Thorne Godinho
Thorne Godinho

AfriForum and the rise of the new right

Barend Taute is lanky and laughs more than any politician probably should (he and I share the latter trait). He’s been the vice-chairperson of AfriForum Youth for nearly two years, and we first met to discuss the mess that is student politics at the University of Pretoria in 2012. As a liberal student activist I could never agree with the ethnic and religious politics AfriForum sells to students, but Barend and I shared some common interests: clean, effective student governance and a freer university.

Barend, then an engineering student, told me he enjoyed politics and hoped to go into it fulltime in the future. He finds himself closely aligned to the DA in some respects, and in other respects the ACDP. This seems a political conundrum considering the considerable ideological differences between the ACDP and the DA, and even between these parties and his current organisation. But I’ve since found that AfriForum is an organisation built on conundrums and extreme tensions, which emanate from within its own branches.

AfriForum, which bills itself as a “civil-rights organisation”, also participates in student politics at several tertiary institutions. It promotes the protection of Afrikaner culture and an end to the party-politicisation of student governance (despite its participation in branded politicking). It is especially curious that AfriForum calls for an end to politics, when so many of its activists and executive members have joined the organisation straight out of party politics.

Four of the five executive members of AfriForum are former members of the Freedom Front Plus (FF+). In 1992, Kallie Kriel (CEO of AfriForum) and Willie Spies (prominent legal adviser to the organisation, and former FF+ parliamentarian) left the apartheid-supporting Conservative Party (KP) at the University of Pretoria because they felt that the organisation was failing to effectively pursue the ideal of an Afrikaner Volkstaat. Spies was also a member of the Afrikaner Studentewag and has been accused by the Higher Education Transformation Network (HETN) of violently disrupting campus meetings with political leaders as a student, such as one with former president Nelson Mandela in 1991. Kriel went on to become the Youth Leader of the FF+.

AfriForum seems to be the natural home for Afrikaner nationalist student politicians once they escape the clutches of tertiary education. Prominent former FF+ Youth leader Cornelius Jansen van Rensburg, suspended from that political party for ill-discipline, now serves as a deputy CEO alongside former Tuks student politicians William Waugh and Ernst Roets. They can probably be credited with the decline of the FF+ on campuses nationwide, and the emergence of AfriForum Youth as a serious political contender on former Afrikaans-only campuses.

These men are actually smooth political operators who have learned to move away from the divisive politics of the KP and the FF+, creating a new brand with a more moderate, modern message. After all, the KP-National Party schism in the 1980s was extremely polarising; my Afrikaans mother told me that her parents had told her that she could vote for whoever, as long as it wasn’t the KP, when she voted for the first time.

Bar a shambolic attempt by AfriForum to run a resident of Orania — a woman who stated that she didn’t think apartheid “was as bad” as people make it out to be — as the SRC president at the University of Pretoria in 2011, the movement has moved away from overt racism on campuses and has started to make use of pop culture and students’ penchant for alcohol to attract votes. This is not an organisation of vierkleur-waving AWB exiles, despite its troubling origins; this is a modern movement that uses marketing magic to tackle the (emotive) issues many Afrikaners care about — farm murders, affirmative action and name changes.

AfriForum’s internal tension between being a political or “civil-rights organisation” is not only evident on polarised university campuses, but can also be seen in the impatience of some of its members. In July of 2013 Phillip van Staden, the chair of AfriForum’s Naboomspruit branch, decided to run in a municipal by-election as an independent. Van Staden won 17% of the popular vote in a highly-contested five-way race, receiving more than double the number of votes the ANC did.

In the last few years this organisation has grown exponentially, attracting the support of celebrities and creating branches across South Africa — these branches tackle environmental, community safety and local government issues. AfriForum now employs four provincial organisers and a dedicated marketing team that could dwarf the average opposition party’s operations team. While the self-appointed political voice of the Afrikaners, the FF+, has come to represent nothing more than a clique of Mulder family members, AfriForum continues to grow.

This growth betrays the notion that there is an internal tension; the move towards focusing on local government issues and the establishment of a network of activists could be indicative of the future direction of this organisation: a political voice for Afrikaners.

