Dear Willem Petzer, this is why we didn’t ask you about that racist Discord chat

Here's a word of advice to people who don't want to be perceived as racists: don't tell the world you have the 'best' racist chat group in the country.

If you had asked me yesterday morning who Willem Petzer was, I’d have told you I hadn’t the foggiest. Neither myself nor most of the people I know had ever heard of the man. This website had never before reported on him either.

I know a fair bit more about him today. Considering that he and his small army of fans appear to believe The Citizen has done a grave injustice towards him, I thought it would only be fair to tell them why the young man wasn’t contacted about a story that included references to him yesterday.

Based on Petzer’s public comments about this article, he feels he has been defamed by our online news editor, Daniel Friedman. Petzer says he’s complained about it to the Press Ombudsman, and I expect we’ll be hearing from their office soon. I haven’t seen the complaint yet.

What we have already received, though, are a handful of upset emails to the newspaper editor, which no doubt came as a surprise to him. He hadn’t heard of Petzer either. He’s been forwarding the emails to me as he gets them.

Petzer has a tough case to make for defamation. In layman’s terms, in South Africa you can defame someone if you make a public statement about them that harms their reputation, and particularly if it affects their livelihood and does them unnecessary harm.

For the life of me I could not have imagined that a man who once asked people to join his chat group because it was “the best racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic and Islamophobic chat in South Africa” would then have a problem with us suggesting that he appears to be a racist. One would have thought that he would have taken issue with us for perhaps saying that his racist chat group was not the “best” one and we had found others that were more racist than his, or just “better” in some way at being racist.

I don’t know. I was genuinely astonished this morning to learn that Petzer appears to take issue with being described as someone who may be racist. But then I had to remind myself that it’s actually very rare, or nearly impossible, to encounter deeply racist people who are comfortable with calling themselves racist. Steve Hofmeyr, for example, once argued with me on Twitter that he wasn’t a racist at all. It seems that the story racists tell themselves is that they’re just “right” and everyone else is “wrong”, and anyone who can’t comprehend or acknowledge this supposed fact is just calling them “racists” because of their failure to be impressed by these lion-hearted people who are not afraid to tell the “truth”.

Petzer is the kind of guy who thought it would be a good idea to make a documentary titled “Crime Free Orania”, which is obviously racist on several levels. Whether his documentary is racist, I don’t know – I haven’t seen it – but a title that suggests a place that doesn’t allow black people into it has zero crime is going to be perceived as racist. I’m not disputing that Orania may not have crime (it very likely doesn’t), but the true reasons for that are doubtless quite complex and linked to the fact that Orania is a highly controlled, small, conservative Christian town that ruthlessly ejects anyone who even gives off half a hint that they may not be willing to conform. And even if a crime may happen from time to time in that place, do you honestly think they’re going to tell us all about it?

Maybe Petzer’s documentary explored all these sociological layers and approached the whites-only town with an incisive and critical eye. But I’m guessing it doesn’t, unless he meant that title ironically – which I’m also guessing he didn’t.

Speaking of irony, would Petzer have us believe that his invitation to his followers to join his “best racist” chat in the country should have been read ironically? Here it is, for those who haven’t seen the screenshot.

Maybe. I think it’s a good rule of thumb not to try to be ironic, though, when it comes to something like racism, which is not the kind of topic one should ever be too ambiguous about in this country. Would I ever intentionally write something that could justifiably be read as possibly racist? I sure hope not. Petzer had no such reservations.

If he meant it ironically, meaning that he didn’t want his Discord chat to express racist things, it would then indeed have been pretty ironic if his Discord chat ended up only being about cute kittens, cake recipes and nice things you can buy your grandma. But according to the screenshots we were sent of the chat group, it was indeed posting some very racist stuff.

If this went against Petzer’s hope that the group would not be racist, you might say that this was perhaps doubly ironic. Or you could just call it stupid.

And that’s what Petzer appears to be hoping we are. He claims that the Discord chat in which he clearly participated is not in fact his, nor is it the one he was so proudly advertising. He says people may have created online identities using his name and passing themselves off as him, but it wasn’t really him.

Pardon me for finding that hard to swallow.

He doesn’t deny that the screenshots are real, just that the group was set up by his “fans” and he had no control over it. He is now attempting to distance himself from the racist memes that were evidently a regular feature of the group. He denies any knowledge of any of this stuff, including a comment that apparently emanated from his Discord identity proudly proclaiming the usage of the k-word.

His fans appear to believe his story, and that’s nice for them I guess.

We didn’t see much point in contacting Petzer, because he had proclaimed that he had a racist Discord group, and then screenshots confirmed that he did. Our story focused primarily on whether Ernst Roets of AfriForum was willing to be linked to Petzer or to any of the racist sentiments that had been expressed in the Discord chat. Roets said he was not, and distanced himself from Petzer.

In this way, we got in touch with the person whose links to this far-right group might be damaging to his reputation, and incorporated his views. We couldn’t for the life of us have imagined that someone whose reputation appears to, in fact, be based on being a racist would need to be contacted about it, and it came as some surprise to us that Petzer is now disclaiming all responsibility for his apparent posts and the posts of his “fans”. One of his followers even suggested today on Twitter that intelligence services might be trying to discredit Petzer and that the screenshots were in fact faked.

But Daniel (the guy who wrote the story, remember) happens to know the person who gave him the screenshots very well. He had no reason to doubt that the information is real, or that the screenshots represented what they appear to. He has quite a few further stories he wants to write by the way.

Further food for thought for Mr Petzer is the fragility of his claim to being defamed. Our article, by his own admission, has not in fact lowered the esteem his community holds him in. He boasted on Twitter today that he’s been receiving lots of love and support following the publication of our story. He also said that we helped him to boost his follower numbers by 400 and had “done him a great service”.

Unfortunately, his parenthetical comment about how he was still unhappy about our “lies and defamation” therefore rings hollow. He can’t have it both ways. The simple fact is that our article was never intended to be some sort of exposé or revelation about him apparently being a racist. We just took it as a given that he is apparently a racist (since he appeared to create that impression himself), and is proudly so – and then looked at whether there were possible links with AfriForum, which always tries so hard to make the case that they are not racist.

There don’t seem to be too many downsides for Petzer here either. While he may have been a bit discomfited initially by having to deal with the existence of our article, it has probably just helped to make him a little bit more famous and, in return, more of the kinds of people who like the kind of person he is and the kind of messages he’s spreading will link up with him. Those followers he already has are clearly in any case disinclined to believe that he could have said what he said in the Discord chat (if they happen to disapprove of it, and I strongly doubt all of them do). Those followers have clearly already accepted that The Citizen somehow made it all up or republished things that were all made up. Those followers of his who happen to enjoy racist things will simply be even more impressed with him. So he hasn’t lost any supporters, as far as I can tell, or had his reputation harmed or lowered. In fact, we may have helped him to achieve a bit of mini-martyrdom status.

Then there are all the people who perhaps didn’t like him before and will probably like him just as little now. The remainder are people like me, who didn’t know he existed before and will happily go back to forgetting he exists shortly. Once again, no harm done.

I’m glad Petzer thanked us for writing the article. Willem, you’re truly welcome, Boet. Dit was ‘n plesier, ou maat.

As I told Daniel earlier today, if the ombudsman ends up making a ruling that a person who boasted about having a racist Discord group, and who then turns out to apparently have had a racist Discord group can then be ruled in favour of for being defamed in a website article that reveals his Discord group apparently turned out to be racist, that would be … I don’t know … maybe just another day in sunny South Africa.

But hopefully not.

Citizen digital editor Charles Cilliers

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