Hope Meets Hatred in South Africa

updated 04/09/1990 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/09/1990 01:00AM

The green veld of the Transvaal, rolling gently out from Johannesburg, appears to be a land of peace and amity. In the endless open fields, just a few people move slowly through the day, tending to no obvious business. Driving into Ventersdorp, a little farming town that wouldn't seem out of place in the U.S. Midwest, you proceed up its main street, past filling stations, shops and churches, and nothing breaks the placid mood. Then you notice the small brown building on the left; in its doorway hangs a banner with bent, angular black lines in a white circle against a red background. It is not what it seems at first glance, though clearly its designers meant to remind you of another symbol when they created this one. In fact, it only looks like a swastika.

Two months ago, when South African President F.W. de Klerk at long last freed Nelson Mandela, legalized the African National Congress and promised to start negotiations with his country's black majority, much of the world rejoiced. In a season of freedom, it seemed the beginning of yet another political miracle, like the sudden dismantling of the Berlin Wall. Change, however, will not come quickly or easily in South Africa. A foreign visitor to Johannesburg might be startled to see prosperous blacks eating in upscale restaurants and staying in fine hotels. But a visitor to Ventersdorp, just two hours away, soon realizes how bitterly divided the country remains. Here, simply by walking the streets and listening to the strong and varied opinions of this farming town's people, one can see how hard the struggle for peace and equality will be.

Eugene Terre Blanche sits in the back room of the brown building in Ventersdorp in front of one of the red-white-and-black flags, explaining his world view. "The revolution is coming," he says. "We will defend ourselves, our women and our property; we will not lose the war. We are from fighting stock. Freedom for the blacks is freedom to steal and to maim and to rape, and I'm not a racist when I say that. What can we tell them? Just that you have to look after yourself. We cannot look after you. You must buy your own cars, build your own house. That is what people all over the world do. But the Communists tell them, 'You can have this man's home; you can have the white man's motorcars.' And the blacks believe it."

Terre Blanche is a mesmerizing speaker, his brawny forearms slapping at the desktop to reinforce his points as his massive Irish wolfhound, Wolf, sits by his side. His electric brown-shirted presence at hundreds of rallies across the country has made Terre Blanche, a 46-year-old farmer, a national figure in this moment of South Africa's crisis. From this little building, he runs the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, and with his message of armed struggle against black power he has built an organization that, experts suggest, may speak for up to 10 percent of white South Africans. "I only want those parts of the country that are the property of the Boer people," he says. "For that, I will fight and die."

Terre Blanche has become a hero to many conservative Afrikaners—the descendants of South Africa's first Dutch settlers, although his name, which means "white land," marks him as coming from the French stock that, with the Dutch, constitutes the country's Boer minority. As he flies over this nation of 5 million whites and 27 million blacks, Terre Blanche speaks mostly in Afrikaans, and his words are always defiant. "Most overseas people do not understand our history. They think we stole the land from the blacks," he says. "Well, that's not true. What happened is, the white people moved from the south to the north. The Transvaal was vast and open and lonely, with more or less no blacks. We built the cities; we worked and developed the mines. The blacks were here for centuries. They walked on diamonds and didn't even pick them up, because they didn't realize the value of what they had. Now they want our mines. Well, we want our land back. It's as simple as that." His is a version of history that sweeps aside the competing claims of the indigenous African population, but his followers accept it without question.

The town hall of Ventersdorp, just down the road from Terre Blanche's office, is modern, bright and airy in California fashion—but Deputy Mayor Bob Hardy nonetheless whisks visitors away so they can talk over Cokes at his private, whites-only club. A retired civil servant, he seems genuinely confused when an American asks whether racial problems bedevil his town. Ventersdorp, he explains, "has a population of 2,000 people, and there are about 7,000 blacks. Race relations are very, very good here. There's no trouble." When an American uses the word that right-wing South African officials disdain most—apartheid—Hardy's response is disingenuous. "I don't understand the definition of apartheid," he says. "It's never been here. It's the same as in a household—the parents have their place, the children have their rooms. It's as simple as that."

He somehow neglects to mention that the town council on which he sits has just defied the national government's policy and voted to reintroduce "petty apartheid," the practice of banning blacks from public facilities such as rest rooms, the town library—even the town hall. To the Deputy Mayor, Ventersdorp is an oasis of tranquillity. "It's only a little minority here that cares about politics and parties," he says. "Average people here don't know Mandela and the African National Congress. I don't think the Afrikaner Resistance Movement is very important, either. Sometimes a person gets up and shouts, and everybody applauds. That's all."

Over at the house of the minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, a group of white volunteers prepares hot meals for the elderly, but their worried talk centers on the "situation" at the "location"—the mood of unrest in the dusty cottages and shanties outside town, where blacks are compelled to live. "When Mandela was in jail, they were quite calm," one woman says. "Now that he's out, he's promised so much that..." She lets the thought trail off, but others chime in with descriptions of angry blacks stoning whites' cars and stopping other blacks from going to their jobs in white firms and houses. "Our servants have been prevented from coming to work, which they of course want to do," says one woman, Mrs. Vinniekirk. "If they don't work, they don't get paid."

