The Last White Africans

With 200,000 members, AfriForum is the leading civic organization advocating for the rights of Afrikaners in South Africa. Do the people responsible for apartheid’s crimes have a claim to their country’s future?

Photography by Jodi Bieber

It was an image out of a bygone era: 150 young white people jammed onto a narrow pathway on the campus of the University of Pretoria (UP), one of South Africa’s premier universities, facing off angrily against hundreds of black students. Tensions had been broiling for months, since at least October 2015. A group of black student activists had organized a series of demonstrations — first against the university’s fee structure, then against its use of outsourced workers, and finally against curricula in Afrikaans, the language of Afrikaners, the white minority who ruled South Africa for four brutal decades in the second half of the 20th century.

That morning in February 2016, black students had entered classrooms to protest instruction in Afrikaans. As they moved across campus and sang anti-Afrikaans songs, white kids who opposed them formed a human chain in the bottleneck of the grassy walkway. According to Jaco Grobbelaar and Henrico Barnard, two white participants, they shouted at the demonstrators, vowing to run blacks off “their” campus.

As the South African summer sun beat down, tempers flared. At least two students exchanged punches. “There were fists flying,” Grobbelaar recalls. Eventually, security guards dispersed the crowd.

The white students had been rallied in part by a group called AfriForum, South Africa’s most established advocacy organization fighting on behalf of white people — specifically Afrikaners. The organization is popular at universities, but its mandate extends well beyond campus politics. Established in the wake of apartheid’s demise, AfriForum represents white interests in a South Africa under black majority rule. With the backing of 200,000 members, the group files court cases alleging unfair discrimination against the Afrikaans language and mounts letter-writing campaigns for the preservation of Afrikaner cultural heritage, such as public statues and Afrikaner town names. It even carries petitions to the United Nations, laying out the case that Afrikaners — until recently the world’s most famous oppressors — now belong on its list of beleaguered ethnic minorities.

The group launched in 2006 and for a while was small. In recent years, though, its growth has been exponential, thanks to a broader trend in South Africa’s troubled identity politics. Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) — the liberation movement that helped free the country from white minority rule, but also championed forgiveness and racial reconciliation — is suffering a decline in influence. Today, a new, more radical generation of young black people is finding its voice, arguing that whites still maintain far too much power in institutions like the country’s universities and banks. Although Afrikaners account for just 5 percent of the national population of 51 million, streets named “Voortrekker” (“pioneer” in Afrikaans) anchor every small town. More than 20 years after liberation, half of South African blacks still live in poverty, while whites have gotten wealthier. According to the last South African census, taken in 2011, white people earn on average six times the income black South Africans do. Black youth increasingly find this untenable — and they’re agitating for a more substantial reckoning with the country’s past.

“There’s a very, very big polarization,” Flip Buys, one of AfriForum’s founders and current advisors, tells me, and whites feel increasingly threatened. With his thinning red hair, dress shirt, and snugly knotted gray tie, Buys, 53, looks more like a middle manager from The Office than a man who has helped shepherd South Africa’s most prominent Afrikaner nationalist movement. One of his eyes is higher than the other, and his glasses skew the other way, amplifying the effect. Yet his staid look reveals a man who considers himself a thought leader of South Africa’s white survival. A former student of political science, he quoted five obscure philosophy professors in an hourlong conversation. When I showed up to our meeting, the day after Americans elected Donald Trump as their next president, he handed me a 2004 Samuel Huntington article on the new rise of ethnocentrism in the contemporary West.

AfriForum’s tactics and philosophies are controversial. Is it fair, skeptics ask, for white people to identify themselves as an embattled minority, given their long history of dominance? Where does legitimate cultural preservation end and repugnant white nationalism begin? For many South Africans, both black and white, the fight to retain relics of the old country — including the use of Afrikaans in public universities — is nothing more than a bid to cement white people’s demographically disproportionate influence in public life.

To Buys, though, AfriForum speaks to the legitimate anxiety engendered by white people’s vision of the world to come, one that will look very different from the past and the present. “People feel their world change,” he says. “They see their workplace changing. They see their children’s schools changing. They see their small town changing. This is why we have the movement.”

