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From Covid-19 to 4IR: Exploring the influence of Emotional and Cultural intelligence on modern organisational structures and leadership  

Title: From Covid-19 to 4IR: Exploring the influence of Emotional and Cultural intelligence on modern organisational structures and leadership

Author: Dr Eben Haeser Swanepoel

Orcid Id: 0000-0003-3205-5244

Postdoctoral Researcher, North-West University, Economic and Management Sciences, GIFT.

PhD: Psychology of Education (UFS), M.Ed Psychology of Education (UFS), Hons Psychology (UNISA), B.Ed FET (UFS)

Ensovoort, volume 41 (2020), number 10: 1


Covid-19 has redefined the traditional workplace, unifying the place and space aspects of workforce systems as working from home becomes central to sustain industry and service delivery. With rapid digitization, social, physical, and digital realms are becoming increasingly obscured. Management needs exceptional emotional and cultural intelligence skills to align practices and sustain workspace well-being and employee motivation. But how has Covid-19 set in motion the need to adjust to new ways of collaborative practice and employee motivation within times of uncertainty, especially as this opportunity serves as a platform to articulate leadership strategies aligned with the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This article forms a desktop review which conceptualises the need for modern management practices to employ Emotional and Cultural intelligence strategies as a basis for preparing for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It is furthermore recommended that leader-employer emotional and cultural skillsets be improved to enhance individual and group autonomy during disruptive periods that necessitate change.

Keywords: Emotional Intelligence, Cultural Intelligence, Management, Covid-19, Fourth Industrial Revolution

1. Introduction

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) has situated South Africa’s world of work within a changing workplace environment characterised by disrupting technological advances such as robotics, Artificial Intelligence, and the Internet of Things (Butler-Adam, 2018; Kayembe & Nel, 2019). The Fourth Industrial Revolution is data and information-centric, and while the Third Industrial Revolution brought on the rapid digitization of content and increased connectivity, 4IR places global information and connected data systems at the centre of effective governance and production (Philbeck & Davis, 2018). Organisational success is no longer solely dependent on knowledge which is unyielding to change, but instead depends on dynamic skills that are necessary for adapting to, and prepare for, jobs which do not yet exist (Butler-Adam, 2018; Hattingh, 2018). Leaders are faced with the challenge of transforming organisations to align with external, global connectedness and competitiveness trends. They also need to guide employees through the uncertain world of reskilling, adjusting and adapting within their specific profiles so that they can remain relevant in future human-machine oriented workspaces (Oosthuizen & Mayer, 2019).

Covid-19 has resulted in major disruptions, calling for the restructuring of many organisations. Human-machine collaboration and the uses of AI for steering organisational integrity (Hillister, 2020) is also becoming increasingly important. The Fourth Industrial Revolution and a collective evolution of democracy 2.0 is critically dependent on principles of cooperation and collaboration. The new paradigm involves an outright rejection of traditional administrative notions of control held through top-down approaches (Tsekeris, 2019). Modern AI and digital technologies promote potentially rigid managerial control and technological systems which survey employee movement and interactions within the workplace (Mehta, 2018). Mpofu and Nicolaides (2019) reflect on the pressures on modes of governance facing the Fourth Industrial Revolution. They call on managers to reflect on employee relations and social justice as a cornerstone of realigning organisational culture with international trends. Personal values are central to how technology and systems are approached and implemented (Schwab & Davis, 2018). Modern leaders need to be conscious of how their personal values influence the process of implementing systems and technology within organisations as well as how they influence the overall morale and harmony within the broader organisational structure. Systems and information-sharing are symbiotic with human governance which are not value-neutral (Philbeck & Davis, 2018). Managers need to continuously reflect on their own potentially biased perspectives and values, which can deter organisational harmony when not approached with a mindful reflection of the broader employee system underlying the organisational structure. As such, the importance of role distinction and employee-employer relations should be carefully examined during times of rapid organisational change and globalisation. An ethical transitioning toward the shared vision of all stakeholders depends on it (Mpofu & Nicolaides, 2019).

South African systems are increasingly being pressured to adapt to globalised ideals while simultaneously adhering to national restrictions and equity boundaries (Oosthuizen & Mayer, 2019). With the prospect of many occupational profiles disappearing due to automation, and the uncertainty associated with many occupations becoming irrelevant (Eberhart et al, 2017), human resources and managers need a heightened awareness of employee-uncertainty to steer organisations successfully through disruptive changes. Furthermore, due to ongoing disruptions and organisational adaption through digital transformation, the role of management to steer both self- and employee motivation is becoming a cornerstone for attaining organisational vision and equilibrium (Govender, 2019). In 2020, the spread of Covid-19 saw a major disruption in workplaces, necessitating digitization and new systems for continued production and service delivery. It also highlighted the growing popularity of human-machine collaboration for curbing the spread of the virus. It shows the importance of human input during the creative use of digital systems and information sharing (Hollister, 2020). Covid-19 has forced South African organisations to not only adapt to systems, but also evaluate and reflect on the values that underlie leadership practices for the future world of work. As such, leaders need to show a heightened knowledge and sensitivity to the management of abrupt systemic changes for feedback and helping to maintain employee morale and motivation.

AI and smart systems can help curb the spread of Covid-19 and increase business output (Madzoe, 2020). But how the implementation of machine-systems influence human ethics and the social-justice aspect of harmonising human-machine collaboration at all levels of organisational structure, is not that clear. These disruptions require strong human-centric values and skillsets for human resources. Smart systems require leadership and employee well-being and resilience to help maintain the systemic integrity of the business throughout adapting periods. This paper explores emotional and cultural intelligence as critical skillsets for enabling organisations to adapt to rapid transformational periods whilst retaining systemic integrity and overall organisational harmony. This discussion is further informed by the role of ethics within organisational culture as a strong mediator of success and retaining systemic integrity during times of external pressure. The desktop review culminates in a model depicting how behaviour during rapid change on the part of both leaders and employees should be informed through skillsets associated with emotional and cultural intelligence to enhance overall organisational resilience and collective autonomy. 

2. Cybernetics: Steering sustainable governance during rapid change

The term ‘Kybernetes’ derives from the Greek word ‘steersman’ (Heylighen & Joslyn, 2001). This theory underlies the investigation of autonomous systems which proves valuable in this report for investigating how systems are constructed through the patterns and rules which underlie systemic boundaries (Becvar & Becvar, 2012). While Cybernetics found primary application through robotic and smart systems, wider use thereof has been documented as useful for exploring systemic social systems structures (Becvar & Becvar, 2012; Umpleby, Medvedeva, Lepskiy, 2019).

Banathy and Jenlink (2003) refer to the self-regulatory properties of systems through cybernetic theory and how stagnation or adaption of systems are influenced by the need to attain an ideal state of homeostasis and order at a structural level. First Order Cybernetic theory is concerned with the what counterpart and construct of the system (Becvar & Becvar, 2012). Steering research concerned with the rules and patterns of interaction between components of a system which inform the overall system’s structure (Swanepoel & Beyers, 2019), cybernetics provides a glimpse of the inner gears of a system which sustains the overall functionality thereof and differentiates it from other systems. Cybernetic theory refers to feedback (Becvar & Becvar, 2012) noise which is continuously at play and can necessitate structural change. Leaders who accommodate too much or too little feedback into, or from, the system, may be ineffective in adapting organisational structure to accommodate external feedback processes. However, the overall organisational structure and boundary encompasses the collective workforce culture and input, which situates cybernetics as a valuable theoretical foundation for exploring the structural composition of modern organisations and their differentiating factors compared to other similar systems.

Exploring boundaries and patterns of interaction within organisational systems becomes key to understanding how external pressures influence systemic integrity. Technological advancement and workforce automation are seeing new patterns emerge that define organisational systems. With changes brought on in the physical, social, and digital realms, organisations are continuously challenged to adapt to changing customer needs and trends (Bolton et al, 2018). With the physical realm obscured by the digital realm, especially during times when remote working is necessary, it becomes increasingly important to explore the social realm as a key contributor for mediating between the boundaries. There is continuous pressure on organisational systems to retain their structure or adapt. How organisational boundaries are constructed at various levels of automation and interaction is becoming an increasingly important topic to explore. The inner autonomy of organisational systems manifests in the digital or physical realm that connects with the public and other autonomous systems.

3. Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence as a construct is conceptualised in literature as a personality- or ability-based trait or competency, but up to the present still lacks a unified definition (Carmeli, 2003). A widely acceptable definition therefore is found through the work of Goleman (1995: 318), who defined emotional intelligence as “self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills.” Drawing on Salovey and Mayer (1990), emotional intelligence can be viewed as a set of cognitive abilities associated with effectively identifying, reasoning with, and subsequently acting upon, different emotions. Literature, in turn, shows that emotional intelligence is a critical and foundational aspect of modern leadership theory, and employee well-being and motivation. Literature further points to leadership and motivation as an activator for heightened emotional intelligence among employees, emphasising the reciprocal relationship among the two constructs (Swanepoel & Jonck, 2015).

Emotional intelligence informs skillsets associated with, and necessary for, leaders to assess and promote the relevant skill and knowledge development of employees towards the collective benefits associated with future organisational success (Calabrese, Hess & Bacigalupo, 2010). Effective leaders have the ability to perceive, comprehend and manage the emotions of others. Leaders who exhibit high EI proactively steer information and behaviour which enhances social relations and goal-directed behaviour among employees (Oosthuizen, 2016). Emotional intelligence, in turn, acts as a personal resource for employees which positively influences work engagement and coping abilities during high job demands and periods of increased systemic pressure and feedback processes necessitating change (Barreiro and Treglown, 2020; Shaik et al., 2020). Overall teamwork processes are enhanced through effective leadership, as  they promote alignment with complex goals as well as an overall improvement in decision-making and problem-solving (Clarke, 2009). Thus, while emotional intelligence holds significant individual value for employee morale and motivation, its effect on the motivation of team members is a synergetic process promoting overall group performance and output for the good of the collective goal (Boyatzis, Koman & Wolff, 2008; Guhman, 2011).

High emotional-intelligence competencies improve employee morale and the ability to adapt to, and accept, organisational change (Aslam, Muqadas, Imran, Saboor, 2018). Furthermore, employee engagement refers to the ability of employees to regulate the self and behaviour to promote organisational outcomes. Literature points to leadership activity as central to employee engagement and motivation to act autonomously. These behaviours are activated through leadership behaviour, with inspirational forward-thinking leadership shown to strengthen agency among employees to act with heightened resilience (Govender, 2019). Furthermore, high emotional intelligence shows a positive association with trust and integrity, which nurtures behavioural patterns and promotes the overall system’s ethical behavioural output (Fu, 2013).

As employee self-motivation to engage and act autonomously within the organisation structure is influenced through trust relationships both among peers and leaders (Human & Naudé, 2010), the use of smart systems and AI in workspaces necessitates collective input to sustain overall employee morale and workplace well-being. Leaders are continuously challenged to exhibit skillsets that involve mindfully sharing information to inspire employees, while also being challenged to re-evaluate the self and self-knowledge to successfully steer the organisation through the effects of internal and external sources of disruption. Given the many fears surrounding the use of AI in monitoring employees and the associated intrusions into information privacy, organisational leaders can use the Covid-19 situation as a way to get positive feedback about current systems and ethics in preparation for future pressures and maintaining employee motivation and morale in uncertain times.

4. Cultural Intelligence

Heightened cultural knowledge and sensitive judgment skillsets are required for leaders to steer organisational success during times of adaption. According to Thomas (2006) cultural intelligence is constructed through knowledge, mindfulness and behaviour, which promote effective behaviour when communicating across cultural fissures. Extending on the work of Thomas et al. (2008) Alon, Boulanger, Meyers and Taras (2015: 79) further state it is “a system of interacting knowledge and skills, linked by cultural meta-cognition, which allows people to adapt to, select, and shape the cultural aspects of their environment”. Cultural intelligence is the ability to optimise interaction within ambiguous and culturally diverse environments through drawing on social and cognitive resources to promote successful behaviour (Alon et al., 2016). In turn, this necessitates strong cultural knowledge and mindfulness on the part of leaders so that they can optimally navigate modern organisations. Cultural awareness and effective group-based knowledge subsume modern leadership theory and is key to adapting to challenges arising from impediments due to cultural diversity at both an inter- and intra-organisational level. An important component of cultural intelligence, judgment suspension, relies on leaders carefully evaluating incoming feedback, only acting once enough information is available (Triandis, 2006). Cultural intelligence acts as a buffer during times of uncertainty which requires a level of tolerance when it comes to confusion and skillsets for maintaining human-centric behaviour (Brislin, Worthley, & MacNab, 2006; Swanepoel & Jonck, 2015).

Fundamental to effective leadership is the process of instilling social influence. Employees are motivated to act with more positive emotions underlying behavioural input-output (Govender, 2019; Liu & Lui, 2013). Drawing on cultural intelligence, knowledge precedes mindfully disseminating information and collective-oriented behaviour. Modern successful leadership involves skillsets that promote employee motivation when it comes to acting with stronger levels of morality, self-agency, and motivation (Lam & O’Higgins, 2012). This requires human-centric knowledge and values which underly mindfully evaluating how the self and emotions are influencing, and are perceived by, employees during behavioural output.

Growing literature surrounding the importance of cultural knowledge and emotional skillsets points to the success of modern leadership and its being positively associated with employee motivation, overall group performance and followership behaviour (Boyatzis, Koman & Wolff, 2008; Jordan & Troth, 2011). Harnessing cross-cultural competencies becomes key to adapting to technological advances and changes brought on by new systems regulating communication through globalization (Alon et al., 2016). With an inherent cultural plurality being characteristic of modern organisational structures, systems of workplaces are often also geographically widely distributed across space and place, encompassing a highly multicultural and often multinational structure (Shaik, Makhecha and Gouda, 2020). Cultural intelligence shows a strong association with successful leadership during the rapid organisational change, due to globalization and connectedness through the Internet of Things. Leaders are challenged to establish sustainable intra-organisational harmony whilst simultaneously navigating inter-organisational relations. The responsibility to steer traditional employee mindsets to realign with changing organisational culture rests on leadership behaviour (Kunaka, 2019), reflecting the fundamental link of the leader at an internal and external level for retaining systemic negentropy (the ideal harmonic state of the overall system) during both internal and external feedback that may challenge systemic integrity. 

5. The role of Ethics during systemic adaption

A strong reference to the culture of ethics underlies leadership theory and its role in steering organisational sustainability during changes brought on by globalization and the Fourth industrial Revolution. Leaders motivate employees both in terms of morale as well as adaption and agency (Lam & O’Higgins, 2012). Successfully regulating emotions modelling delayed gratification and self-control have been shown to foster trust amongst employees. Trust, in turn, promotes stronger long-term relationship building and engagement among staff (Human & Naudé, 2010). Trust of the leader reflects the reciprocal feedback process of trust itself as a pattern throughout the organisational system. Leaders trust employees to act autonomously according to the envisioned value blueprint and organisational vision, while employees trust in the leader’s best judgment and practise. The collective motivation toward ethical behaviour represents an organisational boundary which differentiates organisations, especially on a digital platform, and acts as initial filter for incoming information and the elicited behaviour, enhancing organisational resilience.

The knowledge component of cultural intelligence encompasses knowledge associated with group ethics, norms, and economic and social group structures (Sharma & Singh, 2017). Through mindful reflection of the aforementioned, leaders motivate behaviour through output, which automates and inspires employees to behave accordingly. The collective organisational culture of ethics, mediated through high EI and CQ patterns, establishes organisational boundaries of autonomous systems. With the increasing digitization of organisational structures, the social component, both internally and externally, represent how organisations will be differentiated digitally, especially given the wealth of competing online platforms that emerge during globalization.

AI itself and smart systems bring about various new discussions on trust and organisational ethics. Covid-19 has seen the deployment of AI systems to survey virus spread and future trajectories (Greenman, 2020). However, there is a culture of public distrust of smart systems which need to be considered when systems are adopted. Successfully adapting to changes in organisational boundaries is dependent on employee motivation and skillsets, as well perceptions about such change. The need to transition fairly and sensitively becomes a challenge for many organisations, especially as AI is still undergoing rigorous testing and research for full scale sustainability (Madzu, 2020). The principles of fairness and trust within the organisational culture will drive the values and inherent ethics of the overall system. Leaders need to exhibit heightened technological knowledge and cultural knowledge which mediates behaviour toward the good of the collective. The second dimension of leadership involves forward thinking and vision and steers knowledge to enter the system which promotes employee knowledge and continuous autonomy.

