Award 2013 Nominee
Elles van Gelder
Survival of the whitest: inside an Afrikaner boot camp
At a right-wing training camp, young South Africans are being trained to fight for their Afrikaner heritage. Film by Ilvy Njiokiktjien
By Elles van Gelder. 18 Nov 2011
That anger is fuelled in part by positive discrimination, which has made it harder for white youth to find jobs and which fans the flames of racism. Many of them feel unwanted. ‘Anyone [in authority] can take their frustration and channel it in a negative way.’
The boys run from the army tent to the mess hall. Before them, under the glare of fluorescent lighting, stands 57-year-old Franz Jooste. Army decorations gleam on his uniform; Jooste fought in the old apartheid army. ‘We’re going to make men of you all,’ he says in Afrikaans.
Jooste is the head of the Kommandokorps, a little-known but potentially dangerous extreme right-wing group. On its website, the Kommandokorps describes itself as an elite organisation, ‘protecting its own people’ in the event of an attack, necessary ‘because the police and the military cannot provide help quickly enough’.
The organisation, though small and not familiar to many in South Africa, claims to have trained more than 1,500 young Afrikaners in defence skills over the past 11 years. Jooste, who spreads his message via email and newsletters, says that 40 per cent of boys sign up themselves. The rest are volunteered by their parents.
Kommandokorps feeds on anxiety. Though the national crime rate is dropping, South Africans are increasingly anxious. Every year, 16,000 murders are committed and 200,000 assaults with intent to cause bodily harm. The violence breeds a sense of fear.
As a result, farmers organise themselves into countryside militia and patrol at night to ensure their cattle are not stolen, urban residents form neighbourhood watches, and every South African (white and black) who can afford it hires a private security company that will send an armed response team to his home when the alarm goes off. All of which provides fertile ground for an organisation such as the Kommandokorps.
‘We always have to lock our doors at night,’ Nicolas, 18, says. ‘This camp will teach me how to protect my father and mother and little brother and sister.’ But the group’s leader has a greater objective.
It is 4.30 on the first morning of camp. The boys are sent out on a one-and-a-half-mile run in their heavy army boots, down a rocky country road filled with potholes.
Sixteen-year-old EC is in the middle of the exhausted troop. Though not one of the youngest present, he is one of the smallest, a childish teenager who is primarily excited at being able to shoot his paintball gun.
‘I want to be able to defend myself. And I am also doing this for my paintball career,’ he says with a smile.
At 18, Riaan is more self-assured. ‘I want to learn how to camouflage myself in the field,’ he says.
As we talk about their country, the teenagers say they believe in the idea of South Africa, the ‘rainbow nation’. ‘People generally get along pretty well,’ Riaan says. ‘We have to fight racism.’ EC has two black friends, Thabang and Tshepo. ‘I don’t like racism,’ he says.
Yet some of the older generation’s fears are visible in these boys, even though they were born after the end of apartheid. ‘I’m terrified to walk past black people,’ Jano says. EC says he would never marry a black woman. The boys seem trapped between the ideas their parents have passed on to them and what they learn at their mixed-race schools and experience daily.
Jooste sits in the mess hall and looks through the glasses on his nose at the following day’s programme. Kitsch paintings of buffalo, elephants and rhinos hang on the wall. The wicker furniture is covered in zebra-print fabric.
Jooste is a proud veteran. He fought along South Africa’s borders with Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and Mozambique in the 1970s and is scarred by what he calls treason. While he was fighting for the white regime, his leaders were making peace with Mandela. ‘Aside from the Aborigines in Australia, the African black is the most underdeveloped, barbaric member of the human race on earth,’ he tells the boys during one of his lectures.
Few of South Africa’s 4.6 million whites (in a population of 50 million) share Jooste’s desire to return to the past. The country’s lone Afrikaner political party, the Freedom Front Plus, polled only 0.83 per cent of the vote in the 2009 general election. The majority of whites support the new democratic South Africa.
‘There are a few right-wing splinter groups, though I think they have no more than a thousand active members,’ says Prof Hermann Giliomee, a historian specialising in Afrikaners. The most prominent is the AWB, the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (Afrikaner Resistance Movement), with which Jooste shares certain ideological views, but that organisation has lost momentum since the murder last year of its leader, Eugène Terre’Blanche.
As the voice of hardcore Afrikaners has become quieter, men such as Jooste have become more desperate to preserve, as he sees it, the Afrikaner identity, and establish a new independent Afrikaner nation. That means cultivating a new generation.
Jooste is lecturing in the mess hall. ‘Who is my enemy in South Africa?’ he asks. ‘Who murders, robs and rapes?’ His cadets sit cross-legged on the ground. ‘Who are these creatures? The blacks.’ Jooste goes on to tell the boys that black people have a smaller cerebral cortex than whites, and thus cannot take initiative or govern effectively.
Jooste boasts that it will take him only an hour to change the boys’ minds. ‘Then they’ll know they aren’t part of the rainbow nation, but part of another nation with an important history.’
He picks up the South African flag, which was adopted in 1994, and lays it before the entrance to the mess hall like a doormat. He orders the boys to wipe their filthy boots on it. They laugh uncertainly, then they do as they are told. Jooste tells them that they should love the old South African flag and the old national anthem.
Indoctrination takes root best in exhausted minds. Outside, the cadets are made to crawl across the ground, gripping a wooden beam they call ‘sweetheart’ in their arms, their knuckles bleeding. ‘Persevere! You’ve got to learn to persevere!’ Jooste shouts.
The sound of crying rises from the rearmost ranks. Jooste’s assistants, older members of the Kommandokorps, grin as they take photos of the boys with their mobile phones. It feels almost sadistic.
EC is struggling. The beam weighs almost a third as much as he does. The nights, too, are hitting him hard. ‘We sleep on the ground and our sleeping bags get wet,’ he says. ‘In three nights, I’ve slept six hours. Every day I think about giving up.’
Frans Cronje, the deputy CEO of the South African Institute of Race Relations, insists that ‘relations between black and white are civil’, but while he dismisses Kommandokorps as an extremist fringe, he believes that the camp none the less represents a real concern. Jooste’s message is that conflict between whites and blacks is just around the corner. ‘I think we’re sitting on a timebomb here in South Africa,’ Jooste says. ‘It’s inevitable that something is going to happen in this country, because there is discord.’
Cronje’s worry is that it takes only one boy to act on Jooste’s words for there to be a serious incident. ‘When you convince a child that blacks are the enemy, the danger is that he will act upon it. He gets a gun, climbs on to a bus full of black schoolchildren, and shoots 20 of them dead. That’s a realistic danger. It’s brainwashing, and it’s easy to do.’
At camp, the young faces are increasingly marked by exhaustion as the days pass, yet the boys seem to grow more and more confident. ‘The training has taught me that you should hate black people,’ EC says. ‘They kill everyone who crosses their path. I don’t think I can be friends with Thabang and Tshepo any more.’
Riaan repeats what he has learnt in nine days almost word for word: ‘There’s a war going on between blacks and whites. A lot of blood will flow in the future. I definitely feel more like an Afrikaner now. I feel the Afrikaner blood in my veins.’
Jooste maintains that he doesn’t want to force the boys in any particular direction. ‘All we want to do is channel the feeling they already carry within them,’ he says. ‘We don’t want them to hate. We just want them to love their own culture, traditions and symbols, and to fight for independence and freedom.’
As he prepares to leave camp on the final day, Riaan appears to have absorbed Jooste’s message: ‘This is my country,’ he says. ‘I will fight for it.’