Buys doesn’t come from rarified breeding. Afrikaners began arriving in South Africa in the late 17th century, primarily from the Netherlands, to cultivate wheat and wine grapes. Well into the 20th century, they remained largely poor and semiliterate. The British ran South Africa then as an imperial colony; during the Second Boer War, which the British government started in 1899 to seize territory from the Afrikaners to mine for gold and diamonds, British soldiers incarcerated Afrikaner women and children in concentration camps. Buys’s paternal grandfather was one of these children. “He never talked about it,” Buys tells me, but it left a scar on the family, a sense of embattlement and wounded pride. Buys’s father later had to leave school after the sixth grade to support his family.

In 1948, an Afrikaner-led political party took power from the British in an election. The new government consolidated South Africa’s racist laws into an all-encompassing form of racial segregation they termed apartheid, which means “separateness” in Afrikaans. It reserved the best jobs and the best farmland for white people; blacks were confined to overcrowded so-called ethnic homelands and had to carry a pass to enter “white” neighborhoods. Apartheid could be vicious. The regime’s police used guns to mow down black protesters and jailed leaders of the anti-apartheid movement.

Apartheid’s ideology went beyond colonial politics. It was a potent worldview. The system was a cross between Dutch Calvinism doctrine and midcentury pseudo-scientific theories alleging the different capabilities of various races. From these principles, Afrikaners developed a powerful and holistic identity. The group was no longer a subjugated white underclass living under the yoke of the British crown. They were a holy race selected by God to settle South Africa. In the 1930s and ’40s, political leaders even erected an immense monument to honor the day of a battle at which God supposedly empowered Afrikaners to triumph over the Zulus, a black tribe. At the stroke of noon every Dec. 16, the anniversary of the 1838 battle, a hole in the monument’s vaulted ceiling still lets in sunlight, a man-made manifestation of the miracle of Afrikaner chosenness.

Yet Buys’s family in particular knew the fragility of white political rule in Africa. His uncle had become a minister in British-colonized Kenya and witnessed as most whites fled the country in the 1960s during the violent Mau Mau uprising. He told the family stories of whites murdered during the revolt. In 1974, when Buys was 11, two young Portuguese refugees from the independence war in Mozambique, situated to South Africa’s northeast, joined his school. “Their parents were missing,” Buys says. “We were talking on the playground and said, ‘We won’t let our parents be killed!’”

In 1976, Buys saw backlash in his own country when black students in the township of Soweto rebelled against being forced to speak Afrikaans in their schools. Protests quickly spread all over South Africa. “We saw this as the beginning of the revolution,” Buys says. He remembers wondering as a young teen whether he would still have his “house in 20 years.”

He finished his political science degree in December 1989, just before the Afrikaner government set Mandela free from prison. Buys remembers the fear he felt then, and the anger toward South Africa’s political leaders. Since the middle of the century, Afrikaner officials had told whites that black people were existentially dangerous and that privilege was their God-given right. In the space of a few short years, the message to whites from the country’s leaders, both black and white, had changed to “trust your former enemy” — one who had suffered greatly over centuries of white rule and had every imaginable reason to exact retribution.

Even after the apartheid government’s ouster, most Afrikaners stayed in South Africa. More than other colonial groups, they have always insisted they are African, despite their European ancestry. Their identity is deeply enmeshed with South Africa’s landscapes, the quiet deserts and vaunting mountains they believe the Lord chose for them. “I feel more at home in Botswana than in some German town,” Buys tells me.

So he got together with two other young intellectual Afrikaner friends. Their project was ambitious: Rebrand the Afrikaners from oppressors to the oppressed in order to save them from black retribution and secure them a stable place in their new country. The young men set up a reading group to pore over the works of philosophers on ethnicity — The Power of Identity by Manuel Castells, for example. They studied the constitutions of countries like Switzerland and Hungary that include provisions to protect minority cultures. “I began to think of myself as a liberal internationalist, not a white racist,” Buys says, with palpable relief in his voice.

“We’re finding such inspiration from the Catalonians and the Basques,” he notes, hesitantly fingering a copy of The Power of Identity that lay on his desk. “Even Tibet.”