Just as the European far right has learned to paper up its history of fascism, violence and racism, the right-wing in South Africa is learning to connect with a post-apartheid population. Instead of the radicalism of the Kriel and Spies’ student years, the organisation now has an affable face by way of activists like Barend Taute.

Following the end of apartheid, AfriForum has built the right-wing voice that’s been absent in our discourse for 20 years. This voice has been growing louder and clearer, largely unnoticed and unchallenged. It may seem innocuous, even unimportant, but the clever political operators (with their troubling history) behind AfriForum make this far more serious. Unchallenged, it could split the opposition and polarise our fragile democracy even further.

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    • Pamela Mudzi

      I think the author of this article is leaning towards paranoid intolerance in politics and racism against Afrikaners.

      South Africa is a free country and if we are democrats, we should be defending everyone’s rights, whoever they are, to have their own opinions.

    • marm00t

      Regardless of what one thinks of them, AfriForum is becoming ever more relevant to current political trends so they must be doing something right.

    • Brianb

      Any political movement in South Africa which does not appeal to the mainstream is purely hypothetical in nature.

      A storm in a tea cup so to speak.

    • mtuka

      a brilliant piece.

    • NonjongoI

      It is gratifying to have my theories and arguments about a metamorphosing right-wing agenda that aims to inscribe it’s colonial settler origins into the annals of African history in a manner that continues the erasure of Indigenous rights and authenticities. Hereby, the perpetuation of the policies, validated procedures, and the progress of presumptive and alien possessive whiteness exposes itself in ways that have long been expected. Having divergent political foci, views, and wishes is acceptable in any healthy democracy, but it would be foolhardy for Indigenous Peoples to allow themselves to become collusive in their own demise (evident over almost 400 years) – after all, if the opposite were appropriate, Germany would have allowed nazism a continued albeit metamorphosed existence.

    • RubinB

      One can only shake one’s head at the dribble spouted by people like Nonjongol. Since when have white folks in general, or AfriForum in particular, worked toward the demise of the “Indigenous People”? I was under the impression that the black population currently stands at about 40 million, coming from a very small number in the early 1900’s. So the white folks have not done a particularly good job of wiping out the “Indigenous People” (or should one rather say, your “Chosen People”?)
      You see, Nonjongol, AfriForum is a small group who are fighting for the rights of a minority group, which happens to be their right in a constitutional democracy like ours. Or do you disagree? They also are going about their job in a civilised way, compared to people like Julius and further afield, like Mugabe.
      If you wanted to make comparisons to Hitler and the Nazi’s, you could look at these two: listen to their rhetoric and look at their actions. The reason why things are not going well, if you analise their arguments, is that there is a devil out there (you can guess who) who can be blamed for everything. The fault never lies with the people who have been in charge for twenty years. That is more in line with what the Nazi’s used to say and do.

    • Owen

      Nay … now you are talking as if 95% of the population does not exist.

      Surely, the right wing of 5% of the population barely counts.

      What does the right wing of indigenous people look and sound like? Perhaps Afriforum won’t be so ‘right wing’ by comparison OR perhaps it can find some soul mates there.

      Maybe Nationalism and Tribalism are brothers.

    • Henri Le Riche

      lol. Left wing paranoia.

      Boet, the “right wing” as you’d like to think has a lot of us true classic liberals supporting it. Why? Because we are open minded, and not so verkramp like most so called “liberals” that are nothing than left wing Marxist Communist ideologists apologists, because they don’t even know what it is. Userful fools. If you traveled the world, know how minority politics work, and lived in true democracies, then SA (Not Cape Town) is a poor sad example, and the people, well the people make good sheep. Pre and post South Africa. Nothing about being liberal. (Naive yes)

      Be very scared, because your “fragile democracy” is not worth to be called a democracy at all, unless of course you agree with the “new” name of the country…..The People’s Democratic Republic of South Africa”…..yea….”democracy”…..

      PS. Cape Town is a city. Not a country….

    • Mbulelo Mohlakoana

      It’s a nice piece Thorne. Your writings make me really think about issues in South Africa.