From the satanism scare of the 1980s and 1990s to the contemporary myth of White genocide, White South African culture seems to be particularly prone to moral panics. This article posits a correlation between fears of satanism and of genocide, arguing that both are symptomatic of White South Africans’ racial anxiety and sense of exceptional victimhood. It suggests that the genocide myth in particular is important because of its centrality to global White supremacist thinking and its potential to inaugurate new forms of violence.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, as it became increasingly clear that South Africa’s apartheid system of minority rule was neither functional nor tenable, White society was assailed with a dramatic moral panic around satanism. A moral panic is a widespread, usually irrational fear that spreads through media and public conversation, focusing on a new and dramatic issue that is said to present a serious threat to the values and even safety of society. It often relies on the presence of a folk devil, a convenient scapegoat who can be blamed for the alleged problem. Many of the narrative features of South Africa’s satanism scare–stories of occult rituals, child abuse and high-level conspiracy–were clearly influenced by similar moral panics that developed at the same time in Great Britain and the United States. Nonetheless South Africa’s scare took on a particular messianic and racialized tone. Politicians, police, ministers, editors, and other public figures took to the pages of much-read newspapers to bemoan this existential danger, which threatened to upend the both the state and the White Christian nuclear family on which it claimed to be based. These influential actors insisted that satanists were guilty of the worst crimes imaginable, from child abuse to cannibalism, and that they planned to indoctrinate the unwary, with young people a particular target.
The mythical figure of the satanist masked and stood in for other folk devils of the paranoid White South African imagination, especially the Black liberation fighter whose calls for racial justice aimed to topple the White state. This archetype encouraged White South Africans to repress their anxieties about social change by suggesting an internal threat that could be managed with prayer and righteousness rather an external one requiring an unthinkable shift in national politics. At the same time, overblown claims about the danger of satanism allowed a faltering hegemony to activate White fear and to shore up White identity in the face of a crisis of legitimacy.
This collective hysteria about the apparently insuperable threat of satanism comes to mind in 2023, when anxious White South Africans are attached to another dramatic moral panic. The pervasive myth of White genocide insists that White South Africans face extinction at the hands of violent racially-motivated attackers, exacerbated by an African National Congress government that ignores or even actively encourages attacks on Whites. As with the satanism scare, the genocide claim presents White South Africans as extraordinary victims— traumatized and abused because of their Whiteness. Both panics rely on a heady mix of conspiracy theories, racial anxiety, and longstanding concerns about what impending social change might mean for White people.
The genocide myth insists that despite South Africa’s high rates of violent crime, which affects all areas and population groups, crime takes on a more serious meaning when committed against White people. Self-proclaimed minority rights activists such as the Afrikaner organization AfriForum weaponize “farm murders”—a term only used to discuss the deaths of White people in rural areas, despite Whites being far from the only victims of this kind of violence—as proof of the exceptional vulnerability of White communities, concealing political priorities behind concerns about safety and security.
These claims rest on real deaths and traumas, unlike the late apartheid satanic panic. However, activists from the White far right narrativize such tragedies to support an ideological agenda. In defining violent crime that targets White people as a genocide, interest groups elevate those events above similar crimes that happen to other South Africans. Given that poorer Black people are disproportionately at risk of violence, the insistence that Whites face a planned and intentional genocide on the basis of their race invisibilizes and trivializes other victims of violence in South Africa.
Like the satanism scare, belief in White genocide serves particular political purposes. It activates longstanding White fears about victimization, violence and race war, and in doing so provides new poles around which paranoid White identity can cohere. Moral panic can actively support community-making among those who feel at risk; in South Africa’s painfully atomized society, perennially scarred by race and class divisions, this racially-exclusionary and inward-focused community-making means that better-resourced people may withdraw from the larger polis.
The two panics also position White South Africans as part of a broader global imaginary. In the 1980s and 1990s, the satanism scare allowed worried Whites to locate themselves within the transcontinental Western world, as exaggerated concerns around occult behavior and unruly youth spread through mainstream media in the West. South Africa’s iteration of the satanic panic had its own peculiar features: it was popularized by priests and exorcists rather than by the social workers and child psychologists who took center stage in the United States and Britain. Nonetheless, these events were seen as part of a global problem. Satanism was clearly not a South African pathology, even if South Africa imagined itself unusually threatened by this supernatural menace.
