Global Right, Global White: South Africa in the political imaginary of the radical right – Fellows’ seminar by Rita Abrahamsen

21 November 2023

“I’m presenting this with some trepidation,” Rita Abrahamsen of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa said at the start of her talk. “This is the beginning of a project and I haven’t found, and definitely not tied up, all the loose ends. I’m presenting a short overview of a big argument.”

STIAS Fellow Rita Abrahamsen

Abrahamsen’s work-in-progress focuses on the unique position of South Africa and the Afrikaner minority within the narratives and political imaginaries of the contemporary global radical Right. It aims to show how Afrikaner political groups and movements have successfully mobilised political networks, strategies and social media to gain visibility on the international stage and also how representations of Afrikaners at the southern-most tip of Africa have been mobilised by the radical Right in Europe and the United States to gain support for their arguments and policies.  “In this way, what happens in South Africa matters for the rest of the world”, she said.  “We need to understand the radical right simultaneously as a grounded political project and as a global phenomenon.”

Abrahamsen’s interest in these developments was ignited by the flood of ’white genocide’ stories that emerged in the media, books and documentaries in 2017/18, in which the situation in South Africa was presented as an epidemic of farmer’s being systematically murdered in a what was frequently described as a “war zone”.  “The situation was even referred to as a form of reverse apartheid with white people suffering more today than black people did during apartheid itself”. The response to this international media attention included demonstrations in countries like Australia; indications from the Russian government that they would offer refuge to white South African farmers escaping racial persecution; and, more recently, a factfinding mission to investigate racial discrimination in South Africa by the Identity and Democracy Group of the European Parliament, a formal grouping of far-right parties like Alternatives for Germany and France’s Rassemblement National at the EU.

This international attention can be trace back to South African Afrikaner groups that toured Europe and the US to tell the world about farm murders, depicting the murders not as an expression of criminality in a country with one of the highest homicide rates in the world, but instead as evidence of the systematic discrimination against white people in post-apartheid South Africa.

Abrahamsen explained that since then “South Africa has come to occupy a special symbolic place in the political imaginary of the radical Right – a futuristic dystopia that shows to their supporters an image of their own worse fears, a future where they have been replaced by immigration and other cultures.” To understand these developments fully,” she continued, “we must understand the contemporary radical right simultaneously as a grounded political policy and a global phenomenon. South Africa offers a window on that globality. It shows how the radical right in very different parts of the world can draw strength from each other, while at the same time being deeply nationalistic and country-specific. The global Right look to South Africa to mobilise support and fear which can be used to justify their positions, including more hostile immigration policies, while groups in South Africa have used their international visibility to force themselves onto the domestic agenda.”

Centring differentialism and civilizationalism

She explained that although the global radical Right is very diverse and far from united, these groups can be distinguished from traditional, republican conservatism on the basis of their civilizational and identitarian views. The radical right are almost all nationalist and fiercely opposed to immigration. Many fear what has come to be known in the radical right-wing discourse as ‘The Great Replacement’, a term that can be traced back to the French author Renaud Camus, and which describes a future dystopia where white people in Europe and North America have been replaced by immigration and alien cultures.

This view is underpinned by a particular understanding of globalisation as driven by a logic of liberal managerialism that privileges experts and elites, and creates a ‘New Class’ of liberal managers committed to further globalisation and further deepening of liberal values.  In this view, the main problem with liberal globalisation is that it flattens the world, it commodifies cultures and destroys diversity, she said. “Against liberal globalisation, the radical right sees the world as consisting of different civilizations and different cultures – cultures that are incommensurably different. As such, they claim to be anti-universalist differentialists; no culture or civilization has a right to claim universal value, and all have a right to respect for their difference. This is one of the ways in which the contemporary radical right seeks to distance themselves from the fascism of the past.”

“For them, the right to protect difference and cultures includes the right to protect the white civilisations of Europe and the US, which they see as under threat by immigration, aging populations and declining birth-rates, and by decades of liberal multiculturalism. For them, the values of multiculturalism and liberalism have destroyed Europe, and in its most extreme articulations, have set the West on a path to civilizational suicide.”

This civilizational understanding of the world allows us see how the Afrikaner minority has been embraced by the radical right in Europe and the US. From their perspective, the Afrikaner minority at the southern-most tip of Africa, surrounded by “civilisational others”, emerges as a futuristic dystopia, an image of their own future if liberal globalisation continues.  “And the South African groups have articulated this effectively saying: Look at South Africa – this is what happens when multiculturalism and liberalism runs rampant. This could be Europe too if it continues down its current path”

Abrahamsen pointed out that this is not the first time South Africa has occupied this position in global discourse. Drawing on W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1910 essay ‘The Souls of White Folks’, she explained how in the past and in the present whiteness can function as a form of personal identification and as a basis of geopolitical alliances. In the past, there were efforts to keep settler countries like South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand as ‘white men’s countries’, and this was seen as crucial to the survival of white civilisation. Today, whiteness function in similar ways to give personal, subjective meaning and to form global alliances, and this is in part how the radical right gains its strength and support, and by implication, its potential to change and influence global politics.

But what does this mean for SA?

Abrahamsen highlighted that Afrikaner groups have used their fame on the global stage to augment their platform and appeal at home. Some may even have also been pushed further to the right by their global association.

“Afrikaner nationalists have tapped into elements of the identitarian and civilizational discourse of the radical right and used it to fashion a more confident Afrikaner identity – a new form of Afrikaner identity politics that seeks to navigate around its deep association with the apartheid past.” “Grounded in the identitarian world view of the radical right, they seek to position themselves as speaking not only for the Afrikaner minority, but for all minorities in South Africa.”

The Afrikaner groups have also reformulated their demands for self-determination in dialogue with the civilizational demands of their global counterparts. Arguing that self-determination for minorities is the most modern, contemporary form of governance in order to safeguard diversity and difference, they argue that the Afrikaner minority too should have the right to self-determination, especially of education, heritage and social care. “This is not Apartheid Take 2, they argue, because it is not based on race and not top-down, but voluntary and in a concordance with what’s happening all over the world.”

In discussion she agreed that this narrative cannot be separated from the history of the Afrikaners and apartheid. The South African present is of course deeply influenced by the past, and the Afrikaner groups are invoking global radical right tropes in an effort to navigate these entanglements. However, the fact that their membership and support is growing, combined with the fact that the doors have been opened to international organisations like the UN and the EU, indicates that we need to take these newer discourses seriously.

She concluded: “I believe we must understand the global, transnational connections and dynamics of the radical Right and think about creative and practical ways to counter these. This project is using South Africa as a window onto these global/local connections, as well as their effects both domestically in South Africa and globally for international relations.”


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu

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