6. Retaining systemic integrity and subsystems autonomy during disruptions and change

Technological advancement and automation have resulted in the advent of robotics and smart systems which radically transform organisation-customer relations. Today, in order to successfully adapt to ongoing disruptions, organisational management must offer a tailor-made customer experience that encompasses the digital, physical, and social realms (Bolton et al., 2016). Sufficient knowledge and skillsets in the social realm mediate challenges that arise in the physical and digital realm, and act as a key differentiator for enhancing customer relations. Organisational culture emphasising skillsets associated with emotional and cultural intelligence promote the human-centric nature of human-machine collaboration. Accordingly, leaders who promote employees’ personal wellbeing reflect values that nurture human interaction as central to customer satisfaction, as distinct from purely digital systems which are automated or based on Artificial Intelligence based customer service.

Globalisation calls for new managers that are strong in strong cultural diversity skillsets subsuming a keen awareness of the complexity that culture plays in sustaining systemic harmony (Jyoti & Kour, 2013). Further external system pressure challenges leaders to adapt to the dynamic and evolving nature of technological advancement in ways that call for heightened self-awareness, openness, resilience, and collaboration (Roux and Härtel, 2018). Digital teams are transforming modern practise in many organisations, and requiring leaders to re-negotiate how the social component of workplace well-being is sustained during times when face-to-face communication becomes challenging (Mysirlaki and Paraskeva, 2012). Leaders that adapt to digital innovations and advances show transformative vision and forward reflection. Such leaders model adaptive behaviour during the process of digitization and organisational change (Kunaka, 2019). The adaptability of leaders during organisational change largely subsumes how employees are influenced and motivated. Literature shows the importance of inspiring and exhibiting behaviour that reflects organisational vision as important qualities for modern leaders to possess (Govender, 2019).

How successfully leadership navigates disruptions in the physical and digital space is strongly mediated through the social realm and the maintenance of synergetic relations among stakeholders. The emotional and cultural harmony of an organisation not only helps the organisational system distinguish itself from other systems but also helps it align better and reach organisational goals as a collective during disruptions and change. Specifically, the shared domain of motivation is shown to be a core theoretical link which indicates leadership motivation and positively influences employee self-agency and self-motivated behaviour (Govender, 2019; Lam & O’Higgins, 2012). A group culture is formed through effective input-output patterns of communication informed by knowledge and values of group norms, values, and knowledge. A synergetic flow is stimulated within the organisational structure which becomes an organisational norm that guides collective behaviour (Ghuman, 2011).

Figure 1: Systemic depiction of an autonomous organisational culture with the Fourth Industrial Revolution

The above figure depicts the autonomous system and subsystems comprised of organisational structure and culture through C (Cultural intelligence) and E (Emotional intelligence). The overall system moves and is mirrored through the internal sub-system dynamics. Leaders primarily reflect organisational culture, and steer employees through input that, in turn, promotes self-motivation to exhibit appropriate behavioural output. As such, employees need to be motivated to act according to their respective sub-systemic boundaries of knowledge and resources of available skillsets. Leaders are the primary input for employees to be equipped with both skillsets and knowledge for adapting to future disruptions.

Short-term disruptions are managed by internal employee and group communication systems (for example when an employee becomes ill, or an interim manager is appointed). This process subsumes high emotional intelligence skillsets which demarcates autonomy within the boundaries of the overall organisational goals, values, and ethics. Certain pressures, however, necessitate long-term change which requires the whole organisational boundary to adapt, in turn rippling through to individual and group subsystems. In turn, should organisations choose not to act on incoming feedback to change, a strong boundary of sustainable goals, values and ethics will be needed to steer organisations through periods of change. This is found, for example, through employees globally being obligated to work from home during the Covid-19 crisis. Implementing digital systems as integrated organisational culture requires skilful navigation on the part of leaders which is informed through heightened employee skillset knowledge. Exhibiting heightened cultural intelligence, the leader becomes the primary buffer for effectively steering information through the system.

Cultural intelligence informs the closed boundaries of the system through reflecting both leader and employee behaviour, ethics, and norms. Specifically, rules are set forth through ethics and various regulations that stipulate norms for group and individual behaviour. The closed outer boundary is reflected and reciprocal with internal organisational culture among subsystems (and, as discussed, geared through emotionally intelligent employees). Enough positive feedback to the system, such as input that necessitates adaption, can be managed through steering systems behaviour among systems internally, or by changing the whole system boundary, necessitating internal subsystems to adapt thereto. Ideally, employees will be enabled to act by drawing on sufficient knowledge to align their behaviour with the organisational boundary of values, ethics, and norms. With or without the required knowledge or skillsets during disruptions, the emotional intelligence of employees will steer behaviour, which will help an autonomous system continue to function should employees be motivated to act according to the collective organisational culture.

Accordingly, indicative of recursion, the autonomy of internal subsystems at the smallest level contributes to overall system structure as much as the overall structures form a boundary to subsystem behaviour. The system’s continued functioning is as dependent on the person as the person is for it to remain functioning.

Systems encapsulating strong emotional and cultural intelligence are better equipped to sustain autonomy or to adjust to external or internal feedback. Leadership, embodying cultural knowledge of self, employees, and the organisation, informs the reciprocal relationship between EI and CQ of employees through mindfully opening and closing boundaries to promote knowledge and behaviour which is present-oriented and sustainable in forward reflection. As previously discussed, the knowledge and skillsets of employees need to be enhanced to remain sustainable in the long-term within the organisational structure, while the amount and speed of information requires mindfulness on the part of leaders to ethically and sensitively mediate through how boundaries are opened and closed. This, in turn, is informed by the employees’ readiness to adapt to incoming information, which is indicative of their own boundaries set through knowledge and values. Group culture and motivation is thus leader-employee interdependent, and emphasises the cornerstone role of the social realm in systemically adapting through individual autonomy.

Group culture and autonomy are implicated within disruptions in the physical (Bolton, 2018). This shifts the primary system of communication to the digital mode, requiring high-order knowledge reasoning and communication skillsets among subsystems. Rapidly implementing systems, or re-arranging systems, without knowledge of, or concerns for, data privacy, individual needs, and ethics, can cause leaders to undermine employee motivation and morale or deter goal-oriented behaviour. The social realm bridges digital and physical boundaries and as shown within this article, require emotional and cultural knowledge and skillsets among leaders and employees to enhance communication within the digital realm. Employees are required to exhibit heightened motivation to act according to the benefit of the organisational culture and system, and in turn establish these norms and values in the digital realm for the sustainability of the overall boundary to retain integrity within the digital space. Individual self-autonomy becomes key to systemic integrity (Becvar and Becvar, 2012), and where the physical realm extends space between the workforce, the overall system boundary should remain structured through internal behaviour. Leadership, in turn, adopts information into the system through mindful knowledge of the collective needs. It sees organisational culture as being composite of employee subsystems and their interconnected and reciprocal roles in achieving the overall systemic boundary.

7. Implications for practice and concluding remarks

The disruptions brought on by Covid-19, as well as those pending through the Fourth Industrial Revolution, make it incumbent upon leaders to reflect on values and knowledge of systems, both digital and social, as a means to adapt organisational structure and continue to function. Such disruptive changes, often at a pace exceeding sufficient knowledge resources, require heightened autonomy, communications skillsets, and motivation within a sustainable organisational culture, to retain integrity. This article points to emotional and cultural-intelligence skillsets as pivotal constructs associated with effectively navigating human-centred systems through disruptive changes, which maintains overall systemic boundaries at an organisational level. Human resources are challenged to develop skillsets associated with CQ and EI against the backdrop of organisational norms and values that promote systemic integrity across physical, social and digital realms brought on by challenges and external disruptions.

