I Grew Up In A Racist Militia: 5 Things I Learned
It's fun to mock hate groups like the Westboro Baptist Church and those Oregon militiaman who occupied a wildlife refuge. Remember them? They completely failed to achieve their objectives, the internet mailed them gummy dicks, and we all had a good laugh right up until one of them was shot to death?
It's satisfying to think of those people as dumb fuckups the world is rapidly leaving behind; bumbling cartoon characters like the Nazis in an Indiana Jones movie. But here's the reality: If you grab any member of a hate group and make them tell you about their formative years, you quickly find out they never really had a chance.
Like "Pieter," a regular guy who was raised in 1980s South Africa by members of the Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB), white supremacists who thought apartheid was far too generous to black citizens. We asked him what it's like to wake up one day and realize you're the villain in somebody else's action movie, and he said ...
You're Taught That Racism Is Self-Defense
No one likes to believe they're part of the herd. You're not one of the sheep who gets sucked in by propaganda and inane slogans! Why, if you'd grown up under Hitler's rule, you'd have spent every night sneaking Jews out of the country! The reality, though, is that when you're raised in a bubble of rabid hatred from birth, your chances of not turning into an asshole are small. With that in mind, here's how Pieter spent his childhood:
"Every kid needed to know how to shoot [and] what to do in case of war with the blacks. I went on weekend trips to the countryside with other AWB families for shooting practice and defense training." In one exercise, Pieter had to shoot cutouts of Nelson Mandela and other black politicians attached to hay bales to simulate an "invasion." They would also build pillboxes and electric fences for white families who requested them, every action pounding the same message into the brain of every member: It's us or them, and we must strike first.
You know, typical boyish antics.
Similar camps are still around today, incidentally, and are run by a not-even-trying-to-pretend-they-aren't-Nazis organization called Kommandokorps. Racism isn't always subtle, kids.
Imagine trying to have a thoughtful debate with this person.
So how did Pieter end up at a summer camp even Jason would steer clear of? His father was a member of the AWB, and some of Pieter's earliest memories are of him coming home from meetings and telling him stories about how much better South Africa would be once the subhuman blacks were gone. The AWB wanted an all-white country, and in their heyday they attacked blacks in the streets, assassinated politicians, and planned coups, all under a flag that looks super familiar, for some reason.
We can't quite put our finger on it ...
"You may remember getting read a bedtime story and triggering an interest in reading. For me, it was family trips to Ventersdorp [AWB HQ], seeing Eugene Terre'Blanche [the AWB's leader], and being taught from a young age why whites were better. When I was six or seven, [I was with my] dad at a park. He pointed to a white in a business suit and a black beggar underneath a tree. [He said] 'White men understand how to work, and it's up to whites to tell blacks how to work.' It's easy now to see how wrong that is, but when you're six, you believe what your parents say."
From left to right: Imperial Officer, Terre'Blanche, racist Village People cosplayer.
"I was taught that whites were 'scientifically' smarter and built up the country, while [blacks] sat and did nothing. I was told about how other black-run countries in Africa fell into war and communism -- it was up to white Afrikaners to keep a nation of stability. The fewer blacks, the better off it would be."
Pieter was never exposed to any other beliefs, because violent racists tend to not be big on presenting a balanced view of issues. "Only one person I knew thought differently: my aunt, whom we never talked about unless 'subversive whites' were brought up. Unlike her siblings, my aunt hated the system after she was told to cut all ties with her black friends at age 12. As soon as she could, she moved out." Pieter didn't even consider making that same choice because, well, why would he? According to everything he'd been raised to believe, it'd be the equivalent of one of the Walking Dead survivors deciding to join the zombies.
Love Is Earned With Violence
The majority of AWB members were weekend white supremacists -- they'd show up to rallies and wave flags, but they'd never do anything illegal. The people who actually committed acts of terror were a smaller clique of hardcore believers, and if someone wanted in, there was only one way to prove their worth. "If they saw an AWB member beat down a black guy, then they might be ready for our faction. I still remember my dad watching TV with others when [a violent incident] was reported and he would go, 'We need [the perpetrator]! Let's meet him outside the jail.'"
