The figurehead of unapologetic white racism in Africa died as he lived. Eugene Terre'Blanche, the 69-year-old founder of the far-right-wing Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB), was hacked and bludgeoned to death on his farm outside Ventersdorp in the far north of South Africa on Saturday by two workers whom, according to South Africa's Sunday Times, he had refused to pay their monthly salary of 300 rand ($40). A 28-year-old man and 15-year-old boy were arrested and charged with murder shortly after the killing.
South African politicians of all color decried the murder of Terre'Blanche, but few would dispute that it followed the pattern of racism and violence that defined his life. Terre'Blanche set up the militant, white-supremacist AWB in the 1970s, resisting all moves to reform the country's apartheid system of white minority rule and vowing to take power by force if the regime gave up power. Though three of Terre'Blanche's "generals" did try to invade the former black homeland of Bophuthatswana in 1994 (and were executed in the street) and though Terre'Blanche did once take matters into his own hands (in 2001, he was jailed for six years for assaulting a black gas attendant in his hometown), he was more a vainglorious blowhard than a serious threat to South Africa's fragile racial makeup. For one thing, he had no meaningful plan to run a government. Instead, the bearded, khaki-clad Afrikaner preferred to give theatrical voice to white racism, prizing spectacle and provocation over substance. To that end, he adopted as his movement's flag a red, white and black swastika-like emblem; he arrived at rallies on horseback, carrying a gold-topped cane; and he led his supporters in a dramatic invasion of the venue where the apartheid regime and Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) were negotiating a transition to democracy in 1993.
Terre'Blanche became a figure of international notoriety less because of the power he wielded, which was inconsequential, than because of the fact that his militant prejudice contrasted so poorly with the racial reconciliation personified by Mandela. But many in South Africa fear that Terre'Blanche's death does not signal the nasty end of a politics of racial demagoguery, but rather brings into sharp focus the division that continues to scar the country 16 years after the end of apartheid. In particular, many see a striking similarity between Terre'Blanche's white supremacy and the black chauvinism articulated by the leader of the ruling ANC's Youth League, Julius Malema. Like the slain AWB leader, Malema wields little real power and proposes no credible solutions to the crises facing the country, such as the world's largest population living with HIV/AIDS, rampaging violent crime and mass unemployment. Like Terre'Blanche, Malema seems to regard his role as fighting a war long since over and in which he had no part, having been just 8 years old when it ended. Like Terre'Blanche, the ANC Youth League leader favors bluster, spectacle and provocation over substance, and giving voice to the kind of vengeful intolerance that Mandela so successfully kept under control.
On the day Terre'Blanche died, Malema was in neighboring Zimbabwe, praising Robert Mugabe's regime for confiscating white-owned farms and businesses from whites. "In [South Africa], we are just starting," he said. "Here in Zimbabwe, you are already very far ... and that's what we are going to be doing in South Africa." Such apparent backing for long-overdue wealth redistribution is, however, undermined by the Zimbabwean regime's habit of redistributing largely to those in positions of power and Malema has also faced a media firestorm over his accumulation of substantial personal wealth despite having come from an impoverished background and having held no job outside of the ANC. (He denies accusations of corruption.) And in an incident suddenly given bloody resonance by Terre'Blanche's death, Malema has in recent weeks been at the center of a new controversy over his singing of an anti-white song at a gathering of college students. The song's lyrics describe white farmers as thieves and rapists and include the chorus "Shoot the Boer." (Boer, Afrikaans for "farmer," is sometimes used as a derogatory label for white Afrikaans-speaking South Africans.) Following the event, the High Court declared the singing of the song illegal, categorizing it as hate speech, which is prohibited by South Africa's constitution.
Opposition politicians were quick to warn that South Africa needs to finally consign racism to history. The Democratic Alliance called Terre'Blanche's murder "an attack on the diverse components of South Africa's democracy" and urged the ANC "to strongly condemn [the] racist utterances which have become synonymous with Malema and his ilk." Terre'Blanche's supporters went further, with AWB spokesman André Visagie blaming Malema directly for their leader's murder, which he described as a "declaration of war." With just 68 days left before the start of the World Cup, in a country already infamous for violent crime, Visagie urged foreign teams to stay away for their safety. President Jacob Zuma, meanwhile, appealed for calm, condemning "this terrible deed" and urging South Africans "not to allow agent provocateurs to take advantage of the situation by inciting or fueling racial hatred." Sadly, that is exactly what many South Africans expect from Julius Malema.