Soon the group began organizing. In the mid-1990s, one of the Afrikaners’ big concerns was affirmative action. The ANC, helmed at the time by then-President Thabo Mbeki, vowed to create a system that reserved jobs for black people in government and at formerly white-dominated companies. Led by Buys, the three men took over an old, nearly moribund labor union and invited Afrikaners to join, intending to redirect its focus toward combating affirmative action. They had some early legal successes; in one, they reinstated an Afrikaner employee with the state energy utility who had lost her job to a black worker.

By the early 2000s, the union, called Solidarity, began to receive letters from Afrikaners who demanded more. Could you help us with crime in our communities, which spiked after apartheid’s end? Could you help us fight the new black-led government’s efforts to change the names of towns from Afrikaner heroes to black ones? Buys and his friends saw there was room for broader organizing around the preservation of Afrikaner identity. “We wanted to change the balance of forces,” Kallie Kriel, a younger member of the trio, tells me.

AfriForum was spun off Solidarity and envisioned as a movement funded by small membership donations from Afrikaners all over South Africa. The founders filed for nonprofit status and drew up a “civil rights charter.” Modeled after the ANC’s 1955 Freedom Charter, which undergirded the party’s case for black liberation, the manifesto articulates a platform for Afrikaners “to feel at home as first-class citizens in the country of their birth.”

“We, the compilers and supporters of this charter, exercise the deliberate choice to lead a meaningful existence as Afrikaners,” it reads, “with our deeply-rooted foundation at the southernmost tip of Africa. We know no other home.”

Alana Bailey has helped grow AfriForum into a 200,000-member advocacy group.

AfriForum’s deputy head, Alana Bailey, is short-haired, wide-hipped, and wide-eyed, as if caught in perpetual surprise by the group’s popularity. In the mid-2000s, AfriForum had three employees; now there are more than 120. The group hosts a publisher, magazine, and documentary film crew, which recently shot a video alleging that the ANC committed atrocities before 1994. There are three full-time social media specialists and eight women manning a hotline on which Afrikaners can report discrimination or ask for medical help.

It costs only 30 rand ($2) a month to become a member of AfriForum, but so ardent are the group’s devotees that they overpay by an average of 57 rand ($4). When I toured the group’s headquarters on the outskirts of Pretoria, Bailey showed me the room where the organization packages its welcome parcels. There are copies of its Afrikaans-language magazine, with articles bearing titles such as “Afrikaans Is in My Genes” and “#SaveAfrikaans.” The organization seems self-consciously trendy, striving to diminish the shame an Afrikaner might feel at being part of a group dedicated to preserving what could be called white privilege. All its campaigns are broadcast over Twitter. According to Bailey, the average age of an AfriForum employee is 27. The decor of the headquarters is branded with the group’s funky orange-and-green logo. The orange is no accident: It is borrowed from the original flag of one of the early Afrikaner settler republics. The brand seems to take the place of a national emblem.

In the mid-2000s, AfriForum’s founders put out a poll in the main Afrikaans-language newspaper, Rapport. “What are your minimum requirements to feel you have a viable future in South Africa?” it asked the paper’s primarily white readers. Answers came flooding back: to feel safe; to hear their language spoken in the public square; to still feel as though South Africa was their home. Today, those responses continue to inform the organization’s key campaigns: to make attacks against white farmers, of which there have been thousands since apartheid’s end, a “priority crime” for the police; to preserve Afrikaans as a language of instruction at historically white schools and universities; and to save Afrikaner town names — Pretoria, in particular.

“The urge to change the name of Pretoria flares up at times,” Bailey says, as she offers me a plate of cookies in her spacious office. I ask her why the issue is so important to Afrikaners. “You have emotional ties to a place name,” she muses. Bailey speaks of a recent public meeting on the subject. “A guy said, ‘When you change a place name, you’ve changed the universe.’ So you can see why people want to change it. They want a universe they can feel more at home in,” she says, referring to black South Africans.

Bailey sits back in her chair and pauses, as if considering the justice of this perspective. “But for us, if even the name has changed,” she explains, “it’s like everything is alien now.”

