’t get up in the morning hating black people and I think the majority of Suidlanders are like that,” says Roche.
“There is a certain sense amongst certain sectors of historical white societies, that those societies are being diluted. That those societies are being diluted on other people’s terms,” he says.
“When you use terms like ‘diluted’ I think Nazism,” I interject.
“I think eugenics. I think of all these horrible things from the past. Why is being ‘diluted’ a problem?” I ask.
“No, David, that’s neurotic. The societies are, in demographic terms, being diluted.”