Most young males are born with a biological urge to earn their fathers' approval -- there are kids out there who played sports they hated for 12 straight years just to get a pat on the back from dad. Well, Pieter's father gave his thumbs up to guys who beat up black people, so that's what Pieter did. "All the young members did. We felt like it was making a difference. It showed our superiority. It made our parents proud that we were doing our part. It started out with little things -- we saw a black kid our age, we threw rocks at them. One of my neighbors was an elderly man who would cheer us on if it happened near his house. 'Get that kaffir!'" [Note: "Kaffir" is basically South Africa's n-word.]
Which means really making sure you correctly enunciate your coffee order over there.
Apartheid began to end as Pieter entered his teens. This was the AWB's apocalypse, so they took action. "We went out to find blacks to beat. I was 13-14 years old, and we were upset that things were not going our way. Sometimes we threw bricks at a house we thought an ANC [Nelson Mandela's political party] supporter was in and ran. Other times we spotted someone wearing African colors (green, yellow, black) and beat them. We were taught to focus on the soft areas. If they fall and curl into a ball, go for the space between the rib cage and the hip -- chances are they would flop open and we could get back to more vulnerable spots."
Pieter believes he beat at least 20 people, if not more. And it worked -- he earned his father's approval. "My dad once got me an authentic WWII Nazi badge because of how proud he was when he found out how I was doing my part. I still have it."
If it's any comfort, this badge represents one dead Nazi.
You Slowly Begin To Notice Society Turn Against You
So by now, you're probably wondering how the roving gang of racists with Nazi insignia who committed assault in the streets managed to get away with all of this. Only an estimated five to seven percent of white Africans overtly supported their movement, but you'd be surprised at what leniency that bought them.
"There were a lot of AWB when I was growing up, and many in power looked the other way. Everyone I attacked didn't contact the police. My dad, who did more violent things, was never once visited by the police. In 1993, AWB (including my dad) broke into [negotiations to end apartheid] by driving a car through the front of the building, yelling at politicians and urinating everywhere."
There are two kinds of people: Those who have a childhood story that ends with "And then my dad urinated everywhere" and those who don't.
There were zero arrests, as many policemen sympathized with the AWB. But there were signs that the culture was starting to turn against them. "We were taught to use 'kaffir' as the name for blacks. Even in the apartheid government, it was largely illegal to say. In the multi-race but segregated army, calling a black soldier that would get you punishment. That's how bad it is. In Blood Diamond and Lethal Weapon 2, the black characters' extremely angry response is downplayed from what it would be [in real life]."
But as apartheid started going out of style at approximately the same rate as parachute pants, the now-multiracial police stopped turning a blind eye. Pieter recalled the aftermath of the Battle of Ventersdorp, a violent confrontation between the AWB and the police which left three AWB men dead. "My dad knew some of the people. Angry, he called some other members and left that night. He came back in the morning with blood on him. That breakfast, he talked about beating blacks for what 'they' did and wanting to even the score. That encouraged me to go out with my friends and do the same. I was only 12, but we still went out to search for someone to injure."
"And take some of the second-graders with you. Time they started pulling their weight."
That did not work out well for Pieter. The tables were turning in the streets, too. "I remember grabbing a black kid wearing a green shirt. As soon as I landed the first punch, he cried out. One of the people I was with yelled, 'On the fence!' I looked up and saw five black kids climbing up with bricks. I think it was a setup, because we were being pelted by them as we ran back to the white neighborhood. I was bleeding in the leg when I got back. My mom was concerned until I told her I was a fight with blacks. 'That's like them, isn't it?' was her only response as she bandaged it."
It Takes A Lot Of Disillusionment To Break Out Of Your Programming
The human mind is almost magically resistant to having to admit it was wrong. Even after Ventersdorp and his own beatings, Pieter says, "My belief was unwavering. If anything, losing to the blacks made me believe in the cause even more. Then came the battle of Bophuthatswana."
Quick history lesson: The apartheid government shoved various black ethnic groups into a variety of pocket-sized puppet states and gave them token sovereignty in exchange for being forced to live in glorified slums. The Republic of Bophuthatswana, commonly called "Bop," was one of them.
It's all the red bits.
