In classrooms, apartheid is often depicted as the last gasp of old-school racism, a throwback to an earlier era of European imperialism that took too long to die. Sometimes it’s compared to other racist systems, such as Jim Crow in the United States or the racial hierarchy in Nazi Germany. But outside of academia few have paid much attention to apartheid’s architects.
Today, however, there’s a new sort of interest in apartheid growing among the alt-right around the world. Dylann Roof was not subtle in his embrace of the white minority regimes of Southern Africa. Roof’s pre-shooting manifesto was titled “The Last Rhodesian” and explained his thoughts on different racial groups. Overwhelmingly, however, Roof trained his attention not on Africans but African-Americans, whom he thought were intractably violent, culturally inferior, and were dragging white society down. South Africa served as proof that nonwhite peoples could be controlled. It was also illustrative of the need for such control, because in Roof’s mind the United States was being dismantled by affirmative action.
The fact that Roof looked to apartheid South Africa as a model should not be a surprise. He’s not alone among white supremacist groups, many of which have given renewed attention to South Africa in recent years. The website American Renaissance frequently posts about both the threatened status of whites in South Africa and South Africa’s numerous successes under apartheid. President Trump has adopted some of these talking points, down to directing the State Department to investigate the killings of white South African farmers (part of the white genocide conspiracy theory that white farmers are being systematically exterminated). Andrew Anglin, the editor of a neo-Nazi website called The Daily Stormer, was enthusiastic that Trump was taking up this issue.
Even when they’re not talking directly about South Africa, however, white nationalists of the twenty-first century are influenced by apartheid. Their interest isn’t just nostalgic, it is rooted in apartheid’s rhetoric; the way apartheid was articulated by its adherents. Activists and intellectuals concerned with the growth of a new kind of white supremacy need to be aware of the ways in which the rhetorical strategies of racism have shifted. Understanding apartheid is critical for our current historical moment, both in how contemporary white nationalists are trying to help their views enter the mainstream, and in how they might be countered in the public sector.
Apartheid itself was not monolithic; it went through several distinct phases, first building on earlier laws, and in its later stages waging a defensive struggle for global acceptance. In 1948, much of the popular appeal apartheid had was among Afrikaners who felt simultaneously threatened by British domination of the economy and by competition from black workers. That shifted over time into the period of so-called “high apartheid” under Hendrik Verwoerd. It is this period that it is perhaps most useful to examine. It was under Verwoerd, who was the head of the Department of Native Affairs from 1950 until 1958 and prime minister from 1958 until his assassination in 1966, that the philosophy of so-called “separate development” was propagated.
While earlier Nationalist politicians had articulated their support for apartheid in terms of securing economic security for Afrikaners, Verwoerd had a more encompassing vision for what apartheid should be. Verwoerd’s attitudes were rooted in deeply conservative Christian nationalism, attitudes shared by many of his peers, and he spent the 1930s studying far-right movements in Europe. However, Verwoerd shied away from the biological determinism which many far-right European movements had used to frame their arguments. Instead, Verwoerd favored of a kind of cultural nationalism that elevated white Afrikaners. In this view, Afrikaners were the vanguard of “western civilization” amidst alien racial groups. Intermixing with those groups threatened the special status that Afrikaners enjoyed as a cultural elite.
Racism in South Africa was of course nothing new by 1950, and it had long been predicated on the idea that black South Africans were primitive and savage. In a radio address in 1957, for example, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Eric Louw, angrily denounced foreign critics of South Africa and justified apartheid as necessary by describing at some length the murder and cannibalization of a white nun in Port Elizabeth in 1952. Nor was this rhetoric limited only to black South Africans. Louw portrayed Indians, for example, as fundamentally alien outsiders and argued that so-called “coloureds” were unable to exist in any one culture.
Verwoerd never challenged the idea of white superiority, but he began to reframe it to give it a pluralistic façade – the kind of pluralism that would provide security and respect for different groups. In the early 1950s officials within the department began to argue that each ethnic group deserved its own separate sphere in which it could autonomously develop. One speech in support of the Bantu Education Act of 1953 outlined Verwoerd’s views: “The Bantu must be guided to serve his own community in all respects. There is no place for him in the European community above certain forms of labour. Within his own community, however, all doors are open.” In the minds of Verwoerd and his colleagues, these separationist policies would not only protect and maintain the integrity of white culture but also serve to protect and preserve African cultures.
This ultimately became known as the philosophy of separate development. Its highest ambition was the creation of so-called “tribal homelands,” better known as Bantustans. Under this scheme black South Africans would theoretically be deprived of their South African citizenship, assigned a tribal identity, and become members of newly independent states conforming to specific tribes. None of these Bantustans ever became truly viable states, however, and this in no small part because they were so small and overcrowded that they became deeply impoverished and oppressive. Nevertheless, the South African government persisted in trying to make them viable up until just before the fall of apartheid.
As the historian Saul Dubow notes in his book Apartheid, 1948-1994, this kind of thinking was also a useful public relations tool. As a doctrine, biological racism was in decline after 1945, and it was more effective to steer away from repression and towards positive outcomes. Although criticism of South African apartheid waxed and waned 1948 and 1994, it was always present. This meant that apartheid was a system that had to be consistently defended, and framing it in positive terms made it easier to do so.
