VAN DER KLOOF, SOUTH AFRICA - Simon Roche has spent years in this remote, scenic corner of South Africa, preparing for the fight of his life.
The 48-year-old is the public face of the Suidlanders, an all-white, Christian group that believes that a race war is imminent in the Rainbow Nation, and that white South Africans – who still hold the nation’s greatest share of wealth and private land, even a quarter-century after the end of apartheid – are in mortal peril.
Top officials, most politicians, security experts, police, political analysts and the vast majority of South Africans strongly dispute this possibility, with Justice Minister Ronald Lamola dismissing the group and its allies as “extremist and alarmist.”
The growth of the right
But as right-wing views have grown internationally in recent years, so has this group’s visibility in South Africa, along with its political clout — a small, far-right white nationalist party surprised even political experts by surging to its best-ever result in the May polls.
Roche, too, has seen his stature rise: He was invited by American white nationalist groups to represent the group at the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 and has also appeared on the far-right “InfoWars” talk show.
But, he says, the Suidlanders are looking inward, not outward. He says the group receives small donations – “$100 here, $2,000 there” – from overseas, and is content with that level of engagement.
“We have one focus,” he said. “It’s not the worldwide right wing. It’s providing a national emergency plan to our people in a time of crisis.”
The far-right group, which was founded in 2006, claims to have 150,000 members, but that number is not verifiable as it does not maintain membership lists. Even so, that makes them a minority in a nation with 57 million residents, most of them black.
The group is cagey about what exactly will be the catalyst of the race war, having wrongly predicted that the 2010 killing of white nationalist figure head Eugene Terreblanche, and later the 2013 death of beloved South African president Nelson Mandela, would spark the fire.
But its plan amounts to this: When the race war begins, the group will withdraw to the unforgiving, sparsely populated Kalahari Desert.
Its members chose this remote, extremely dry and underdeveloped area, they say, because it is relatively unpopulated, meaning a minimum of people would be displaced by their move there. Leaving South Africa, the group says, is not an option.
‘We believe the solution is to get away’
They are not preparing to wage war, stresses Roche, a perpetually smoking, dog-loving, self-professed “red-blooded male.” He denies claims that the group is stockpiling illegal weapons and says police have previously infiltrated the group and found nothing.
“It’s not about storing up weapons,” he said, as he led reporters on a tour of storage units the group has scattered around this rural corner of Northern Cape province.
“There are weapons in this region. One of the places I was going to take you to, you would have stood on top of a massive, massive, massive cache of weapons. They don’t belong to us, they belong to other people, maniacs from years ago who believe the solution is through the barrel of a gun. We don’t. We believe the solution is to get away from a conflict, to withdraw from it and go mind your own business.”
The group’s many critics say these ideas aren’t just misguided, but that they also pose a threat to a harmonious multiracial society that South Africa strives to be.
“It's a tragedy that people seem to feel that they have nothing else but to hold onto these beliefs in the face of real challenges in the world to their way of being,” political analyst Angelo Fick told VOA.
“The impoverishment of local and specific cultures globally is a real thing. But to cling to 18th- and 19th-century misinterpretations of biblical text to support views that will encourage and engender a way of living in the 21st century is not just foolhardy — it's absolutely dangerous; not just for the other people that you're trying to remove yourself from, but actually for yourself.”
Suidlanders member Eric Bornman disagrees with that assessment.
“Who’s the victim?” he said, as he stood at his kitchen counter in the privately owned, all-white town of Orania, and packed and unpacked his “go-bag” full of emergency supplies. “White people. End of story.”
The group points to the killings of white farmers as evidence of impending danger, and terms the killings “a genocide.” But crime experts strongly refute that, noting that authorities reported 46 white victims among 62 farm murders reported last year. That is, they say, a small fraction of the 20,336 murders reported across the country by authorities last year. In keeping with South Africa's demographics, most of those victims were black.
Nevertheless, the alarm over the appearance of a system of targeted killings of white farmers — which top officials dispute — grabbed the attention last year of U.S. President Donald Trump, who tweeted: “I have asked Secretary of State
@SecPompeo to closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers.”
South African officials immediately responded, saying that Trump was “misinformed” and that the president’s tweet "seeks to divide our nation."
Bornman, who, like Roche, said he is not a racist, agrees that only white Christians should be allowed to flee to safety with the Suidlanders when the hypothetical race war begins.
“In natural circumstances worldwide, in turmoil, in an emergency state, people tend to flock together that know each other,” he said. “Ethnicity sticks together, religious groups stick together, and that’s the natural movement. That’s the way it works.”
In South Africa, hate speech is excluded from constitutional protection, and the Suidlanders carefully skirt overtly racist language in their official literature.
“We don’t have a particularly anti-Jewish agenda, unlike many right-wing orientated organizations in the world,” Roche said.
But he admits some of the group’s members hold racist views — as VOA reporters clearly witnessed when speaking, off the record, to several other members of the group.
“There’s no doubt that some people who sympathize with our philosophy wish that we were more radical,” Roche said. “So, they sympathize with us because we’re doing good work for our people, but they would love it if we would come out as rabid racist maniacs, because that’s the way they think.”
Members of the group say they just want to help their own in a time of crisis.
The Suidlanders are mostly members of the Afrikaaner ethnic group, which is descended from 17th-century Dutch, French and German settlers. Roche, peculiarly, is not an Afrikaaner himself — his ancestors were Irish, he says.
Suidlander member Teirrah Korff has taken first-aid courses, but says she’s saving her skills for the right time – and the right people.
“I want to help people,” she said. “I want to help my people. My Afrikaaner people.”
Threats from the far right
Analysts say that allegiance is misplaced, and note that, historically, the strongest threats to peace have come from the extreme right. In 2002, white nationalists plotted to assassinate Nelson Mandela and reinstate apartheid by means of a violent coup. In 2013, members of that group – not allied with the Suidlanders – were found guilty of treason and sentenced to up to 35 years in prison. South Africa abolished the death penalty in 1995.
“The closest we have come to a race war was in the early 1990s during the negotiation process for this particular political settlement, when right-wing elements disaffected with the way in which this was happening stormed the negotiating table with armed and armored vehicles. And a race war didn't follow,” Fick said. “... I think people who are calling for people who understand or think that there's going to be a race war – and think that this is a positive development – are slightly out of touch with the very complex social and political dynamics of contemporary post-millennial, post-apartheid South Africa.”
Roche, the group’s spokesman, says they don’t plan to win a war. He acknowledges that even the most determined Suidlander rebel fighters would struggle against an actual military.
“We are not preparing to live,” he said. “We're preparing to die. Obviously, everybody wants to live. Everybody wants to get through this thing unscathed. That's human nature. But we, at some point, have to recognize that the overwhelming forces pitted against us are liable to crush us.”