Shonky hard-right documentaries about the killings of white farmers stem from a group of millenarian survivalists who follow a long-dead prophet.
A screen shot from Lauren Southern's documentary 'White Farm Murders in South Africa'
From almost nowhere, "White Genocide In South Africa" has become the meme de nos jours in hard-right circles. In recent weeks, we've heard from Stefan Molyneux: "White Farmers Slaughtered In South Africa"; Katie Hopkins: "White farmers are being hunted to extinction"; and Ann Coulter: "The only real refugees: White South African farmers facing genocide". Even scourge of the Islington classes, Rod Liddle, has weighed in with a Spectator article.
If only it were true.
"Look, I was in the South African police for 30 years," says Johan Burger, of South Africa’s leading think-tank, the Institute For Security Studies. "And I was in charge of investigating a number of individual farm murders. I was also tasked with looking into the subject overall. I have actively tried to find instances of political murders. But I never found even one."
The awful truth is just awfully banal. You’re a sitting duck out on your farm. In a nation with 19,000 murders a year, farmers represent some of the easiest meat. Often, there are local grudges involving mistreated workers. The national murder rate is 34 per 100,000. Estimates on the farm rate vary between 9.1 and 156, depending on how you count.
Of course, in a content-starved world, these arithmetic subtleties were never going to stop the outrage mills churning. Within weeks of each other, hard-right commentators Lauren Southern and Katie Hopkins both turned up in South Africa, to make parallel documentaries unpacking the fictional tragedy for their audiences. Hopkins was pulled up at border control as she left, and barred from re-entry for "spreading racial hatred".
The spark for both of their trips, and indeed for the entire meme, can be traced to an organisation called Suidlanders (literally: SouthLanders).
Suidlanders believe that Race War is coming to the Rainbow Nation. They're preppers, effectively, who have bought up large tracts of land, stockpiled weapons and written a hundred-page manual describing how, at the appointed moment, they will all travel in convoy to this last outpost, where they will make a desperate final stand against the forces of black uprising.
Simon Roche, founder of Suidlanders, suggests that "between one and two million" will probably be joining him in their trek into the interior. His manual is impressive in its detail, listing everything from optimal following distances to toilet break rules to martial law tribunals to the difficulties for children in undertaking long car journeys.
The roots of the whole thing can be traced back one year, to the moment when Suidlanders' leadership began a tour of the US, to drum up support for their white plight. Coast to coast, at town halls and rallies, they spoke at meetings, courting sponsors and sympathisers within a range of identitarian and hard-right organisations: the libertarians at Freedompaloooza; Identity Europa, famous for their tiki torches; right up to David Duke (though Roche says he got a creepy vibe from the ex-Wizz and decided against working with him). They'd aimed to be there for two months. The buzz was so great that they stayed for six months.
On the back of a wildly successful tour, Suidlanders reached out to Southern and Hopkins. "With Lauren, we didn’t pay for her ticket," says Roche. "But we said: you come out here, and we will show you everything; we’ll cook for you, we’ll give you an experience you can't buy.") Southern stayed at his house. He took her hunting, put a few sosaties on the braai for her. She swallowed the entire narrative. "It actually looked like she wasn’t going to come at one point. She said she was unsure about the facts of our case. But then she changed her mind."
What’s been less clear until now is that Suidlanders are not only preppers, they’re millenarians. In other words, they believe not only that the world is going to hell in a handcart, but that it is written in the stars that the Armageddon South Africa has coming was foreseen long ago.
Roche is a huge fan of the Boer prophet Siener van Rensburg. The prophecies, he says, are one thing that connects and inspires the entire Suidlanders leadership.
A peasant farm-boy who began hallucinating aged two, Nicolaas "Siener" Van Rensburg read only one book in his life: The Bible. He read it so well that, by 21, he had been appointed a church elder. It isn't hard to see where the tang of Revelations entered his palette.
He was in his thirties by the time the Anglo-Boer War arrived in 1899, and already so widely revered that he never actually fired a shot in anger. Instead, he served out his time acting as a pocket psychic to Boer generals like Koos de la Rey and President of the Orange Free State, TJ Steyn. Not everyone was bowled over. He was held in contempt by just as many of his compatriots. A visiting journalist called Deneys Reitz was sniffy about what he dubbed Siener’s "lucky strike":
Van Rensburg was expounding his latest vision to a hushed audience. It ran of a black bull and a red bull fighting, until at length the red bull sank defeated to its knees, referring to the British. Arms outstretched and eyes ablaze, he suddenly called out: See, who comes?; and, looking up, we made out a distant horseman spurring towards us. When he came up, he produced a letter from General Botha, hundreds of miles away.
The letter was news of a British proposal for peace talks. Nice one, Siener. Reitz speculated the whole thing might have been set up. In World War One, he allied himself with the rebels, who sided with Germany, and was imprisoned. He died in 1926, but the widely-circulated books of visions were considered so inflammatory that then-Prime Minister Jan Smuts had them banned during WWII.
