Farm Attacks – Historical and Cognitive Dissonance in the “White Genocide” Narrative

Criminality and violence in contemporary South Africa has become firmly embedded in the national discourse. The Comaroffs, in “Law and Disorder in the Postcolony” once wrote that, ‘a decade after the end of apartheid in South Africa, the poor and the marginal still look sceptically upon statutes protecting the rich: a large proportion of them see crime as an acceptable means of redistribution, even vengeance,’. There is at the same time a certain cultural obsession or fascination with criminal violence: ‘South Africans of all stripes are also captivated by images of crime and policing, either it be in the form of avid rumour or home-grown telenovelas, Hollywood horror or high theatre, earnest documentaries or trashy melodramas,’ (ibid.) . However, the “Farm attack” has developed its own mythology which comprises a particularly violent form of attack more recently associated with accusations of white or Boer genocide. While in 1998, the South African Police Service (SAPS) declared farm attacks a priority, this was reversed in 2007, favouring what has been described as a broader rural safety approach. Pretorius, in a paper entitled “‘Dubula Ibhunu’ (Shoot the Boer)”, cites a 2003 SAPS report, which stated that ‘…farm robberies were more violent than urban robberies’ and goes on to lay the claim that white victims were at higher risk of being killed. This appears to have added fuel to the ensuing claim of genocide as the motivation behind farm attacks.

‘The farm is representative of post-apartheid South Africa, but most commercial farmers are still white. Moreover, the situation of farm workers is often still starkly reflective of the colonist-colonised bind,’ (ibid.). However, it is essential that the discourse around the motives for such violence is directly addressed and demystified as in Steinberg’s 2002 book, Midlands. Here, the rural blacks (mainly tenants of the white farmer) saw themselves as never having benefited from the economic growth or the social transformation of the country as a whole. For them, nothing had changed, and they were stuck in a loop of the old apartheid interactions. Fanon would argue that, in his performance as “Master”, ‘the settler keeps alive in the native an anger which he deprives of outlet,’ (‘Black Skin, White Masks’, 1986). Against this background, the murder of a white farmer’s son comes to be seen not as a response or an action relating to race but as a release of this anger and more specifically as a reaction to a perceived series of betrayals.

Returning to Fanon, the portrayal of the ‘Negro [as] a phobogenic object, a stimulus to anxiety,’ plays directly into Hook’s ‘Petrified Life’ paper, but here Pretorius also links it to Crapanzano’s 1985 ethnography of White South Africans, ‘Waiting’. Ultimately, the question of projection arises, as Pretorius asks, ‘Could it be that the inferiority complex of the Afrikaners triggered/triggers the racist “othering”, the projection of the Afrikaner shadow onto black people, the banal, habitual demeaning of the “other” as proof of the “own” civility?’ There can be no immediate answer to this, but a further question arises: ‘Could the primal fear in white South Africans that Crapanzano sensed have something to do with their internalisation of being phobic and foreign objects in a black world?’ The link to fear, as evidenced by Fanon, is not new but the connection to phobogenesis, combined with a range of narrative sources, provides a more plausible explanation than that of white genocide. ‘Making sense of farm attacks demands recognition of certain psycho-political underpinnings. Internalised and projected images of the savage self/other triggers the archetypal violence that is often present in farm attacks,’ (Fanon, 1986).

In considering this phenomenon of the farm attack, I have used specific examples to illustrate a form of historical dissonance. The narratives have an historical background but, despite significant evidence to the contrary, the emerging explanation paints a distorted impression of the power relations. I therefore propose that historical dissonance is evident in the aspect of temporality related to politically appropriated explanations of farm attacks. The projection of a future genocide as retributive action for historical injustice (apartheid) represents a particularly sinister form of historical dissonance. 

One thought on “Farm Attacks – Historical and Cognitive Dissonance in the “White Genocide” Narrative

  1. Steve says:

    I suspect that the “white genocide” narrative is simply white racist propaganda to stir up racism and appeal for sympathy from white supremacists elsewhere. “Farm killings” include attacks by farmers on their workers, and sometimes on “trespassers”, but for the white genocide propagandists those don’t count, only white lives matter. Another reason why I am disturbed by attacks on the idea that all lives matter.

    Some of the propagandists like to compare their campaign to the “black lives matter” in the US, and say that if people are concerned about one, they ought to be concerned about the other. But they tend to ignore one very important difference — in South Africa attacks on commercial farmers (black as well as white, but the “white genocide” propagandists ignore that) are by criminals, whereas in the USA people are protesting against attacks by the police.

    I suspect that the people who are behind the majority of farm attacks are the same people who have looted and destroyed the Gauteng rail network, which the police seem powerless to prevent. In our neighbourhood gun battles between police and cable thieves are a nightly occurrence, but few are arrested and convicted, and even fewer of the scrap metal dealers they sell to.

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