“There is a race war in South Africa. It is 364 years old. Though we agreed to cease fire 22 years ago, we are agreeing to open fire again.”
It was just one of a series of tweets posted by Shaka Sisulu, grandson of Walter, and the rest revealed a less literal meaning; but that didn’t matter to the frightened white people who passed the message around. Not when there were so many other posts like it: social media, it turns out, is lousy with calls for ethnic civil war.
The white sabre-rattling is the same as always: gloomy predictions and poisonous assumptions, all masquerading as pessimism but barely disguising a nihilistic longing for Gotterdammerung.
The declarations of war by black people, however, were new to me.
Most were variations on a theme of exasperation. Penny Sparrow was the penultimate straw, but the attack on black protesters by a white mob at the University of the Free State was too much. Talking was futile with people determined not to listen. Now it was time for taking the land, the wealth, the power, and, if necessary, taking lives.
I don’t presume to know the minds or lived realities of people who feel that race war is a sensible solution to anything. But I would urge warriors on both sides to take a breath and to imagine, just for a moment, what an ethnic civil war in South Africa actually looks like.
At first it looks like a body, lying on a pavement in a blackening pool of blood. Soon, an angry mob. The police, firing rubber bullets. The politicians denounce the guilty and warn of a stern response. Then broken windows, overturned cars, fire. Then another body. Rumours spread faster than news. The police start using live ammunition; the politicians’ warnings get sterner.
Then, an appalling escalation: five bodies, including a child. The country staggers. There is a silence, and then a roar. The politicians stop denouncing and demanding, and start pleading. The army deploys but its orders are unclear. Rumour replaces news. White soldiers have fired on black civilians. Black soldiers have fired on white soldiers. New voices, cold and shrill, call for solidarity with race and culture and religion; call for revenge. Militias form. In the townships they’re called self-defence units. On the farms they’re called commandos. Rumour and news finally overlap: a self-defence unit and a commando have butchered each other somewhere in Limpopo. The footage shows black bodies, laid out in a line in the dust; white bodies, crumpled in a ditch. And we’re off.
Panic spreads like smoke. The rich fly away; everyone else drives or hitchhikes north, forming long caravans of buses, taxis and family sedans that pick the safest and fastest route to the border. There are scuffles with Mozambican border guards. Botswana announces it will take in 100000 refugees, but the rest need to go elsewhere. Namibia is swamped.
Many who stay believe that this will be a fight to the finish. Black or white, they are convinced that the land is theirs and that their enemies do not want to share it; that it is their only home; and that they will win or die trying.
Some don’t want land. They’re staying to settle old scores.
A few simply want to kill people, for no real reason.
Not everybody who takes up arms is South African. The frightened people camping at the border see them first: truckloads of meaty white men, coming south, heading for the most volatile towns. The white supremacists have arrived – skinheads from Russia, Britain and Scandinavia, Klansmen and Stormfront militiamen from the US – eager to wage racist jihad.
The killing begins in earnest, but within months ideologies begin to fracture. The struggle against a common enemy is replaced by more complex, lucrative skirmishes. Rival militias fight over control of money, drugs and weapons. The ideologues find themselves targeted as demoralising distractions, and they are murdered or flee.
Warlords, black and white, establish fiefdoms, and South Africa ceases to exist. In its place is hell, patrolled by young men armed with machetes and high on crystal meth, who divide their time between murder and recreational rape.
In the end the only people who win are racists living far away, who point and say, “See? We told you blacks and whites can’t live together. We told you it always ends like this in Africa.”
I don’t know what happens next. I suspect that there needs to be more talking and less shouting; that racists need to be told that they are ignorant rather than wise; that we need to vote the incompetents out of power and install managers who can educate us and feed us and keep the lights on. But I do know one thing for sure: if you’re calling for war, you’ve already surrendered.
First published in The Times