Your browser is out of date. Some of the content on this site will not work properly as a result.
Upgrade your browser for a faster, better, and safer web experience.

Moment that mattered: South African white supremacists are sentenced for treason

Accused member of Afrikaner extremist group Boeremag Tom Voster, front, and co-accused Andre du Toit, left, go down to the holding cells after their sentencing at High Court in Pretoria, South Africa, Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013. A South Africa court handed members of a white extremist group sentences ranging from five to 35 years in prison, with years suspended, for various charges including high treason and murder in the country’s first post-apartheid treason trial. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

Tom Voster (centre front) and Andre du Toit (left) of the Boeremag are led to holding cells following their sentencing in Pretoria, South Africa

“The sentencing of 20 members of the white power Boeremag [‘Farmer Force’] militia didn’t come as a shock to me. It was one of the longest and most expensive trials in South African criminal history, but the outcome was never in any doubt – they were always going to be convicted.

The story began in 2002 with a series of relatively small-scale acts of sabotage including the bombing of a railway line, in which one person died. The police quickly established that the attacks related to a plot by a small group of white right-wingers who called themselves the Boeremag and wanted to stage a white takeover of South Africa. Their schemes included a plan to occupy military bases and use helicopter gunships to terrorise black South Africans into fleeing to countries like Zimbabwe, as well as more bizarre plans such as placing food parcels along highways to lure blacks out of the country.

The Boeremag also plotted to assassinate Mandela with a car bomb, but I don’t think they were ever going to surprise his security people. They were arrested and put on the first trial for treason since the end of apartheid, a trial which dragged on for a decade. The great majority of the suspects were convicted and sentenced on 29th October to fairly heavy prison terms, ranging from five to 35 years.

Foreign correspondents were much more interested in the Boeremag trial than most South Africans. Around 20 to 25 years ago, the white right was a formidable force, but nowadays they don’t have any real public support and they’re not taken very seriously. For all its stormy history, current race relations in South Africa are actually quite good.

Even Mandela’s death shouldn’t change anything significant about this situation. He had been out of the picture for at least ten years when he died. While he was very much a symbol of the anti-apartheid movement overseas, in South Africa the end of apartheid was seen as the culmination of a process led by others. While Mandela was in prison no one saw him; you couldn’t even be caught in possession of his photograph. He did very well in reconciling things and bringing the transition to an end, but it was ordinary South Africans who achieved the end of apartheid.

However, the country does still have one of the most unequal societies in the world, which is much more divisive than the Boeremag could ever be. Half of young black South Africans are unemployed. In the past 20 years a black middle class has emerged and has joined the white middle class, and these two together now stand as a small minority against a great sea of poverty and unemployment. The only real risk the white right has posed in South Africa since the time of the Boeremag plot is in a lone ranger scenario, in which one or a few guys decide to make a political statement. I’d be surprised if we didn’t see such incidents every few years in the country. But they are isolated and don’t have widespread support.

The real opposition against the government doesn’t come from the white right, but from the black left. There are violent protests every day; nine protesters have been killed by police so far in 2014. On 28th January, police fired 2,050 rubber
bullets at a crowd of protesters in Limpopo province, before switching to live ammunition and killing two of them. That’s huge – white supremacist extremism pales in comparison. It’s no more than a sideshow to everyday life, which is quite wild enough as it is.”

A slower, more reflective type of journalism”
Creative Review

Jam-packed with information... a counterpoint to the speedy news feeds we've grown accustomed to”
Creative Review

A leisurely (and contrary) look backwards over the previous three months”
The Telegraph

Quality, intelligence and inspiration: the trilogy that drives the makers of Delayed Gratification”
El Mundo

Refreshing... parries the rush of 24-hour news with 'slow journalism'”
The Telegraph

A very cool magazine... It's like if Greenland Sharks made a newspaper”
Qi podcast

The UK's second-best magazine” Ian Hislop
Editor, Private Eye
Private Eye Magazine

Perhaps we could all get used to this Delayed idea...”
BBC Radio 4 - Today Programme