Supporters of President Cyril Ramaphosa's ruling African National Congress celebrate election results at a rally in Johannesburg, South Africa, May 12, 2019.
Supporters of President Cyril Ramaphosa's ruling African National Congress celebrate election results at a rally in Johannesburg, South Africa, May 12, 2019.

KLERKSDORP, SOUTH AFRICA - White nationalism has long lurked on the fringes of South African life, stoked by far-right groups that feel their culture is under threat in the multiracial country.

But as the May elections showed, far-right white nationalism is moving into the mainstream — and into government.

The tiny Freedom Front Plus Party surprised many by taking 2.4% of the vote in the polls. That gave the party an unprecedented 10 seats in the 400-member National Assembly.

The party’s aim is to create a homeland for the nation’s mostly white Afrikaans-speaking minority, who are descendants of Dutch settlers four centuries ago.

Leader of the conservative Afrikaner Freedom Front Pieter Groenewald joins newly elected Members of Parliament as they are sworn in for the 6th Democratic Parliament on May 22, 2019, in Cape Town.

Party leader Pieter Groenewald told VOA that the threat to Afrikaans-speakers, as he put it, is a pressing priority for him.

“At this moment, Afrikaners are under threat,” he said. “The ANC government is blaming, actually, the white people of South Africa for all the problems that are happening. We are in the process of expropriation without compensation of our properties. They always blame the white people. The narrative in South African politics is that white people have stolen the land.”

But, analysts argue, South Africa’s narrative and concepts of identity have changed radically since the end of apartheid in 1994. Political analyst Ralph Mathekga says Afrikaaner-rights groups are reading from an outdated text, which places whites at the top of the social structure.

“It appears that they are not being able to let go of that historical supremacy. The reason I’m saying this is not because I’m totally against what they’re doing, but they have not reformulated a sense of identity. If being an Afrikaaner in the 1970s is the same as being an Afrikaaner in 2019, we’re in trouble then.”

AfriForum, a group that campaigns for the rights of minorities in South Africa, says it is trying to reformulate the notion of Afrikaaner identity. CEO Kallie Kriel says the group is not pro-white, but pro-minority, and that members of the group are more centrist than politicians let on. He says AfriForum condemns extreme far-right groups.

“What we’ve actually seen is that there has been a growth in the middle ground with regards to Afrikaaners,” he told VOA. “People saying, ‘We want to build a society based on mutual recognition and respect, but we also feel strongly about our identity, and we need to find solutions in that way within the democratic framework.’ And from our side, AfriForum has grown, the extremist groups to the right have diminished. They claim that they have a lot of support, but they are nowhere to be found.”

Supporters of Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party leader Julius Malema cheer at the party's final election rally ahead of the country's May 8 poll, in Johannesburg, South Africa, May 5, 2019.

In recent years, figures in the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters, the opposition Democratic Alliance and the ruling African National Congress have also used race to stir supporters.

The EFF has demanded that key economic sectors be nationalized and controlled by blacks, similar to what former President Robert Mugabe tried to do in Zimbabwe.

“It’s a clear indication of the emergence of extremism in South Africa’s politics,” Mathekga said. “It is actually, Freedom Front Plus; their performance is a symptom of the body politics of South Africa. It is actually how South Africa’s body politics work. It is how other parties are well-positioned.”

Groenewald, an original founder of Freedom Front Plus and a longtime member of parliament, says he has long tried to work with the ruling ANC to meet his party’s aims.

He says one of his short-term goals is to abolish race-based affirmative action in the country.