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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