Names aren’t the only things AfriForum sees as endangered. One night in April 2015, black protesters smeared lime-green paint over a statue of Paul Kruger, a 19th-century Afrikaner leader, in Pretoria. In response, AfriForum members posed by the statue with a banner decrying vandalism. A famous Afrikaner singer also chained herself to it.

In addition to organizing direct-action campaigns, AfriForum provides services to its members that should fall to South Africa’s government. It independently tests municipal water quality, repairs potholes in rural areas, and runs community watches. Hermann Giliomee, a prominent South African historian, explains, “The key thing that Afrikaners lost in 1994 was the state.” AfriForum replaces that.

During a recent trip to Geneva, Bailey gave a talk at the U.N. Forum on Minority Issues. After her speech, a delegate from the South African Embassy stood up. “Don’t listen to these people!” Bailey recalls the woman yelling. “These are people coming to defend white privilege!” Bailey, however, maintains that her mission was consistent with the spirit of the forum. Moved by the stories of other minorities, particularly Tibetans and Yazidis, she found kinship with her fellow speakers. “There was a Yazidi woman who had a photograph of a celebration,” Bailey says. “She put that up on the screen. Then she said, ‘From all those people, I’m the only one left alive.’ You realize why you have to speak up before it’s too late.”

Flip Buys helped launch AfriForum in the mid-2000s.

“Did you hear about the blackface incident?” Henrico Barnard asks. He is sitting at a cafe next to Jaco Grobbelaar, his fellow participant in the AfriForum counter-protest at UP last February. They are dressed neatly — the brown-haired Barnard in an AfriForum polo shirt and the blond Grobbelaar in a crisp blue button-down. Key activists in AfriForum Youth, a wing of the organization, the two 20-something men excitedly relay an episode at UP in which white students went to a costume party with their faces painted black. A picture of the young women leaked out online. After protests by black students, the university’s management expelled the women from their dormitories.

“We represented them,” Grobbelaar says proudly. (AfriForum Youth petitioned the university to reinstate the women in their dorms.) He claims hijinks like the offending costumes are just part of “university life” and that student traditions are “being broken down.”

“They” — meaning black students — “come along and say, ‘We don’t want these age-old traditions,’” Grobbelaar complains. “But that causes our culture to be nonexistent on campus.”

The blackface episode was indicative of AfriForum’s popularity within a demographic that might not be expected to support it: whites born after apartheid. The youth of that generation are called “bornfrees” in South Africa, and the whites among them were supposed to have little connection to Afrikaner pride. But racial polarization, particularly on college campuses, is renewing feelings of white nationalism among youth, fueled by the perception that the black majority is punishing them for crimes committed before they were alive.

Grobbelaar grew up, like many Afrikaners, with a reverence for South Africa’s natural environment. He tells me that he “always liked rocks” and now wants to become a geologist at a manganese mine. But Grobbelaar claims he can’t find work, at least in part because he’s white: “When I applied for jobs at mines, you have to give what race you are.” In line with former president Mbeki’s affirmative action program, to avoid a fine, large South African companies are obliged to make black people a significant percentage of their workforces.

His failure to secure a mining job concretized Grobbelaar’s awareness that his whiteness might be a disadvantage in contemporary South Africa. His father encouraged him to sign on to work with AfriForum, and he became one of its leaders on the UP campus, one of five universities where the group is active. “It stands for the rights of people, of our people, the Afrikaner people,” Grobbelaar says.

He and Barnard partly credit the clash last February with a recent swell in AfriForum’s membership at the university. In 2015, AfriForum’s Pretoria branch had 300 members; last year, 1,200 more students signed up. “We need to stand up for our culture,” Grobbelaar says. “The only way we can save it is to stand up for it.” Because they feel there’s “no room” for whites in national politics, “the solution lies in our community,” he continues. AfriForum provides a vehicle to try to control a future that “is looking very uncertain.” (The threats aren’t far on the horizon; in December, a Pretoria court affirmed that English would be the sole language of instruction at UP.)

