Racial tensions are nothing new for South Africa. After shedding its 300 year status as an apartheid regime with the historic agreement between Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk in 1994, the integration of whites and blacks has not been easy. Today, the country remains one of the most dangerous in the world, with 18,000 murders per year. (A stunning and probably not very inaccurate portrayal of this violence is presented by J.M. Coetzee in his novel Disgrace.)
Then, last Saturday, on April 3, came the murder of Eugene Terreblanche, who was hacked to death by two black youths in his own home, supposedly over a wages dispute. Terreblanche was a notorious figure in South African politics – a self-styled demagogue and pro-apartheid activist, with unabashedly racist views and a love for showmanship. A descendant of the Boer colonists who first settled in South Africa in the 18th century, his grandfather had fought in the Second Boer War (1899-1902), in which the Boers unsuccessfully sought to maintain their independence from British rule. Since the 1994 deal, Terrenblanche and his paramilitary Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB) threatened and engaged in terrorist acts, setting off bombs in Johannesburg that killed 21 people and unsuccessfully invading the tribal land of Bophuthatswana.
It is hard to say whether Terreblanche’s murder was really caused by a personal dispute or whether his politics simply angered one too many people. His death has caused a rise of tensions in the country, with a stand off happening between AWB and ANC supporters outside the courthouse where the suspects were being arraigned. Adding fuel to the fire, days before the murder ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, a controversial figure himself, was mired in a scandal for singing a song called ‘Shoot the Boer.’ To the ANC’s anger, the Constitutional Court labeled this act as hate speech and banned it, likely under pressure from the mainly white Freedom Front Plus party.
Aside from bringing to the fore the continuing disharmony between the white and black populations in the country, perhaps these news can also lead us to reflect more on the history of white colonialism in this part of the world and the legacy it left to us today. It is in this context that it may be especially helpful to turn to Hannah Arendt’s monumental work The Origins of Totalitarianism, and specifically to the haunting but little-known few pages in the second part of that work – Imperialism – that she dedicated to the Boers.
In their isolation from European civilization, the Boer colonists found themselves living in a harsh, inhospitable environment. With the poor soil making farming impossible, they resorted to cattle-raising; this in turn made it necessary for the settlers to live at great distances from one another. Spread out over wide swaths of land, the first Boer families developed into extensive clans with only one thing in common: their horror and revulsion at already finding another race of people living on the same land in a suspended state of primitiveness. Even after enslaving many of the natives, the Boers could never subject the entire population, leaving them perpetually afraid of a “species of men whom human pride and the sense of human dignity could not allow them to accept as fellow-men” (192). Generation after generation of living as exploiters of slave-labor in a society oriented entirely around race reduced the Boers themselves to a form of primitivism that came to resemble the very condition they first found the natives in. “The Boers lived on their slaves exactly the same way natives had lived on an unprepared and unchanged nature. When the Boers, in their fight and misery, decided to use these savages as though they were just another form of animal life, they embarked upon a process which could only end with their own degeneration into a white race living beside and together with black races from whom in the end they would differ only in the color of their skin” (194).
The Origins of Totalitarianism was written during the late 1940s, but its analysis of the Boer attitude to the native population remains a penetrating one. As Arendt summed up, “Their race consciousness today is violent not only because they have nothing to lose save their membership in the white community, but also because the race concept seems to define their own condition much more adequately than it does of their former slaves.” While modern day followers of people like Terreblanche may have more to lose than just their standing as people of the white community, their condition certainly seems to continue being defined by the race concept.