Over the weekend, the Economic Freedom Fighters, a far-left South African political party, staged a massive rally in Johannesburg to celebrate its 10th anniversary. The faction’s leader, the incendiary Julius Malema, appeared onstage in his trademark red beret and belted out an apartheid-era song, in a raucous call and response with the thousands in attendance. To someone unfamiliar with Malema’s demagoguery, the words were startling: “Shoot to kill,” he intoned. “Kill the Boer” — a term for White Afrikaners — “kill the farmer.”
In the United States, news of the event set right-wing social media aflame. Benny Johnson, a far-right provocateur with a large following, tweeted a video of Malema singing and suggested that the proceedings were “all downstream from the rotten secular religion of wokeness … plaguing America today” — seemingly oblivious to the possibility that the chant could be the product of a country with a vastly different political history than that of the United States. Like clockwork, Twitter’s most conspicuous South African appeared in Johnson’s replies.
“They are openly pushing for genocide of white people in South Africa,” tweeted Elon Musk, the Pretoria-born CEO of Tesla, Twitter — rebranded as X — and a handful of other tech companies, before asking why South African President Cyril Ramaphosa had said “nothing” about the incident.
There’s little new about a far-left rally featuring such a song, which Malema revived years ago while leader of the youth wing of the African National Congress, South Africa’s sole ruling party since the fall of apartheid. It taps into Black grievance over a long history of land theft, discrimination and repression under White minority rule, as well as Malema’s own agenda to expropriate White-owned farmland. Close to three-quarters of private farmland in South Africa is White-owned and some advocates for land reform view redistribution as a fundamental part of dismantling the legacy of apartheid, which was built on the legal dispossession of the nation’s Black majority. (The ANC, for its part, has said it doesn’t want to repeat the economic turmoil that followed expropriation of White land in neighboring Zimbabwe.)
After a firestorm of controversy, the ANC expelled Malema in 2012 for singing “Kill the Boer.” Unbowed, he and his Economic Freedom Fighters supporters have sung it since and triggered various legal cases as a result. At a hearing last year, Malema said the lyrics were not to be taken literally, but rather reflected opposition to “the system of oppression.” A Johannesburg high court ruled last year that the EFF’s singing of “Kill the Boer” was not hate speech.
But in the wake of this weekend’s events, an Afrikaner minority rights group is slated to appeal that verdict in September, arguing that the evidence of Malema’s ethnic incitement was incontrovertible. Meanwhile, the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s main opposition party, said it will be filing charges against Malema and the ANC over the incident at the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Musk’s intervention in all this is curious, if not surprising. Since his takeover of Twitter in 2022, he has made a habit of sidling up in conversation with a cast of far-right influencers, including white nationalists and disseminators of conspiracy theories. Changes to the platform reinstated the accounts of known racist extremists, amplified propaganda from authoritarian governments and led to a documented surge in misinformation. Musk, meanwhile, harbors plans to transform X into an “everything app” for messaging, payments, videos and other uses, akin to China’s WeChat.
Musk’s critics contend that much of the unpleasant impact is by design. “As a public figure, he has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to the right’s culture war against progressivism — which he refers to as ‘the woke mind virus’ — and his $44 billion Twitter purchase can easily be seen as an explicitly political act to advance this specific ideology,” the Atlantic’s Charlie Warzel wrote in May.
That Musk weighed in on a topic related to the land of his birth through the hysteria of Johnson, who erroneously, though tellingly, labeled Malema’s EFF as “South Africa’s Black party,” is revealing. The specter of “white genocide” is a long-standing trope among U.S. white nationalists and their fellow travelers in the right-wing establishment. South African white rights activists have found an audience among the American far right, whose members see a bizarre parable for the fate that may await them in South African Whites’ supposed vulnerability to the predations of hostile Blacks and neglect by a Black-majority government.
Former Fox News host Tucker Carlson devoted multiple news segments in 2018 to a string of “farm murders” of Whites in South Africa, which were amplified by then-President Donald Trump, who directed then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to examine the issue. Never mind that there’s no evidence of excess violence in South Africa directed toward White farmers — indeed, the data suggests the opposite, that they are far less likely to be the targets of violent crime than the general South African population.
But the myth of “white genocide” in South Africa has a powerful valence, nonetheless. It’s been invoked in the manifestos of white nationalist gunmen who carried out mass shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand; El Paso; and Buffalo. And its seeming resurfacing by Musk thrilled various white nationalists and neofascists using the tech CEO’s platform, as Mother Jones documented.
“In 2016 South African white genocide was a fringe issue — now, the richest man in the world, who also owns Twitter, is drawing attention to it,” tweeted Patrick Casey, former leader of Identity Evropa, a neo-Nazi organization. “Things are moving in the right direction!”
Musk left South Africa as a 17-year-old to attend college in Canada, “barely ever looking back,” according to a 2022 New York Times story about his upbringing under apartheid. While his father stressed that Musk’s experience living in a white supremacist regime has made him sensitive to discrimination, other peers from his childhood pointed to the general ignorance and obliviousness that suffused their segregated, privileged lives.
“We were really clueless as white South African teenagers,” a high school classmate of Musk told the Times. “Really clueless.”
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