In conclusion, leaders are continuously faced with the need to innovate according to external pressures and digitization. Employees and leaders should accordingly be developed to respond with autonomous, ethical and goal-directed behaviour. These abilities underly the concepts of CQ and EI which become valuable to tailoring training to include new skillsets and knowledge (through cultural intelligence enhancement) as a means to influence systemic adaption and harmony within all employee subsystems (patterns established through emotional intelligence). CQ and EQ measurements are of use in both assessing domains for skillset enhancement, but also to gain a collective description of the input-output dynamics of organisational systems. This knowledge will become key in establishing systems and knowledge for human-resource management that is aligned with Fourth Industrial Revolution trends. Disruptions in the physical continuously amount to organisations going digital and call for systems to be self-differentiating and autonomous. A heightened focus on emotional and cultural skillsets during training will enhance relations in the social realm, establishing autonomous sub-systemic behaviour during disruptive changes that are characteristic of the overall organisational system’s patterns as a collective.

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The blue-eyed devil rapists: An exploration of the discourse on Twitter around land thieves in a South African context

Title: The blue-eyed devil rapists: An exploration of the discourse on Twitter around land thieves in a South African context

Author: Dr. Burgert Senekal, University of the Free State.

Ensovoort, volume 41 (2020), number 7: 1


In recent years, anti-white rhetoric has seemingly increased in South Africa, with various researchers and Non-Government Organisations becoming alarmed at the level of antagonism displayed towards whites on social media. This study explores a large dataset consisting of over 18 000 tweets posted by over 10 000 users over a period of 288 days that mention land thieves. It is shown that the term is not only used to refer to South African whites, but also whites in general and Israelis, although almost ¾ of tweets refer to South Africa. Tweets referring to South Africa are explored in more depth, showing that whites are also referred to as rapists and racists, and that various topics, including the Covid-19 epidemic, are reframed in an anti-white discourse on Twitter. In addition, the article shows how prominent black political parties, their leadership and high-ranking public officials, take part in this discourse, with very little corrective action by the South African authorities. Suggestions are also made for further research.

Keywords: land thieves, South Africa, hate speech, Covid-19, social media, Twitter, Afrikaner, land expropriation


Apartheid is widely blamed by politicians, commentators, and academics for various contemporary problems in South Africa. For example, contemporary black poverty is frequently attributed to the legacy of apartheid (Lephakga, 2017, Goodman, 2017, and Maseko, et al., 2015). The same applies to the HIV / AIDS epidemic (Nkala-Dlamini, n.d.), unemployment (Republic of South Africa, 2013), racism (Thloloe, 2016), the energy-crisis (Hunter, 2015), violent crime (Gordon, 1998), xenophobic violence (Chengu, 2015), and rape (Armstrong, 1994). Desmond Tutu goes so far as to argue that apartheid is responsible for littering and car accidents (Anonymous, 2011b), while Andile Mngxitama of Black First Land First (BLF) blames storms (Anonymous, 2017a) and cyclones (Anonymous, 2019c) on white people and the legacy of colonialism.

Because the Afrikaner and other white South Africans are associated with apartheid, they also, according to some, are responsible for contemporary problems that are seen as a legacy of apartheid. As John (2019) argues, white South Africans, “have repeatedly failed to self-reflect on their privilege and to apologise fulsomely for their inhumane deeds.” This type of view holds all white South Africans accountable for apartheid, regardless of whether they were born before or after 1994 or had any direct involvement with the National Party (NP) regime or its security forces. Leon (2015) and Cardo (2016) point out the similarities between the contemporary construction of the white man as a scapegoat and what was previously blamed on the Jews. Cardo (2016) writes,

Trapped in a binary, essentialist cast of mind – where black pain and victimhood square off against white domination and privilege – their discourse has already moved from a regressive leftist fringe to the centre of politics. They view whites as aliens, or “1652s” in their jarring parlance; predatory immigrants who might, ultimately, be unassimilable into their new world order.

The current study explores the Twitter discourse around the term land thieves. As such, the study ties in with other studies that have investigated hate speech on social media platforms in South Africa, e.g. Oriola and Kotzé (2020), Ferroggiaro (2019), Oriola and Kotzé (2019a), Oriola and Kotzé (2019b), Kotzé and Senekal (2018), De Smedt, Jaki, Kotzé, Saoud, Gwóźdź, De Pauw, and Daelemans (2018) and Brink and Mulder (2017). However, while Brink and Mulder focus on media reports, Ferroggiaro uses interviews, and Kotzé and co-authors take a quantitative approach that includes machine learning, the current study takes a mixed-methods approach to investigate both the scale and intensity of hate speech directed at the white minority in South Africa. The goal is to explore a Twitter dataset compiled using the word pair (bigram) land thieves and identify some themes and features that could be investigated in more depth in future studies. The article also includes a detailed contextualisation and suggestions for future research.

Background to anti-white hate speech in South Africa

In 2011, Julius Malema, then the leader of the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League, threatened to take over the ANC if they did not adopt a policy of land expropriation without compensation (Anonymous, 2011a). In 2012, ANC Youth Leader Ronald Lamola provoked intense reaction when he said during a speech, “We need an act as forceful as war to bring it [land] back to the Africans” (Foster, 2012). In 2017, Julius Malema, then the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), reiterated during a speech, “The rightful owners of the land are black people. No white person is a rightful owner of the land here in South Africa and the whole of the African continent” (Malone, 2017). Malema also says that he established the EFF in 2013 to drive the policy of land expropriation without compensation, “We took a decision when we were formed in 2013 that our first non-negotiable cardinal pillar is expropriation of land without compensation. So we were not talking elections, we were talking why we formed the EFF” (Nkosi, 2018). Mngxitama, who was a founding member of the Landless People’s Movement in 2001 and later joined the EFF, also places land expropriation at the centre of BLF’s agenda, “I would like to see land occupations becoming a national feature in this country” (Zondi, 2017).

Jacob Zuma’s statements about land expropriation during his term as state president already led to whites preparing for a civil war in 2017 (Malone, 2017). On 28 February 2018, the South African Parliament undertook to reconsider Article 25 of the South African Constitution to allow for the expropriation of property without compensation. The discourse around the land issue centres on white / black identities, the “land thieves” versus the “dispossessed”, and the legacy of apartheid (Roelf, 2018, Mkokeli, 2018, Osborne, 2018, Chung, 2018, Harding, 2018, and Eloff, 2017). Julius Malema for instance remarked, “We must ensure that we restore the dignity of our people without compensating the criminals who stole our land” (Chung, 2018). On 4 December 2018, the South African Parliament voted in favour of the decision to consider the possibility of amending the constitution.

Conversations around land expropriation, in particular, are often accompanied by war talks (Gerber, 2018), and land expropriation is widely seen as a step that could lead to a civil war in South Africa. Roodt (2018) believes land expropriation will lead to a war in SA, and Pieter Groenewald, leader of the Freedom Front Plus, says in parliament, “If anyone in South Africa thinks they can expropriate land without compensation, they live in a dream. Let me put it bluntly, if you want to start a civil war in South Africa, do it. Do it”1 (Anonymous, 2017c). Cope’s President, Mosiuoa Lekota, also says that such a policy will lead to war (Phakgadi, 2018), which is also a statement made by Clem Sunter (Omarjee, 2018), as well as the daughter of Albert Luthuli, Albertina (Javier, 2019).

In recent years, racial tensions have been accompanied by calls for genocide made by militant black leaders such as Julius Malema of the EFF and Andile Mngxitama of BLF. In 2018, for example, Malema said he is not calling on his people to murder white people, “at least for now” (Mahlase, 2018). BLF’s Andile Mngxitama, in turn, made several statements against whites, the best known of which was the 2018 call to kill five whites for every black person who dies (Chabalala, 2018). Bell Pottinger was also contracted by the Guptas in 2016 to instigate a discourse around “white monopoly capital,” which contributed to racial tensions in South Africa (Segal, 2018, Anonymous, 2017b, John, 2017, Cropley, 2017, Withers, 2017, and Cave, 2017). The campaign included the establishment of Twitter accounts that posted more than 220 000 tweets, the establishment of anti-white campaign websites, the use of news agencies ANN7 and The New Age, and the funding of ANC activists (Segal, 2018). Mngxitama of BLF allegedly had financial connections with the controversial Gupta family and Bell Pottinger (Andersen, 2017, Anonymous, 2017b, Claymore, 2017, and Macanda and Cowan, 2017), something supported by Bell Pottinger’s targeting of Johann Rupert (Segal, 2018), which is also one of BLF’s primary targets. The African Network of Centers for Investigative Reporting (2017) also connects Mngxitama with the Guptas, while the US Department of State (2018) calls BLF a “front group formed in 2015 and financed by the prominent Gupta family”.