Life in Bop sucked about as much as you'd expect, so when South Africa was preparing to hold its first multiracial elections in 1994, Bop residents wanted in on that whole democracy thing and staged protests demanding it. It was clear how they would be voting if allowed to take part (that is, against the turbo-racist faction), so AWB rolled in to encourage them otherwise. They tried to accomplish this by driving trucks around and firing wildly at civilians, because violent racists generally aren't great strategists.
Ironic, given that they are from a race with "superior intellect".
But after the AWB killed some people, Bophuthatswana police started fighting back. Three AWB members were wounded, disarmed, and then executed on live TV. And Pieter's faith died with them.
"My dad was upset he got there too late, but he knew the AWB lost badly. I saw what happened on TV and I asked how many AWB died. He said none. When I told him about what I saw, he said it was faked. But everyone said we lost. I couldn't shake it off. If we were the best race, then why did we keep losing? We were always told other countries didn't appreciate what we were doing. Now maybe the reason the governments were trying to stop us was because we were [making things worse]. I went to my dad and brought this up, but the more he went on about needing separation of races and how we were still superior because they won by being more brutal, it hit me how much of it was bullshit. The AWB did way more brutal things."
To clarify, young Pieter saw the above on TV and admitted, "Yeah, we're still worse."
What hit Pieter the hardest was simply the fact that his father had looked him in the eye and lied to him, just to avoid having to admit that the story of white racism wasn't one of a steady march toward righteous victory. If you've never had to experience it, let us point out that the complete obliteration of everything you've ever believed in isn't an enjoyable experience. It's like simultaneously finding out Santa isn't real and that every present you ever got had been stolen from orphans.
"I can't tell you how much fear and apprehension I had that night ... I went to the library the next day to see international papers on the incident. I knew the AWB wasn't liked, but every article said we were hated." And so Pieter had his moment of realization:
"We were the bad guys."
Your Views Can Change, But The Guilt Is Forever
Pieter gradually stopped showing up to AWB meetings, and his dad noticed. "He confronted me. I told him all of those rallies and fights with the blacks meant nothing. He exploded back about what the family believed, and I told him I didn't know what to think anymore. My world was shattered at this point. He calmly said, 'We'll bring you to some meetings, and you'll get the truth.'"
If you ever hear those words, turn and flee.
So Pieter started hanging out with his non-racist aunt instead. "I told her my predicament, and I was honestly surprised when she hugged me." Unfortunately, his dad soon found out, and if you're thinking this story ends with the old man seeing the light, you're greatly underestimating the power of entrenched racism. "That night, I came back home to two suitcases outside the door. Just like that, I was cut off from most of my family." Pieter's aunt took him in and helped him along the long road to rehabilitation. For starters, he had to rid himself of that annoying little habit of constantly dropping his country's most offensive racial slur.
You remember the one.
"I embarrassed my aunt at the first dinner party she hosted because I called one of the black guests a kaffir. That was quickly remedied when she told him how I was raised in an AWB household and was getting away from that, but I remember that look of hurt and anger. I saw what the word really was for the first time."
But a human life doesn't come with a rewind button, and Pieter's past can't be undone. Think about the worst thing you did as a teenager, the memory that makes you cringe, that one you'd erase from your brain if somebody invented a machine that could do it. Imagine you have hundreds of many worse memories, of terrified faces of victims, of the sound of their screams. You could try to remind yourself that it was all brainwashing, that anybody would have done the same if raised in that environment. And yet your memories are not of someone else delivering the beatings. It was you.
You were there.
"I've ... tried to come to terms with what I did. All the people I beat, all the property destruction. I need to live with that. I was a different person, but that doesn't change what I did. The neighborhoods have changed so much since I did that, so I can't apologize or receive forgiveness. I sure as hell will never get closure on what I did in the AWB."
The AWB is mostly gone now, down to around 5,000 members from its '80s peak of 70,000. That's a sign of progress, and were this an inspirational movie, Pieter's dad would have come to a deathbed realization and told his son that he was proud of him. But sometimes doing the right thing means you don't get that happy ending. Pieter never saw his father again. According to his brother, right up until he died, "He never talked about me since the day he threw me out of the house."
Evan V. Symon was honored to speak with Pieter. If you have an awesome job/experience you would like to share, hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org today!
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Things I Learned As A Neo-Nazi and I Was Raised As A Racist: 6 Weird Things I Learned.
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