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.”
This Article first appeared on foreignpolicy.com in January 2017, and does not represent the stand of converseafrica.com.