The EFF and BLF are not alone in targeting white people in their statements. In 2010, the Commando Corps (Afrikaans Kommandokorps) warned the Pan African Congress (PAC) after a call for the full-scale massacre of whites appeared on the PAC’s Facebook page (Jooste, 2010). In addition, Khoza (2017) and Steward (2016) note the increasing amount of hate speech against whites in SA, while a study by the South African Institute of Race Relations found,

… 61% of black respondents now agree that South Africa is a country for blacks rather than whites, while only 38% disagree. This suggests that ANC and EFF rhetoric castigating whites and demanding a major shift in the ownership and management of the economy may be having significant impact on black opinion (Jeffery, 2018).

Brink and Mulder (2017:11) also mention incidents such as then State President Jacob Zuma, who said during the ANC’s 103rd birthday celebrations in Cape Town in 2015 that Jan van Riebeeck’s arrival in South Africa in 1652 was the beginning of all South Africa’s problems. I quote four examples from Brink and Mulder’s report (statements are reproduced verbatim here):

  • Luvuyo Menziwa, senior official of the EFF Student Command and former financial officer of the Student Representative Council (SRC) of the University of Pretoria, wrote on Facebook, “Reasons I hate white people: white privilege, white dominance, white arrogance, white monopoly capital and white superiority. Fuck white people, just get me a bazooka or AK47 so I can do the right thing and kill these demon possessed humans.”
  • Bhefile ka Hlazo, a senior official at the Oudtshoorn municipality wrote on Facebook, “I will with no mercy cut their tongue out with a machete and I will enjoy to hear them begging for forgiveness.”
  • Velaphi Khumalo, a sports promoter in the Gauteng Department of Sport, Arts, Culture and Recreation, wrote on Facebook, “I want to cleans this country of all white people. we must act as Hitler did to the Jews. […] U you have the same venom moss. look at Palestine. noo u must be bushed alive and skinned and your off springs used as garden fertiliser.”
  • Benny Morota, a law professor at the University of South Africa (Unisa), wrote on Facebook, “i dnt entertain white cockroach like yourself . . . i dnt understand why you interfere in my black business … F*ck you pink white murderer . . . Enjoy the blood wealth of our people, your time to pay with your white skin is emmenent.”

All these incidents took place on Facebook, but many of the hostile statements against South African whites are made on Twitter (Oriola and Kotzé, 2019a). Twitter is well-known to be a political platform, as Theocharis, Lowe, Van Deth, and García-Albacete (2015:203) argue,

Twitter’s quick flow of very short and direct messages calling for action can be very important for political activities because tweets can be easily and massively diffused across diverse social networks (and countries), and can attract the attention of previously uninterested and organizationally unaffiliated publics. As previous studies have suggested, these passing short messages may be catalytic in someone’s spontaneous decision to become involved in specific political acts online or offline, lending support to a certain movement.

While no official definition of hate speech exists, “it is hinged on incitement, which is an explicit and deliberate act aimed at discrimination, hostility and violence” (Oriola and Kotzé, 2020:21496). Oriola and Kotzé (2020:21497) define hate speech as, “unfairly discriminatory expression that demonstrates a clear intention to be harmful or to incite harm; promote or propagate hatred against a person or group of persons.” While the current study does not attempt to classify statements as hate speech, this definition should be kept in mind for the examples of tweets that follow.

Two major hate speech incidents took place on Twitter around the land issue in 2019. The first was following an accident at Driehoek High School in Vanderbijlpark where three schoolchildren died (a fourth died in hospital afterwards). Siyanda Dizzy Gumede wrote on Facebook that he had no sympathy for the children (which he assumed were white), as there was now “minus 3 future problems” (Anonymous, 2019a). Lindsay Maasdorp of BLF wrote on Twitter that Gumede was correct, “Why should we frown on the ancestors’ petitions to punish the land thieves including their offspring” (Friedman, 2019). BLF was subsequently reported to the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), but their initial conviction was overturned in the South African High Court and they were not prosecuted (Seleka, 2019, and Cilliers, 2019). Several other users expressed their support for Gumede on Twitter (Greeff, 2019) (these accounts were subsequently deleted), although commentators, both white and black, predominantly condemned Gumede and Maasdorp’s views. John (2019) however, defends these anti-white views,

The Hoërskool Driehoek incident has put a spotlight on unaddressed black anger ensuing from years of apartheid and failure to have authentic conversations about its legacy and impact on black people’s mental health, who are being forced to repress justifiable feelings of anger and pain.

On 14 June 2019, Zindzi Mandela, daughter of Nelson Mandela and South Africa’s current ambassador to Denmark, posted a series of messages on Twitter, including,

“Dear Apartheid Apologists, your time is over. You will not rule again. We do not fear you. Finally #TheLandIsOurs,” “[…] Miss all these trembling white cowards, shem. Botha, Potgieter, Thieving Rapist descendants of Van Riebeeck, etc: how are you my babies?[…]” and “Whilst I wine and dine here ..wondering how the world of shivering land thieves is doing #OurLand.”

The tweets sparked intense reaction on Twitter and in the media, with several political and civil rights organizations demanding her dismissal (Rooi, 2019, and Krige, 2019). On 18 June, the EFF’s Mbuyiseni Ndlozi said in a statement that Zindzi Mandela, “correctly tweeted about the need for black people to get their land back from white land thieves and racists” (Maromo, 2019). BLF also aligned themselves with the EFF in her defence (Mvumvu, 2019). Many black Twitter users continued to support her, including with the hashtag, #HandsOffZindziMandela. In the end, Naledi Pandor, international relations minister, reprimanded Zindzi Mandela (Anonymous, 2019b), but there was no question of legal action or any form of punishment. On the other hand, on 19 June, the ANC indicated that they would file a complaint of crimen injuria against Steve Hofmeyr after he responded to Zindzi Mandela on Twitter the previous day, “Effectively, I AM your boss. You WILL jump when I say so and you WILL ask how high. And when you come to take our livesandland, you WILL die. Our contract is that simple. And don’t you forget it” (Regter, 2019).

The cases around Driehoek High School and Zindzi Mandela are, however, only two incidents that have become well-known; there are many more. Kotzé and Senekal (2018) note a few instances in the Twitter discourse around the Afrikaner town of Orania, for example, “How about we accidentally get our hands on some grenades and start genocide? Orania is a good place to start.”

Brink and Mulder (2017) showed that the ANC government and the SAHRC are extremely slow to act against black South African government officials and political party leaders that call for violence against whites, while whites that make statements deriding blacks are punished swiftly and severely. Black perpetrators usually receive only a warning, while whites such as Penny Sparrow and Vicki Momberg received large fines (and in the case of the latter, was given a jail sentence). Note also that the Driehoek High School and Zindzi Mandela incidents followed the same pattern as identified in Brink and Mulder’s (2017) earlier report, namely that the cases involved a black government official and a leader of a political party, but they were not prosecuted. The ANC however filed charges against Hofmeyr.

Because these incidents only represent the best-known and most publicised cases of inflammatory speech in South Africa, tweets were collected that refer to land thieves in general. The following section outlines the methods used in the current study.


Tweets containing the word pair (bigram) land thieves were collected from 2019-06-17 (Zindzi Mandela’s controversial tweet was posted three days before on 2019-06-14) until 2020-03-31. This bigram was chosen after various experiments that investigated terms associated with harmful language, and is also one of the terms listed in a recent report on hate speech in South Africa (Ferroggiaro, 2019). This is considered to be a particularly offensive term in the current South African context, as Ferroggiaro (2019:17) remarks, land thieves, “may suggest that white people don’t have a birthright in the Republic of South Africa,” and the term, “demonizes a whole group as criminal and as lacking rights to the land they own.” In other words, the term in effect denies citizenship to the white minority in South Africa and depicts them as criminals. The term has become so commonplace that one user in the current study remarked on 2020-01-01,

In South Africa white people in general are referred to as: Land thieves 1652s Mlungus (scum) Rapists Slave owners Privileged Racists Bad Whiteness This is everyday stuff. We are the only race that is expected to be ashamed of themselves. I say fuck that. #ItsOkayToBeWhite.