The week before my conversation with Barnard and Grobbelaar, a black activist and novelist named Panashe Chigumadzi published an op-ed in the New York Times referring to an episode that had recently occurred at a girls’ high school in Pretoria. Administrators had enforced standards for the girls’ hair that forbade Afros, and the black students ended up protesting the measure. Chigumadzi, recalling how as a young woman teachers mangled her name and she felt pressure to keep her own hair from being too “black,” argued that “white people [still] control social and economic institutions [in South Africa] despite black majority rule.” Institutions, she added, “don’t really accommodate our identities.”

Grobbelaar and Barnard, predictably, disagree. “They say the culture should reflect the land’s demographics,” Grobbelaar says. “But in my view there are rules in society.”

“There are times you must conform to the standards,” adds Barnard.

At the high school in question, imagine a girl who “has this big brush hair,” Grobbelaar says with distaste. “I don’t see how a girl behind her can see the board.”

AfriForum has always been considered backward by South Africa’s black political mainstream. In 2009, Gwede Mantashe, who would soon become the chief of the still-ruling ANC, warned that “organizations like AfriForum are becoming bolder in fighting for the racist cause” and that they threaten the empowerment of South Africa’s black population. In 2013, a prominent AfriForum employee, Ernst Roets, told the BBC that 400,000 whites were living in squatter camps in South Africa, bolstering the case that whites were being persecuted into poverty by a vicious, vengeful black state. The assertion created a huge controversy: The South African fact-checking organization Africa Check published a blistering attack on the claim, using data from the 2011 South African census to estimate that the real number of whites living in informal housing is around 30,000. Citing one of South Africa’s most prominent think tanks, it also noted that whites have “shown continued economic prosperity since South Africa’s transition to democracy in 1994.”

However, a more radical brand of black nationalism has been reshaping the country’s politics in recent years — and perhaps even reinforcing some of AfriForum’s concerns. This new cohort of activists goes further than their parents’ generation did in criticizing white efforts to preserve their cultural and economic status. Across the country, campus organizers are demanding that universities shed all vestiges of the former apartheid state. The young head of a new populist political party, Julius Malema, has advocated forcefully for reparations, calling the ultimate return of land from whites to blacks “inevitable.”

Chigumadzi, who wrote the New York Times op-ed on the hair scandal, is a 25-year-old with a fade who’s also involved in anti-colonial protests at universities. “I believe all white people are structurally racist,” Chigumadzi tells me, arguing that any white person who doesn’t stand for land redistribution and other forms of socioeconomic justice is complicit in the continued oppression of black South Africans. “I don’t believe white South Africans are Africans. They remain settlers as long as they have not returned land to black people,” she says.

“I say white people should leave with what they came on ships with,” she adds. “The reason I can be dismissive of white people is that ultimately the rest of the world will look after them in a way the world does not look after black people.”

This perspective, which can increasingly be seen on young black people’s social media feeds, has not only confirmed the anxieties of the Afrikaner right. It has also contributed to something of an identity crisis among liberal whites. “I feel kind of locked in my white skin,” an Afrikaner poet named Danie Marais says, a “privileged white male” not allowed to be fully South African but with nowhere else to go. Now 45, he opposed apartheid in its final days, participating in the Voëlvry Movement, a musical collective that produced subversive songs criticizing the racist regime. Today, as the head of PEN Afrikaans, he says that he “tries very hard to distance us from AfriForum.” He works to include nonwhite writers in the group, which is focused on literary work in the Afrikaans language; he hopes to mount a “reconciliatory conversation” between white and nonwhite writers soon.

Marais’s work speaks to a longing for the type of integration at the heart of Mandela’s project. Yet the new polarization, the utterances by young black activists, and South Africa’s persistent inequality make him feel afraid. “I’m very worried for the generation of my daughter and stepson,” he says.

“Now you see the rise of a new African nationalism in South Africa,” Marais continues. “It’s a longing for a redress of a kind you’ve never seen in history. What is our answer to that? I don’t know. Duck and cover? Keep your own little nationalism alive?”

“It doesn’t make sense to me.”

One group of Afrikaners has carved out another path. In the early-1990s, a handful of Afrikaner families chose to live far from South Africa’s urban centers in a decrepit farming village in the desert as post-apartheid penance. Far from being an oppressed minority, the Oranians, as they call themselves, believe whites still live like the kings of South Africa.