"My father gave me the books," Roche explains. It's 25 minutes into the interview when I decide, in passing, to mention what I’ve heard about their interest in Siener. We spend the next 30 talking of little else. "I threw the book back in his face, at the time. It was a real sore point between us for years after that."
Roche went to the army for his national service, then dropped out of university after two years, then travelled extensively in Africa, before he eventually became a big success in the events industry.
So successful, in fact, that he was tasked with putting together the plans for Nelson Mandela’s funeral, back in 2009. "It was a secret plan, codenamed Operation Imbeko. And it was there that people started saying phrases to me that I already recognised from Siener Van Rensburg. They said to me – 'Tati [Mandela] is a great man who is loved by the world.' They said: 'The world sees him as a saint.' I thought… 'Woah!' You know, even in a thick African accent, the phrases clicked with me. I went back and re-read my book. I was stunned by the similarity. Stunned!"
In the back of his mind, Roche was already unsettled. Even though his business was thriving, he found himself dwelling on the dark side of the New South Africa. While others got on with their middle-class lives, choosing to focus on the endless supply of cheap labour and reasonably-priced restaurants, Roche instead found he just couldn’t ignore the decay. The uptick of potholes and power outages. The ominous hum of the suburban electric fences. The increasingly raw rhetoric from black nationalists like Julius Malema. The metastasising cancer of corruption.
"You know, I am not a racialist. I will give everyone a chance. I really wanted to see the New South Africa succeed. One can make excuses after five years, after ten years, 15 even. Well, I would lie in my bed at night, and I’d think about the course the country was taking. It disturbed me…" Whether Siener was the spur or merely the confirmation isn’t quite obvious, but the alarm clock in his head was ringing, and soon enough he brought the full force of his events management arsenal to bear on the issue of what to do next. It’s a managerial nous that has allowed Roche to turn Suidlanders into what is now claimed as "the largest civil defence organisation in the world".
Like most soothsayers, Siener had more misses than hits. But there is still a through-line in his oeuvre that has become the canon for the Race War types.
In brief, he said that democracy would come to South Africa (check), that a black man, a "picanin", would "sit upon the throne of Africa" (uh, check), he would die at the same time that a real nasty came to power (recently indicted former President Jacob Zuma?), the good president would lie in state for ten days (check), there’d be a massive strike (perhaps the protests that produced the 2010 Marikana Massacre?), and later, "at the time of the melting snows" (guessing "spring"?), massive civil insurrection.
The first time, the black-led riots are put down. Then trouble flares up again – and this time, it descends into full-blown Race War.
This is the moment when Simon’s hundred-page manual on correct vehicle following distances comes in handy. Soon enough, only one zone of South Africa is now habitable for whites. Most followers of Van Rensburg put it somewhere near Port Elizabeth.
Things don’t improve much from there.
"When they arrive in South Africa the international forces sent to deal with this are so horrified by the ferocity of the conflict that they withdraw. A bit like the Dutch peacekeepers in Srebrenica. In other words, they’re so horrified by the ferocity of it that they will go home."
But you win in the end, right? There’s a solid endgame in all this prophecy? Otherwise, why bother?
A pause. "Gavin… I have not until now allowed myself to get carried away. There is cause for optimism. But there is also a tendency on the right to get carried away – we’re going to be absolutely victorious – we’ll destroy all the bad guys. And I don’t want to do that. I don’t know. But I have cause for optimism…"
Siener said he saw no houses left – the fighting would be so fierce that those who remained alive would be living only in tents. It is certainly intense to live your life by the ravings of a hundred-years-dead man who, in 2018, would be given a swift course of anti-psychotics and a second book to read.
Johan Burger, the ex-cop who analyses farm murder numbers for a living, tells me Hopkins actually interviewed him. I look up her piece. She uses the narrow measure – of there being 32,000 farmers in South Africa – in order to make the claim, "Being a white farmer in South Africa is statistically one of the most dangerous jobs on the planet." Unfortunately, as Burger himself pointed out to me, that means that you effectively double-count: You use a broad definition of farm-murders that includes murders of black farmers, black farm-workers, general rural folk, murders that arise from drunken arguments, etc, and divide it by the narrowest, whitest definition of "farmer" you can find, to get a high number: 145 per 100,000.
It barely matters. Tune into the Tommy Robinson Speakers’ Corner livestream the other week, and you’d have heard a standard-issue Tommy fan in the crowd talking about how "it's terrible what's happening out there in South Africa". The meme diffuses until all that is left is the patina of repetition.
Suddenly, a wild-eyed long-dead Boer mystic is whispering genocide into the ear of a former Apprentice candidate from Devon with a content pipeline to fill. A few weeks later, a football casual unknowingly rehashes it on a livestream. The headline goes round the world; few dig into the details. The strangest of fringes change clothes a couple of times, and it’s welcomed straight into the mainstream. In. Tents.