Note the terms mlungus and 1652s: while these terms are not investigated in the current study, mlungus is included in the report by Ferroggiaro (2019) and 1652s is mentioned by Cardo (2016). Tweets are currently being collected by the present author that mention 1652s and will be investigated in a future study.

Along with tweets, metadata that was collected include the date and time of posting, usernames (which, for ethical reasons, are not reported in the current study), as well as user locations, number of likes and the number of retweets a tweet received.

In total, 18 031 tweets posted by 10 478 users were collected, of which 6 926 tweets were unique (the rest being retweets). A cursory reading of tweets however showed that not only white South Africans are referred to as land thieves: the bigram is also used to describe Israelis, white Americans, Brazilians and others. In order to determine the extent of the view that white South Africans are considered to be land thieves, tweets first had to be classified according to the country they refer to. A list of keywords was compiled from reading through tweets to classify tweets as referring to a specific country. Sometimes usernames were used to associate a tweet with a country, e.g. South African news agencies (@News24, @jacarandafm, and @BDliveSA) and politicians or political role players (@Natasha9Mazzone, @PresidencyZA, @FloydShivambu, @afriforum, @Lesufi, and @Our_DA). In a small number of cases, the country of the user was used to determine which country he/she was referring to. In total, a list of 382 keywords was compiled that associates tweets with specific countries. Table 1 shows 20 examples of keywords associated with countries.

Table 1 Twenty examples of keywords associated with countries



  1. malema

South Africa

  1. effgroundforces

South Africa

  1. blf

South Africa

  1. boer

South Africa

  1. jew


  1. palestine


  1. american

United States

  1. zindzi

South Africa

  1. anc

South Africa

  1. riebeeck

South Africa

  1. IDF


  1. ernstroets

South Africa

  1. zuma

South Africa

  1. israel


  1. #nhs

United Kingdom

  1. effsouthafrica

South Africa

  1. jerusalem


  1. ramaphosa

South Africa

  1. mandela

South Africa

  1. wmc

South Africa

Tweets were linked to 23 countries with these keywords, with the majority of tweets (74,89%) referring to South Africa, followed by Israel (7,48%), the United States (4,19%), and Brazil (1,03%). The rest of the countries received less than 1% of tweets. Table 2 shows ten examples of tweets associated with specific countries. Examples are sorted from oldest to newest, and tweets are given here verbatim, as in other examples included in the current article.

Table 2 Ten examples of tweets associated with specific countries





  1. Actually America wasn’t built by immigrants it was built by White supremacists. If you want to compare modern immigrants to the settlers you’re basically saying modern immigrants are genocidal land thieves Lololol nice narrative you got

United States


  1. #Israel’s skin #cancer rates second highest in the world. #skincancer is nature’s way of saying to Israeli land-thieves you ain’t indigenous to #Palestine #WorldCancerDay2020 #WorldCancerDay #FreePalestine



  1. There is nothing special about the Boers they are just land thieves responsible for the forever poverty of Africans

South Africa


  1. Land thieves and occupiers in a panic #coronavirusuk #CoronaVirusUpdate #COVID19 #coronavirus #FreePalestine RT @user: Israeli settlers increasingly panicked. In one day more than 100 positive settlers of the Corona virus. So far the total number of positive Corona sufferers in Israel has reached more than 433 people and 6 are in critical condition. #Group4Palestine



  1. I truely pray that Covid-19 is gentically designed to wipe out the immigrant land thieves mankind killer zionists.



  1. Cyril is a puppet for land thieves

South Africa


  1. Because @realDonaldTrump is just as kak skelm as a boer. Land thieves all of you

South Africa


  1. Two land thieves who’s parents looted our country have pledged R2 billion and we are applauding. No questions about where the money comes from. Interesting…

South Africa


  1. Land Thieves from Russia and Eastern Europe



  1. Forget our frontline #NHS staff, we need to look after the parasite land-thieves who live in a castle with a gold-plated shitter. You can be sure that ALL other royals have been tested too. #abolishthemonarchy

United Kingdom

Note that tweets 2, 4 and 5 mention land thieves in terms of illnesses in reference to Israel, the latter two referring to the Covid-19 epidemic in 2020. This phenomena of framing an event in terms of land thieves will be returned to later in a South African context. Tweet 8 ties in with this phenomenon: this tweet refers to Johann Rupert and Nicky Oppenheimer donating R2 billion to help with Covid-19 (Head, 2020). As noted earlier, Johann Rupert is often criticised by BLF as an embodiment of “White Monopoly Capital”, the phrase marketed by Bell Pottinger. Tweet 10 in turn uses Covid-19 to criticise the British royalty.

Some tweets could not be associated with specific countries. Table 3 shows examples of tweets that do not clearly associate the tweet with a specific country. Tweets are sorted from oldest to newest tweet.

Table 3 Five examples of tweets that could not be associated clearly with a specific country




  1. Land thieves are savages. A savage will never agree to take responsibility for it’s larceny, it’s plunder and murder. That’s why they are called savages.


  1. U r land thieves, murderers and imbeciles who fk up ecosystems, then try to grow fake food….


  1. ‘Settlers’ is a soft word for ‘land thieves’


  1. Land thieves 😂😂😂😂#Twitter30Seconds


  1. Typical land thieves

After reading the context of Tweet 1, it became apparent that the user probably intended the term land thieves to denote all white people, regardless of in which country they reside. Although this tweet would include South Africa, it was excluded in the analysis for not specifically referring to South Africa. Ultimately, 1 776 tweets (9,85% of tweets), could not be associated with a specific country.

In total, 13 504 tweets (74,89% of the total number of tweets) are associated with South Africa, along with 7 333 users (69,89% of the total number of users), and 4 439 unique tweets (64,09% of the total number of unique tweets). This shows that the bigram land thieves is overwhelmingly associated with South Africa, with almost ¾ of tweets referring to South Africa. At the same time, not all references to land thieves refer to South Africa, with Israelis also being accused of being land thieves in a substantial number of tweets (7,48%). This association is interesting, given that the word apartheid is used so often in the context of Israel that it could not be used here as a keyword to link tweets to South Africa.


Tweets were placed at an average of 62,61 tweets per day over the 288-day period considered here (2019-06-17 to 2020-03-31), but tweets referring to South Africa were placed at an average of 46,89 tweets per day. For all tweets, users mentioned land thieves at a rate of 1,72 tweets per user, but for South African tweets, the rate is 1,84. This shows a larger commitment on the part of users referring to South African land issues than for others; note also that while almost 75% of tweets refer to South Africa, only 70% of users refer to South Africa. This means that users referring to land thieves in a South African context are more inclined to mention the term more than once than is the case for users referring to land thieves in other contexts.

The most retweeted tweet in the total dataset (retweeted 1 081 times) was posted shortly after Zindzi Mandela’s abovementioned tweets, and reads, “Retweet To Annoy Land Thieves ✊🏾 ✊🏾 ✊🏾#HandsOffZindziMandela.” In addition, the second most retweeted tweet in the total dataset (retweeted 453 times) is an official EFF rendition of this tweet, “@Effgroundforces: Retweet just to annoy land thieves and ANC empty heads #SONADebate.” Since retweets are usually an indication that users endorse a tweet (Shin, et al., 2016:1218, and Bruns and Burgess, 2012:803), this shows the extent to which the land-thieves narrative has taken hold in South Africa. Table 4 shows the tweets that refer to South Africa that were retweeted the most. Usernames are only included if they refer to major political figures or political parties.

Table 4 The ten most retweeted South African tweets


Retweet Count

  1. Retweet To Annoy Land Thieves ✊🏾 ✊🏾 ✊🏾#HandsOffZindziMandela


  1. @Effgroundforces: Retweet just to annoy land thieves and ANC empty heads #SONADebate


  1. Leadership BLF for Life that is me and BLF President Andile Mngxitama told Land thieves to go Holland where they belongs too, viva BLF viva Azania Izwe Lethu ✋✊


  1. Consistency!!! the message haven’t changed so there is no flip flopping 👇 this gospel was preached in the ANC until the house negro party expelled our leaders because they are protecting land thieves #TheLandIsOurs.