I met one of the Oranions, a former missionary named Carel Boshoff III, during a reporting trip in 2009. His dining room table was littered with dirty dishware and notepads. Many white South African homes are kept spotless thanks to the help of black maids. But I realized Boshoff was proud of his mess; it was a political statement. Across the country, a traditional labor structure reinforced unequal power dynamics between blacks and whites: Blacks did the grunt work — laundry, farmwork — that whites didn’t want to do.

“What AfriForum doesn’t understand is that, given our history of oppression, psychologically, it’s too hard for us not to act like exploiters,” he told me. In Orania, a former mining town Boshoff and some of his fellow founders bought wholesale in the early 1990s, Afrikaners would reject racialized class dynamics — and the promise of integration. Alone in Orania, Afrikaners would be the elites and the janitors.

More than 20 years after its founding, and five years after my first visit, I returned to the desert. Orania has grown into a modest settlement of 1,000 people supporting 50 small businesses, from hair salons to stores selling candied pecans. And it remains deadly serious about its mission. The town office building peddles gift cards extolling “self-reliance” and miniature statuettes of the Orania mascot, a little boy rolling up his shirtsleeves to represent the new Afrikaner work ethic. The Orania theme song, performed by a barbershop quartet, plays frequently on the local radio station:

Everyone understands

Self-reliance

Is what it’s all about!

Orania can present a difficult transition for some whites. During my recent visit, I spent an afternoon at a farm with Boshoff’s son, Carel IV. Before he moved to Orania, he was a philosophy student; now he’s trying to build up a new business creating cattle-branding devices. A friend of his was videotaping the afternoon to make an advertisement for a rancher’s magazine called Red Meat. Despite his recent career change, Carel still looked as if he belonged in the classroom. Donning polished amber Cavalli shoes, a burnt-orange dress shirt, and a tweed jacket, Carel awkwardly swatted a steed’s rear with a tree branch to try to direct him toward a pen to be branded. “Come, come,” he cooed.

Snorting, the cow refused to move. Carel’s business partner grabbed another one by its collar and hauled it into the narrow pen. Now braying loudly, the others began to back toward the field’s main gate, which Carel had forgotten to close. Carel ran over to block their way.

The cattle, now spooked, broke into a stampede. “Oh, no, no!” Carel cried, holding his glasses onto his face with one hand. Dashing after the runaways, he got hitched up in some barbed wire. Extricating himself, he nearly flipped over on the wires like a hapless cartoon character. “It’s not the best image,” he called out to me sadly. “This is certainly a thing that in South Africa, normally, blacks would do.”

Panashe Chigumadzi is a novelist and activist.

Flip Buys doesn’t think most Afrikaners should insulate themselves from the country at large, as the Oranians do. AfriForum’s manifesto explicitly insists that the ethnic minority take part in the South African state. Yet its surging popularity reflects the fears among many whites that the vision of an integrated South Africa may be dying.

In Buys’s office, a secretary brings us two cups of strong coffee. While we sip them, Buys contends that AfriForum’s membership will only continue to grow as black people push more and more for a society that reflects their languages and values and prioritizes their economic needs over white people’s. He points to his 24-year-old daughter as an example. “My daughter is an art student, so she’s very liberal,” he says. Recently, she started a business with a young black woman, fulfilling Mandela’s dream of a country in which whites and blacks stood together. But Buys says she is simultaneously becoming more ethnocentric. I ask him if his daughter’s Afrikaner identity is important to her. “Not five years ago,” he says. “Now it is.”

He remembers watching TV with her and seeing South Africa’s current president, Jacob Zuma, dancing in a leopard skin and sacrificing cows for good luck in an election. Zuma is a populist who appeals to and champions blacks’ sense of African identity, once demeaned as brutal and savage under apartheid. Buys’s daughter, though, was distressed by what she saw.

“I may be liberal,” Buys recalls her saying, “but this thing in South Africa isn’t going to work.”

A version of this article originally appeared in the January/February 2017 issue of  FP  magazine. Subscribe to FP Premium for 20% off now!

Top image: Henrico Barnard and Jaco Grobbelaar are members of AfriForum Youth.

Eve Fairbanks, a writer living in Johannesburg, is at work on a book about South Africa.