South Africa’s history of racial domination and violence makes it a fertile breeding ground for white supremacist hate groups. This was evidenced in the recent arrest of Harry Knoesen and members of the National Christian Resistance Movement (NCRM), also known as The Crusaders, on charges of planning terror attacks on malls and shack settlements. The arrests came after the Hawks found caches of weapons and bomb-making materials in both Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape.
Prior to these arrests, Knoesen, a former soldier and Christian pastor, gained notoriety for making inflammatory social media posts calling for white South Africans to take up arms and regain their apartheid privileges by force. On his twitter account, Knoesen announced that his focus is “on securing the future of the (white) race in South Africa”, a clear reference to the so-called 14-word slogan used by neo-Nazis globally – “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”
The limited media coverage on The Crusaders story has depicted the group as rural grotesques who offer no serious security threat to the state. But this story has wider political and social resonances beyond the local context. It comes at the end of a decade where violent far-right groups, globally emboldened by the victory of racists and xenophobic politicians like President Donald Trump, have grown and become more dangerous. While white supremacists were early adopters of the internet, the last few years have seen their reach and ideological cross-pollination with mainstream right-wing discourses drastically expand.
South Africa’s fringe of white nationalists and Christian fanatics have inserted themselves into global hate networks. Groups like Die Suidlanders, a survivalist militia that explicitly prepares for an imagined race war, have made substantial linkages with US and European neo-Nazis and alt-rightists. Die Suidlanders leader, Simon Roche, marched with other white supremacists at the Charlottesville Unite the Right in 2017, in which the antifascist protester Heather Heyer was brutally murdered. Paranoid fantasies about a supposed (and thoroughly debunked) white genocide litter social media and YouTube, even garnering the attention of Trump himself.
The belief that white South Africans are under attack has become part of the global mythology of contemporary fascism. They regard South Africa and Zimbabwe as formerly white states that have fallen to racial inferiors. Such beliefs motivated mass shooter Dylann Roof, who was pictured wearing the apartheid-era South African flag and Rhodesian flags prior to massacring African-American congregants in a Charleston Church in 2015.
Homegrown fascist insurgents
South Africa has a long domestic history of hard-right insurgents who have believed that extra-parliamentary violence was necessary to enforce white supremacy. In the late 1930s, the rise of Nazism influenced Afrikaner nationalism and saw the creation of the fascist-leaning Ossewabrandwag (Ox Wagon Sentinel) and the Nuwe Order (New Order), which supported violence against the Jan Smuts government and whose membership included future National Party Prime Minister BJ Voster. Even more dramatically, the boneheaded boxer Robey Liebrandt was so impressed by meeting Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Olympics that he became involved in an unsuccessful plot to launch a coup d’etat to install a pro-Nazi puppet regime during World War II.
The military defeat of the Axis power took the wind out of the sails of South African pro-Nazi groups. But many fascist ideas were embraced by the National Party. As Christi van der Westhuizen writes in White Power and the Rise and Fall of the National Party, “no sooner was Hitler dead than South African whites voted in power a party with pro-Nazi leanings”. Indeed, the apartheid state serviced white supremacist interests so thoroughly that armed resistance to it appeared unnecessary. In fact, evidence suggests that wanted Nazi war criminals found a sympathetic refuge in South Africa.
As mass resistance to apartheid grew from the late 1970s, a new militant white far-right backlash emerged. By the time of the negotiations, South Africa had dozens of armed groups, with membership that had training from and direct links to the security forces and which intended to use arms to secure a white separatist state. As seen in the terrifying footage of khaki-clad militias storming the Kempton Park negotiations in 1993, they were a credible threat to the democratic transition.
Groups like the AWB (Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging), a self-proclaimed ‘resistance’ movement, ultimately diminished through infighting and incompetence, but not before causing substantial murder and mayhem. At its height, the AWB enjoyed international media attention, trained with Zulu nationalists and European neo-Nazis and had sympathisers within the police and military. The “third force” political violence in the 1980s and early 1990s, in which the state was itself heavily implicated, also saw the white nationalist underground commit bombings, mass shootings and the assassination of Chris Hani. These actions were intended to tip the country into a civil war and to give the far-right the apocalyptic conflagration it so clearly longed to fight.
The thread of right wing extremism persisted post-apartheid with the Boeremag’s 2002 Soweto Bombings. The Boeremag were inspired by the cryptic ramblings of the prophet Siener van Rensburg, who died in the 1920s. van Rensburg allegedly predicted that a “man in a brown suit” would arise to save South African whites from a race war. This apocalyptic prediction constitutes to inspire aspirant far-right leaders. One website lists Harry Knoesen, Simon Roche and Steve Hofmeyer as potential volk messiahs – before concluding, “God is waiting for us as the Boers to take matters into our own hands, taking charge over our own lives and not to wait for one of these leaders to do something”.
Indeed, Knoesen got a prior taste of public notoriety in 2015, when he was caught on camera carrying a giant metal cross, while wearing military camouflage and a sword. While clearly eccentric, this combination of fanatical religiosity and militaristic imagery was precisely the psycho-political poles that defined white South African society throughout apartheid. As scholars like Van der Westhuizen, Nicky Falkof and Mandisi Majavu have all demonstrated, the end of apartheid was a profound, world-destroying shock to many conservative whites.
No longer the master race, fears around crime, affirmative action and land reform have escalated into apocalyptic paranoia. This is fuelled by social media, which allows both easy access to far-right propaganda and fake stories about white genocide. It’s no surprise that Facebook appears to have been the medium Harry Knoesen used to recruit his followers. Social media has become the ocean – or sewer – for the far-right to live out its darkest fantasies of messianic violence.
The terminology of “Crusaders” and “Christian Resistance” is globally used by white nationalists to convey the “spirit of militant holy war”. For example, in 2016 the Kansas Crusaders militia group were apprehended for trying to attack a Muslim community with truck bombs the day after the US elections. Far-right insurgents had adopted tactics of “leaderless resistance” in which small cells work to commit atrocities they believe will incite a racial holy war. As evidenced by mass shootings like the Christchurch massacre, so called “lone wolf’ attacks can cause horrific carnage, no matter how isolated or on the social fringes attackers may appear. Even more troubling is the case of new groups like Atomwaffen, a neo-Nazi cult that has been trying to assemble radioactive dirty bombs and has been linked to numerous murders and hate crimes.
The Crusaders’ National Christian Resistance Movement may seem like a throwback to South Africa’s neo-fascist past. But their methods and dark aspirations are, sadly, very much of our time.