  1. The president of South Africa calling my forefathers land thieves and celebrating the Zulu warriors that attacked them without cause. The Rainbow nation is a myth We are not the same We are not stronger together F Ramaphosa F the ANC #OnsLand #Geloftedag #SouthAfrica #WeAre1652


  1. Such obviously foolish policy!!! Why encourage people to “donate” stolen land? Asking land thieves to donate it’s like they are making us a favor for returning the land.


  1. Malema accuses all white people of being murderers, rapists and land thieves. No social media or MSM coverage. The one MSM outlet that decided to cover it makes the focus of the article Helen Zille. You can’t make this shit up. Share my video far and wide:


  1. As if this wasn’t enough. No white racist will bully Sis Zindzi and get away with it. Not on our watch If there’s anyone to win this fight it is us, the African people of SA. The land is ours and will be expropriated without compensation The land thieves mustn’t bore us. Enough


  1. How are the Van Zyls different from the Guptas in as far as State Capture is consent? [20 Marks] NB: The Van Zyls are one of the most notorious Land thieves in the Country


  1. “I’m not Zuma fan but….” Each time a sentence starts like that, you must know that reality has hit home and a native is fast realizing that he/was played by land thieves to hate @PresJGZuma for nothing. Mr Zuma remains the only President of Native Africans in South Africa.


While tweets 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, and 10 reinforce the narrative that South African whites are land thieves, tweets 5 and 7 oppose this narrative. The current study does not differentiate between tweets that are supportive or unsupportive of the narrative that whites are land thieves, because the goal is to determine the extent to which this narrative has taken hold and even tweets that deny this narrative acknowledge its existence. In other words, a user that claims that he is not a land thief admits to the existence of the narrative just as much as a user that accuses others of being land thieves. Future studies could however classify tweets as supportive of this narrative or not. Nevertheless, the examples in Table 4 show that tweets are overwhelmingly supportive of the narrative that whites are land thieves.

While the most retweeted tweets show how Twitter is used to reinforce and promote the narrative that whites are land thieves, even by an official account of the EFF, numerous other tweets phrase the issue in stronger terms that could be classified as hate speech with the abovementioned definition by Oriola and Kotzé (2020:21497). Table 5 provides ten examples of such tweets. The table is again sorted from oldest to newest tweet, and tweets are again reproduced verbatim.

Table 5 Ten examples of strongly-worded tweets




  1. Rapists, murders, land thieves, devils, Satan’s, racists, blue green eyes, connivers etc arrived in this ships, Dromedaries, Goede hoop and Heldekruin


  1. As a child of land thieves and a direct beneficiary of apartheid, you have a right to shut your white whole and continue benefiting in the name of our forefathers bloodshed


  1. Christians like this one are plain stupid bcs they take everything in the Bible they did not write as a gospel truth irrespective of what they know from our history that this Christianity shit was used to brainwash us by land thieves and invaders of our land.


  1. Actually the only reason SAA should fly to Britain is extradition of White Land Thieves back home, Afrika would be helping the Brixit call


  1. Is this how we going to get the land back. Dead land thieves tend to leave the stolen land with their elderly desperate widows😂🤣😂


  1. The Sun burning the hell of pinkish remnant of land thieves 😩😩😩


  1. Whether you like or not, we getting our land back. Land thieves nearthendals are emboldened by the useless constitution. The enemy of Africans, Asians, Arabs, Latinos, Native Indians is nearthendals aka the devil(pale people).


  1. And that’s all that surprises you. I agree they should have.. with the intended passengers inside.. Actually I wish it was 1652 not 1952 and they burnt those ships carrying scurvy infested land thieves and rapists… then we would not have you tweeting crap.


  1. Voetsek bloody filthy pinkish PIG…Land Thieves


  1. No worries. UKZN students who have been given a life line by #Duduzane who is hated by White Land Thieves for being Black #Zuma. From now please don’t allow Van Riebeeck Descendants who arrived, raped n Killed blacks for their land to Tell u who u should like or hate RT @user: user Can Duduzane speak Zulu?

These tweets show a more overtly hostile attitude towards whites than the examples in Table 4: calling whites “devils” (Tweets 1 and 7), denying them a right to voice an opinion (Tweet 2 and 10), attacking Christianity (Tweet 3), asking for whites’ deportation (Tweet 4), threatening to kill white farmers and implying a worse fate for their widows (Tweet 5, and note the laughing emoticons), and calling whites other names such as “pink” (Tweet 6 and 9) and “Neanderthals” (Tweet 7) (while the user had difficulty spelling this word, I assume he/she meant “Neanderthals”). Indeed, while Tweet 1 refers to whites as “devils”, Tweet 7 calls whites “the devil” (emphasis added). Note also how Tweet 7 expands the vilification of whites to include all whites globally: Tweet 1 in Table 3 showed a similar attitude, and indeed the occurrence of the bigram land thieves with reference to many countries shows an association between South African and American whites, as well as with Israelis.

Also note the use of the term racists (Tweet 1): this term has become synonymous with whites and serves a similar function as rapists by depicting whites as evil. In addition, the use of rapists when describing land thieves (Tweets 1, 8 and 10) is particularly noteworthy; 662 of these tweets (4,9% of tweets referring to South Africa) explicitly mention that whites are considered to be rapists, and bear in mind that Zindzi Mandela’s abovementioned controversial tweets also call land thieves “rapists.”2 Table 6 provides ten additional examples of South African tweets that claim that land thieves are rapists.

Table 6 Ten examples of South African tweets that call “land thieves” rapists




  1. Khabazela you have no obligation to be responding to these land thieves, rapists, killers, liars etc. John 10:10 KJV — The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: It’s a useless exercise.


  1. Who stole VBS money? Now we are dealing with land thieves. We are taking back stolen land by murderers and rapists, using the powerful freedom charter. And you were part of the system that stole our land which makes you guilty of the fore mentioned things. Bloody thief


  1. Unrepentant people must not be celebrated. Proud, racists, land thieves, rapists and killers cannot be celebrated eventhough they developed where they were living


  1. If this is you line of argument, then it goes without saying that ALL WHITE SETTLERS here in SA are land thieves, murderers, rapist… for what their forefathers did…


  1. Never ever in my life I will do that… Just ask yourself about the offsprings of the rapist Jan Van Riebeeck like @user who has been in Africa from birth but he is still unable to read or write any African language. What does that tells you, wow these land thieves are filthy


  1. Ag you 😡what’s worse evil than what you did you murderers, rapists, land thieves and mineral looters? RT @user: @user DF Malan,HF Verwoerd,BJ Vorster, PW Botha were evil but pale in comparison with T Mbeki, Zuma.Stealing from poor, way worse.


  1. A product of land thieves, rapists and murderers is talking about a “credibility gap”…Wow!!!


  1. I ain’t got time for colonizers, land thieves, invaders, rapists like yourself


  1. No, it’s Apartheid Sympathisers like you who, refuse to acknowledge nor even admit the damage done by the apartheid system… Ofcoz u’r still a beneficiary of that system, so why would u…. Murderous, rapists and land thieves. Would never wanna admit to such crimes


  1. Look at the descendant of land thieves, mass murderers and serial rapists threatening a Black man while he hides behind a keyboard. You’d never say that to his face, coward. 🤫

Various topics are framed within the discourse on the land issue, even though these topics may initially seem unrelated to it. For instance, on Women’s Day (9 August 2019), a user tweeted, “While many people celebrate Women’s Day, we celebrate the Land of our forefathers that we fought for and took from white racist settlers. Happy LAND day to all those who contributed to the fight for the return of our land from the Land thieves.” Note again how the user calls whites racists. On 16 December 2019, another user tweeted, “On this day settlers celebrated their victory kwimpi yase Ncoma (The battle of blood river) more than 3000 of King Dingane loyal soldiers we slaughtered by gun wielding land thieves…..qubekani celebrate with them.” Another user reacts to an advertisement for a company in the following way (the company’s name and number were redacted for ethical reasons),

WOW u really make me laugh after the stress I get fro this land thieves,This is a joke of the year I believe? RT @user: We eat leftovers including alcohol at the weddings, burials, Baby Showers, and birthday parties. If you need us, please contact [number]. [company name]. Thanks! TandC’s apply.