In the present day, South Africa is a ground zero for claims of organized White genocide, with the apparently exceptional plight of White South Africans functioning as both cause célèbre and cautionary tale for the White far right as far afield as Europe, the United States, and Australia. The viral genocide trope is particularly powerful here, where the consequences of the alleged plot to destroy Whiteness are seen in bodies and bruises rather than in diversity policies, controversial artworks or the media presence of people of color, which underpin the myth elsewhere. White South Africans, positioned geographically on the margins of global Whiteness, become central to the landscape and language of White supremacy.
Relating contemporary White genocide fears to the past moral panic around satanism historicizes White South African senses of risk, and thus these senses for White supremacist groups more broadly. In hindsight, the satanic panic seems obviously disproportionate, and the wild stories attached to it—tales like the mass murder of babies specially bred for sacrifice, or of groups of schoolchildren possessed by mysterious and destructive forces—are clearly nonsensical. At the time, however, belief in the threat posed by a satanic cult was comparatively common and deeply unsettling among White people. Similarly, while it may be tempting to simply dismiss narratives of White genocide as obviously incorrect, this would entail ignoring a powerful affective strain in White South African thought.
It is important to remain cognizant of the kind of damage that can be caused by the cynical invocation of White fear. During the apartheid era, this led to overwhelming support for the National Party; in the 1990s it was responsible for the White flight that decimated the centers of cities including Durban and Johannesburg.
For all its consistent permacrisis of crime, corruption, and inequality, South Africa has not been rocked by the White supremacist terrorist violence we have seen in the Global North. But when stories of White genocide retain a hold on the imaginations of certain kinds of White people, already convinced of their unfair dispossession by a regime of “reverse racism” and raised in a febrile atmosphere that emphasizes traditional masculinity and gun ownership, then the ground is fertile for radicalization and for White supremacist thought and action to burst out of the comparatively small communities of Whiteness and onto the national stage, with potentially devastating consequences.
The disinformation that underpins racial conspiracy theory is notoriously difficult to shift. Countering the narrative of White genocide and uncoupling White South Africans from their central role in the political mythology of global White extremism will require thoughtful work from the state, media, and civil society. This needs to be undertaken in a way that does not centralize White fears or re-enact exclusionary belief systems that ignore all other victims of crime and violence.
One approach from civil society could foster genuine inter-racial dialogue, with a particular emphasis on rural areas where these sorts of rumors run riot, strengthening communities across class and racial lines and weakening some of the paranoias that lend mythic qualities to localized violence. University of Johannesburg political scientist Adeoye O. Akinola suggests inaugurating a “Panel of the Wise,” in which respected elders from various population groups develop strategies for sustainable land reform and conflict resolution. The government could also invest in educational outreach and resources to resist ideological indoctrination within schools and families in conservative White communities. A better functioning and properly desegregated state school system would in general help to resist the racial polarization that underpins these anxieties.
The media also has an important role to play. Recent research suggests that farm murders have a disproportionate presence in media coverage of violent crime. News outlets need to be extremely cautious in steering away from this trend, and away from a general tendency to overreport violence that happens to wealthy and White people in contrast to other South Africans, whose experiences of violence tend to be treated as newsworthy only if they are particularly spectacular.
Most importantly, although far less likely to take effect, the state needs to actively push back in a non-partisan fashion against the unchecked violence that characterizes life in South Africa today. This is a major undertaking that would involve an overhaul of the corrupt, inefficient, and inhumane national police force, as well as a strong and visible commitment to the rule of law. Like so many other pressing issues in South Africa, the possible solutions to the White genocide myth lie in refashioning and reinvigorating the social contract to foster trust in democracy and the organs of state.
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Nicky Falkof is an Associate Professor of Media Studies at Wits University in Johannesburg. Her books include Worrier State: Risk, anxiety and moral panic in South Africa, Intimacy and Injury: In the wake of #MeToo in India and South Africa, Anxious Joburg: The inner lives of a global south city and The End of Whiteness: Satanism and family murder in late apartheid South Africa.
Image Credit: Ernest Cole