As the alt-right obsesses over white South African farmers, indigenous activists are murdered in ever greater numbers
The first time Donald Trump tweeted about Africa, he agonised over white people. After watching Fox News’ coverage of the South African land debate last week, the President of the United States instructed his secretary of state to look into the “large scale killing of farmers”. Followers of Peter Dutton’s nine months tenure at Australia’s home affairs ministry will recognise the lie, peddled by the “alt-right”, that black South Africans are targeting white farmers. As the press reported in June, farmer and farmworker murders are at a 20-year low.
But for white people living in every settler state, there’s an awkward question that translates from the Americas to Australia to South Africa to Canada and beyond. How did land become private property, and is that property legitimate? Land struggles, it turns out, might be a way of teaching racists a bit of history and geography.
For as long as the modern state and corporation have existed, indigenous people have faced annihilation as they defend their land. According to Global Witness, last year saw a record 207 indigenous activists killed from India to Honduras while resisting mining and, above all, agribusiness industries. In order for the supplies of palm oil to continue uninterrupted, the indigenous people who live in suitable forest find themselves an impediment to profit.
The perpetrators wash the blood from their hands certain that governments won’t trouble them. In Brazil, for instance, the butchering of the Gamela indigenous people by farmers and security forces has yet to be prosecuted. Violence against activists has been met by the government of Michel Temer with a rollback of legislation protecting indigenous people and further support to agribusiness. Agribusiness returned the favour, protecting Temer from prosecution for corruption.
The far right continues, however, to wax fantastic about white minority rule over colonised land. Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, is a central site of this fan fiction. Look, they suggest, at how much better things were under white rule than under Robert Mugabe. To assert this is to ignore Zimbabwe’s post-independence boom, its punishment in the 1990s by the World Bank, and the fact country’s state-led land reform has resulted in the improvement of the lives of the black majority.
But there are killings of legitimate land activists in Southern Africa that have passed almost without note in the international community. The struggle between rich and poor also continues over urban land. Consider, for example, how Nelson Mandela’s legacy in the African National Congress has been used in South Africa’s long economic crisis.
In September 2014, Thuli Ndlovu was assassinated in front of her one-year-old daughter on the orders of two ANC councillors. Ndlovu was an activist for the shackdweller’s movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, a movement of more than 50,000 members fighting the ANC for land, housing, participatory democracy and dignity for everyone. The gunman and accomplice involved her murder were offered housing, a job, and R15,000 (a little more than US$1,000).
Since then, many other members of the movement have been killed, and last week the organisation announced that its president, S’bu Zikode, was in hiding after death threats, confirmed as credible from within the ANC and police. Despite it being the single most important organising tool he has, S’bu no longer carries a phone. It’s too easy to track.
The movement put out a press release that ended with a call for support: “Real solidarity, living solidarity, is the only way that we can survive repression, overcome oppression, and build a world in which the dignity of every human being is respected.”
Activists like S’bu aren’t just the embodiment of what the ANC used to be. They’re a sign that the work of change in South Africa can teach the world how to confront its demons. In a speech I heard Zikode give many years ago, he put it like this: “The first Nelson Mandela was Jesus Christ. The second was Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. The third Nelson Mandela are the poor people of the world.” Stand in solidarity with this, and there’s nowhere for the Trumps and Duttons to scurry.
Raj Patel is the author of Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System.