With Covid-19 resulting in the lockdown of many countries worldwide in March 2020, the epidemic was also framed within the discourse on land thieves. Table 7 provides some examples of tweets referring to South Africa that frame the land issue in a Covid-19 context. The table is again sorted from oldest to newest tweet. One username is included in Table 7 (see below).

Table 7 Ten examples of South African tweets framing the land issue in the context of Covid-19




  1. Modimo o mogolo, this virus is for the Land Thieves.


  1. Dear Ancestors Thank you for sparing us from this evil virus. We appreciate that the land thieves are suffering from their evil deeds. We are very thankful to the rivers and mountains which they have fenced off. Die bo fuckingi


  1. Corona virus must visit all SA land thieves. I think “stolen land expropriation with zero cents shall be easy.


  1. Land thieves brought COVID19 in our beautiful Azania ,may the good ancestors wipe them all with this corona virus,so that will retain our land with less energy


  1. Africans are at work while the land thieves are busy buying everything of the shelves , while its them who bought this virus from their European homes


  1. @ZaneleLwana: Any black person affected by the deliberate spread of Corona Virus I wish for you speedy recovery and strength to those you know who have been hit by this pandemic. As for land thieves the message is clear really, I don’t really care. For so long the poor pays for your selfishness.


  1. The open border policy is all about Africans States not European thugs like Italians who will just enter African territory just to spread Corona Virus undetected like now.. Remember Corona Virus was brought in Africa by you Land Thieves


  1. EFF STUDENT COMMAND STATEMENT ON THE COMMEMORATION OF HUMANS RIGHT AMIDST COVID19 OUTBREAK. 21 March 2020. The COVID19 outbreak reminds us of the parasitic condition African people were subjected to because of foreign land thieves.


  1. We will die with the pinks. None is immune, no land thieves, or pink monopoly racist capitalist has a better chance. We are all the same now. Actually for now it seems worse for the pinks infact. RT @user: It gives me comfort to know that even though this virus was created by the evil white race to attack other races, they themselves are not immune to it. And we will die with as many of them this time unlike their HIV that could only spread through sex mainly. #CoronaVirusUpdate


  1. The defenders of land thieves RT @News24: Coronavirus in SA: ACDP’s #KennethMeshoe and #SteveSwart test positive

Note how these tweets echo the sentiments around Driehoek High School in that the users often rejoice in the suffering of others (Tweets 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9). Refer however to Tweet 5 in Table 2 above, which shows that the phenomenon is not confined to the South African discourse and others also rejoice in the suffering of Israelis during this epidemic. Tweets 4, 5, and 7 blame the epidemic on white land thieves, while Tweet 9 again calls whites pinks and racists, as highlighted in Table 5 as well. While usernames for most of these tweets are not included in the above table for ethical reasons, it should also be noted that Tweet 6 was posted by Zanele Lwana, the Deputy President of BLF, and Tweet 8 is from an official EFF account. In the case of Tweet 6, the indifference towards whites is explicit, while the reader should note the statement in Tweet 8 that refers to the “parasitic” relationship between “land thieves” and “African peoples”.

The above examples show a clear demonization of white South Africans as racists, rapists, land thieves, and devils. With 13 504 tweets (including retweets) and 7 333 users involved in this discourse, and a subset of 662 tweets calling whites rapists, the issue is far from insignificant. Add to that the fact that some of these tweets are official political party communications by the EFF and BLF, and that the South African ambassador to Denmark, Zindzi Mandela, tweeted the same content, it is clear that this topic warrants further study and political action, as discussed in the following section.

Limitations and future avenues of research

This article constitutes a first exploration of a dataset of tweets mentioning land thieves, and a number of limitations should be noted.

No attempt was made here to classify tweets as hate speech. Future studies could investigate the extent to which hate speech occurs and use the current dataset along with e.g. the method proposed by Oriola and Kotzé (2020) to evaluate the extent of hate speech around this topic. The author will make the dataset available upon enquiry.

Secondly, the current study only analysed tweets over a relatively short period (288 days), and future studies could investigate the use of land thieves over a longer period. It would for instance be informative to compare the number of tweets mentioning land thieves to the timeline of the Bell Pottinger campaign, which used social media to promote a discourse around “white monopoly capital” in order to divert attention away from the investigation into state capture by Jacob Zuma and the Guptas (The African Network of Centers for Investigative Reporting, 2017). Given the earlier-stated connection between Zuma, Bell Pottinger, the Guptas and BLF, my hypothesis is that the bigram land thieves became more prominent in 2016 during the Bell Pottinger campaign. A future study could investigate whether this is the case.

The current study is also not a comprehensive study of hate speech in South Africa. Future studies could investigate the occurrence of the term 1652s and the terms listed in Ferroggiaro (2019).

While this study started as an exploration of inflammatory speech towards whites in South Africa, one of the interesting findings has been that the same bigram used to vilify whites is used for anti-Semitic speech. Future studies could investigate the anti-Semitic component of this discourse.

Furthermore, no study of hate speech in South Africa aids in avoiding conflict or bettering race relations as long as the ANC-led South African government lacks the political will to prosecute black perpetrators. The report by Brink and Mulder (2017), along with the fact that many statements mentioned in the current study, including tweets considered here, are made by leaders of black political parties (such as the EFF and BLF), create a sense that only white perpetrators are prosecuted, while black perpetrators are condoned. Although Zindzi Mandela’s tweets fall outside the time period considered here, her tweets are evidently typical of tweets around land thieves, e.g. by referring to land thieves as rapists. No action was taken against her, despite the fact that she is a serving ambassador and hence a high-ranking public official with authority and a large number of followers. As one user tweeted in the current study (tweet posted on 2019-06-30),

Just hang on a sec. So it’s OK for blacks to call me and my ancestors rapists and land thieves but I go to jail if I call them a kafir. Are they for real. What a bunch of snowflakes. No wonder they spend their lives suffering and murdering and raping each other. RT @user: And yet racist chants and anti white threats go unpunished in SA. If you are white and say a naughty word…you will end up in jail. It’s ludicrous!

This perception that the law applies differently to people of different races is phrased explicitly in the official Shimla Park report (Van der Westhuizen, et al., 2016:76), which investigated the racial tensions at the University of the Free State in February 2016,

In the Panel’s view the remarks about “white bastards”, as well as “racism” and “racists” (like Penny Sparrow and Gareth Cliff) that must “literally fall” and go to the “grave”, do not amount to hate speech, or constitutionally unprotected speech in terms of section 16 of the Constitution. It might of course well be hate speech if a white person makes the same remarks about black people, given South Africa’s apartheid history. Given the context of the remarks, the anger is understandable and the figurative meaning is clear.

Unless political pressure is applied on the ANC, SAHRC and the South African courts to apply the law consistently, studies of hate speech in South Africa will achieve very little.


This study explored a large Twitter dataset collected using the bigram land thieves. It was shown that the occurrence of this bigram is not limited to South Africa, although around 75% of global tweets refer to South Africa. It was also shown how, in addition to calling white South Africans land thieves, they are also frequently called rapists and other derogatory epithets. In addition, it was also shown how various topics become framed in the discourse on land thieves, such as the Covid-19 epidemic. Various suggestions were also made for future research.

The most disconcerting issue highlighted in the current study is the level of vilification directed towards South African whites by black political parties and high-ranking public officials, as well as by their supporters, and the fact that such vilification goes unpunished by the South African authorities. In the wake of Nazi propaganda against the Jews prior to and during World War II, it should be seen as a clear red light when a majority uses its power to vilify a minority.


1 Own translation from the original Afrikaans, “As enige iemand in Suid Afrika dink dat hulle die grond kan onteien sonder vergoeding, leef hulle in ‘n droom. Laat ek dit volmondig stel, as jy ’n burgeroorlog in Suid-Afrika wil begin, doen dit. Doen dit.”

2 This phenomenon is not limited to the South African discourse. With reference to the United States, one tweet (posted on 2020-02-13) reads, “#Breaking #NewConstitution every single “Founding Father” was a human rights criminal abductors and rapists of women; human traffickers; murderers; land thieves their words of “democracy” were a joke it needs to be replaced by the enlightened youth of today.”


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