In turn, this trend was precisely what made it so insidious, as it became more difficult to expose and undermine racist practices. Some of this rhetoric did succeed in the United States, as prominent Americans bought into a great deal of the rhetoric about tribal groups. Jerry Falwell, for example, referred to apartheid as a “social reality,” and in 1988 President Reagan referred to apartheid as “more of a tribal policy than a racial policy.”
Of course, today’s white nationalists are not carbon copies of South Africa’s. In many cases, they openly embrace biological racism under a new term, “human biodiversity.” (Clearly, the desire to reframe odious concepts in neutral language has carried over, however). Some white nationalists are Christians, while others reject Christianity wholesale. Richard Spencer, one of the most prominent white nationalists in the United States, represents a great deal of the kind of thinking that exists on the alt-right. When people like Spencer talk about white ethnostates (and they frequently do), they’re more likely to invoke Israel as a model than apartheid South Africa.
That being said, they’ve also borrowed some of the rhetorical strategies, not to mention the racist worldview, embraced by apologists for apartheid. Some, like Spencer, rally to the idea of a “Christian civilization.” Central to this is a defense of western civilization and the notion that it is under attack; being corrupted from within by an “invasion” of non-European peoples. Within such a context isolation is put forward as the only way to preserve western identity. This has been accompanied by a striking amount of historical revisionism aimed at proving that apartheid actually benefitted black South Africans, or that the country’s current state vindicates men such as Verwoerd for repudiating multiculturalism.
Indeed, one can find articles on American Renaissance and elsewhere that claim that these ethnostates can benefit everybody. Such sources have imbibed, or at least learned to parrot, the idea that, because group differences are intractable, each group ought to be left to its own sphere. Of course, these authors also readily admit that white ethnostates would be left in a better position economically than would black or brown ethnostates, but, like the thinkers in the Department of Native Affairs, equality seems to be far less important to them than does sovereignty. In one of his manifestos, for example, Spencer agrees, saying that globalization threatens every culture on earth.
Those of us who oppose such tactics are left with a strange task. How can we combat this narrative of pluralism that has suddenly exploded in terms of public visibility? Fortunately, we are not without models ourselves, and perhaps the most helpful model is the global anti-apartheid movement. They faced not only this same cultural model of racism, but they faced it combined with an extraordinarily well-financed public relations campaign by the South African government. Despite these challenges, by the 1980s apartheid was generally treated with disapprobation; even many of its apologists in the west had to either focus on reforms by the apartheid government in South Africa or suggest things weren’t so bad, because apartheid was simply too odious to justify.
One strategy that worked well in debate, and which we would do well to imitate, was to shatter the myth of non-violent white nationalism. Although white nationalists frequently do this themselves, we ought to play a role in making the holes in their arguments publicly visible. Anti-apartheid activists frequently looked at the different ways that the violence of apartheid played out in such spheres as housing, healthcare, and the workplace. The ending of the documentary Last Grave at Dimbaza is an excellent example of such. It explicitly depicts graves being dug ahead of time for the children who would inevitably starve to death in the Ciskei Bantustan. Demands for a white ethnostate would create precisely the same kind of violence, and this point should be raised again and again.
It should not come as a shock that anti-apartheid activists were willing to engage in debate. What is striking is the extent to which they did so at local levels. And this makes visible a second strategy from which we can learn at present. This is a strategy we can see at work in the story of a group of activists in Madison, Wisconsin in 1981. Hearing that the South African consul in Chicago was going to speak at a high school, these activists successfully lobbied for a chance to rebut his arguments. This was a strategy that played itself out again and again across the United States. At the end of the day, facts over the treatment of nonwhite peoples in South Africa won out in the general public. If no debate was possible, then any person who was sympathetic to or engaged with the apartheid government was to be protested, debunked, and if possible “deplatformed,” in the parlance of our times.
A third and final strategy is more long-term in nature. These journalistic and confrontational strategies were accompanied by a massive amount of educational work at the grassroots level to make people aware of the realities of apartheid. White nationalists then and today could capitalize on public ignorance to create their own narratives. In this respect, activists today are facing a greater challenge, particularly because we need to cover more terrain: refugees, people of color in the United States, Islam, and Jews are all targets for white nationalists. Nevertheless, we also have a considerable asset in the form of digital communication and the Internet.
The recent massacre in Christchurch, in which the shooter’s manifesto referenced the global movement of white nationalist rhetoric and propaganda, is a reminder that we cannot tarry or hope that this wave of white supremacy fizzles out on its own. Even as “moderate” white nationalists decry the attack they will also use it to position themselves as the voices of reason and to argue that multiculturalism was the basis for this attack. We need to continue finding ways to stop the spread of these messages and continue to educate those who have not yet made up their minds. We can take solace in the fact that such rhetoric has been successfully countered before. And if we are willing to learn it certainly can be again.
Zeb Larson is a PhD Candidate at The Ohio State University. His dissertation deals with the anti-apartheid movement in the United States. He currently lives in Columbus, Ohio.