Christi van der Westhuizen
Christi van der Westhuizen

The white angst of Red October

Singer and aspirant politician Steve Hofmeyr delivered a heart-wrenching ode to the splendours and disappointments of Afrikaner white masculinity at the Red October march in Pretoria. But to get an even better sense of the thinking behind the campaign, just look at the two sponsors of its website: Comfizone and the Pistols Saloon. It’s so perfect one can’t even make it up.

Clicking through to Comfizone reveals that it is a product used to insulate homes – must be white homes, in this case. The Pistols Saloon, according to the video on its site, is a “museum” in KwaZulu-Natal devoted to the Wild West period in US history, a time when “laws didn’t apply”.

White entitlement loves insulation and to shoot a gun without consequences. It wants to indulge in nostalgic flights of fantasy about the time when it was boss (or baas in this case). It certainly does not want its comfort zone (or is that “comfizone”) to be disturbed by something as lively and unpredictable as democracy. That’s where the guns come in.

So how does one make sense of the name Red October, which ordinarily refers to a period in the Communist revolutionary takeover of Russia in 1917? And then there are the two well-known quotations used on the Red October website: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter” and “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing!” (The added exclamation mark is their flourish.)

Astonishingly, the first quotation is by Martin Luther King Jr, the great Civil Rights leader who was killed for agitating against the oppression of black people in the US. The second of these quotes, by Edmund Burke, is in frequent circulation among people who would describe themselves as liberals, progressives or even radicals.

First the good news about the unlikely use of these terms and phrases. It’s a sign of how the racist rhetoric on which white supremacists used to rely has become stigmatised in the South African context. They may still recite the usual racist rhymes around the braai but to gain public leverage even they realise that they won’t get anywhere trotting out the usual racist muck. Some even feel ashamed about being thought of as racists, even as they cling to racism, as my research shows.

The bad news is that these white supremacists are trying to appropriate the discourses of struggles for equality and freedom to legitimise the privileging of some people on the basis of skin colour. Not just that: they are claiming that they are being victimised by the policies designed to overturn the very damage of the white supremacist systems of the past.

White men are still at the top of the pile – just look at figures for wealth and private sector ownership and management, or who’s the least likely to be unemployed. The thing is: some of them just don’t feel on top anymore. They don’t only want to be on top – they want everybody else to be happy with them on top.

One should remember that the end of apartheid uprooted people who found their identities in apartheid ways of being. This is not only because it was the end of institutionalised racism. With the affirmation of human dignity and rights for all, our democracy challenges the supremacy of the male in the household and society at large. Women are not chattel anymore, and children won’t just be seen and not heard. Lesbians and gays are claiming social space.

Some white women are also confused by the end of apartheid. They feel they’ll get a sense of purpose again if “the white man” can be returned to his former glory, starting with the family. That is why the Red October campaign targets “your family and mine” as the basis of their public claims of white entitlement.

Intermingled with claims of “the oppression of the White South African Ethnic Minority” and rejection of “racist Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment and Affirmative Action” (their capitalisation), the Red October petition cites a range of other problems, such as corruption and violent crime. The petition proclaims that “we will no longer tolerate the destruction of our infrastructure, our filthy government hospitals, our pathetic educational system, dirty dams and rivers, uninhabitable parks and public areas, dangerous neighbo[u]rhoods and filthy streets and a disintegrating road network!”

They’re claiming these things as though black people don’t suffer under these exact ills and don’t want solutions to them. This is apartheid thinking: we deserve good things, not black people. This framework advances the dehumanisation of black people. The petitioners go as far as to say that they don’t want to contribute to the democratic state; they only want to spend their money on white squatters and white orphans. They are chasing the phantasm of “Blank Suid-Afrika” (white South Africa), where the lion share of resources went to white people because, uhm, they were white.

While the organisers are Afrikaans-speaking white people, the website is only in English. This is probably firstly about recruiting the many English-speaking white people that share these views. While Afrikaans-speaking white people can by and large speak English, the same cannot be said about Afrikaans fluency among English-speaking white people.

More ominously, the English-only website and the reaching out to white South African emigrants in other countries is about connecting into worldwide networks of racist white people, probably with a view of generating some funds for their nefarious activities.

It is important that white people actively distance themselves from the Red October campaign to show that white people are not homogeneous and that they reject warmed-up apartheid thinking. But the campaign does throw up a question: in acknowledgement of continuing white (male) privilege, what kind of concerted citizen action can white people undertake to make South Africa a just place?

This column first appeared on www.ewn.co.za.

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