Last month, South African white rights activists toured the United States on a media and lobbying campaign. Members of this group, which they call “AfriForum,” aim at drawing attention to what they allege has been a campaign of violence against white farmers, ignored by the government for racial reasons. They met with staff and members of Congress. They were interviewed on conservative media outlets such as Fox News, BlazeTV, and the One America News Network. The tour was their second in less than a year. Other white South African groups, including the Suidlanders, have been undertaking such campaigns as well.
No evidence exists that white South Africans are indeed targeted by excess violence. Rather, these groups use the fear of targeted racial violence to find sympathetic audiences to pressure their government into action. Here’s what you need to know about South African white rights activism.
There’s no data substantiating the targeting of white South Africans
These groups argue that white farmers in rural areas are uniquely victimized by a specific and violent wave of crime — which they call “farm murders” — that the South African government is ignoring because the victims are white. That’s why they are reaching out to international allies: to build support and put pressure on their own government to do more to protect white farmers and their property.
But if we compare crime rates for South Africans generally and for farmers, we find that farmers are far less likely to be the targets of violent crime than the general population. That’s true both for murders and for other “contact crimes” such as burglary, sexual assault and attempted murder.
What’s more, as you can see in the figures below, since 2010, the rate of “farm attacks” has declined even more quickly than that of other contact crimes across South Africa. In 2017-2018, there were 62 murders on farms in South Africa. Out of a total population of more than 800,000 farm residents, that’s about 5.7 murders per 100,000 people. By contrast, nationally the rate is 35.8 murders per 100,000 people. (While not all farmers are white, the government doesn’t yet have a racial breakdown of the agricultural population. The government is currently undertaking an agricultural census, which will provide more complete data on the agricultural sector.) We do know, however, that of those 62 people killed in “farm murders” in 2017-2018, the government reports that 46 of the victims were white.
But media attention to violence against whites has increased
How do white rights activists build support for a cause that doesn’t exist? Lobbying and advocacy groups like AfriForum and other more explicitly militant white-nationalist groups, such as the Suidlanders, rely on anecdotes, not trends, to convince their audience that they are uniquely targeted because they are white.
To see whether media mentions individual farm attacks have increased over time, I compiled 18 months of public statements and quotes from white activist organizations from their own websites, including both transcripts of video releases and text of posted press-releases and media articles from their news blogs. Additionally, I examined all news coverage from South Africa’s largest news conglomerate, News24/Netwerk24, in English and Afrikaans between January and December 2018. Then I analyzed this body of text using a word frequency counter.
Here’s what I found: White rights activists use victims’ names often, more frequently than “attack” or “murder.” When all put together as a class, the names of victims are the ninth-most commonly used word in activist media, whether written down or spoken aloud. Mainstream media tend to report on developments in farm attack cases or activism about farm murders. Interestingly, media mentions in Afrikaans-language mainstream media have increased (mostly because of coverage of activism) even while incidents of actual farm attacks have decreased. Activist media repeat the details of a very small number of cases.
Most often, activists mentioned the farm murders of 11 people and the severe injuries of two more from six white families, most of whom were killed in unrelated events between 2010 and 2017. These murders and attacks happened in three of South Africa’s nine provinces. All the victims were white and lived on land at least partially used for farming. Beyond these similarities, the events do not seem to be connected by circumstance or motive: some involved burglary, others did not; some were by known perpetrators, others by strangers.
However, these six murder sprees all involved shocking violence and torture. Repeating the horrifying details of these accounts is cumulatively powerful, making such violence seem endemic. A few conservative international media outlets in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia have been amplifying these details, emphasizing the violence and the fact that half of the victims were children, women and the elderly.
Meanwhile, advocates of the white victimization narrative have elided two facts. First, of the six cases, five have been successfully prosecuted; 16 perpetrators have been sentenced to between seven years (for a getaway car driver) and multiple life sentences in prison. The remaining case of grievous bodily harm remains unsolved but has been under investigation since 2017. Second, while such murders are horrifying, they are not part of a trend.
The international response to claims of a white victimization has been swift
South African white rights groups have gotten attention around the globe. Conservative Australian minister Peter Dutton, known for his anti-immigrant rhetoric and for championing offshore detention for asylum seekers, promoted a policy that would offer a special visa status for white South African farmers. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government encouraged South African farmers to immigrate to Russia. Fox News host Tucker Carlson has repeatedly covered what he called a campaign of farm murders, which his South African white rights guest said occurred weekly; in response, President Trump tweeted that he had asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to investigate.
To be sure, these activists do not all explicitly talk about “white genocide.” But they argue that white South Africans are uniquely targeted for violence, and deploy anecdotes and exaggeration to convince their audiences that theirs is a civil rights cause — despite the fact that South Africa farmers are, on average, safer than the South African population at large.
Carolyn Holmes (@carolyneholmes) is an assistant professor of political science and public administration at Mississippi State University. She has conducted extensive field research in South Africa, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Fulbright-Hays Program.