For Mrs. Vinniekirk, the unrest is a disturbing reminder of the past. "I am a born Rhodesian," she says proudly. "We left Northern Rhodesia before it became Zambia." Now, for the second time in her life, she faces the prospect of black majority rule, and there are no African countries left to which she can flee. "I used to sleep without my doors locked," she says wistfully. "I've got to lock them now, because I don't know what's going to happen. Last week, one girl was dragged out of her lady's house because she came to work. They were going to burn her." It goes without saying that the "girl" was black and the "lady" white, but nobody seems to know exactly where this incident took place or who the protagonists were. "I don't know which street it was," says Vinniekirk. "I just heard of it."

That sense of unease pervades Ventersdorp. "Do you know about the apartheid church?" asks the wife of one of the town's ministers, who refuses to give her name. After the South African Dutch Reformed Church officially integrated nationally last year, some Ventersdorp parishioners refused to go along. "We let a few blacks into our church for a funeral, and then we gave them tea and coffee and refreshments outside under a tree—we couldn't let them into the house, of course. Because of that, we lost quite a lot of members—15 or so families from our church. Another church lost 40. They're spending about $320,000 to build a new one."

For this churchwoman, a progressive by Ventersdorp standards, the end of petty apartheid would not mean the end of segregation; she believes that blacks and whites will always be separate. "We have a girl at our house, and I tell her she can sit on the chair if she wants to watch television. It's all right to sit next to me. But she won't do it; she likes to sit on the floor. Also, they want to eat with their hands. They don't want to eat with a knife and fork."

There are whites in Ventersdorp, though, who do believe in equality. "I'm of British descent, and I was educated at Wits University, so of course, I'm a liberal," says Kay Jansen, referring to the University of the Witwatersrand, the school in Johannesburg that has been a bastion of liberal thought in South Africa. "I've been to Cape Town, where they integrate on the buses and so on. I was at the university with natives and colored. I really don't mind. If he's an educated man who sits next to me, fine. It doesn't worry me." Jansen is unfazed at living in the shadow of Eugene Terre Blanche. "I've heard him from time to time," she says. "He speaks well; he's got a terrific amount of charisma. I don't know what his following here is; it's a bit extreme. I don't think the average person is so extreme." But ask her about apartheid, and even Jansen answers with an air of resignation. "That's the way it's been here. Whether we approve of it or not, what can we do to alter the situation?"

Finally, there is "the location," the area on a hill just beyond town, where the blacks must live. Some of the houses are compact brick structures—lacking plumbing or electricity, but presentable; these sit closest to the road. Few white people ever pull off into the unpaved byways that thread back from these bungalows to the maze of wood and cardboard and corrugated metal shacks beyond. Those who do, see a poverty and neglect that is jarring in contrast with the tidiness of the rest of the town. And when one stops to engage passersby in conversation, there is deference, apprehension and perhaps an undertone of contempt. People whose English is fluent when the conversation begins suddenly find the language incomprehensible when they are asked about politics and the life of the town. "I do not know about the political atmosphere, so I cannot comment on that," one man says warily. Adds another: "I do not know what is Mandela; I have never seen him." Then there is Peter Modupe.

He walks down one of the dusty streets, cigarette in hand, a conservative jacket slung over his shoulder. It is the middle of the day, but he has nothing better to do than chat with friends, for he is a schoolteacher, and the school is closed. "A group of our students went to address a petition to the town council to meet our demands for integrated schools, more teachers and more facilities as soon as possible," he says. "Twenty of them were detained." He explains that teachers and students alike are boycotting classes until the protesters are released and changes are made.

Modupe, 27, believes that change can come without violence. "Peaceful negotiation will solve the problem," he says quietly. "We must forget about apartheid; we must have all persons coming together as brothers and sisters—as one." In Ventersdorp, he says, there is much to be done. Unemployment is widespread. "More people are becoming homeless at every moment," he says. Is the local government doing anything to help? "Possibly they are trying, but I've never heard anything about it."

It is a slow, hot day, and he lets his thoughts flow. "If we don't come together, I promise nothing," he says, with a sadness beyond his years. "There will be war, blood and death, because everyone is prepared to fight for his rights. But South Africa can be one of the most prosperous countries. It should be. The government and the people of this country, I believe, can come together."

The afternoon grows late in Ventersdorp. The church people clean up after completing their lunchtime charity. Peter Modupe goes back to walking the streets of the location, talking to friends and whiling the day away. Eugene Terre Blanche leaves town; tonight he will address a cheering, stomping rally of a thousand or so supporters—many of them clad in brown shirts like his—in a town hundreds of miles north, near the Botswana border. An American visitor leaves Ventersdorp convinced that, in one of these faces, he has seen the future of South Africa. The unanswerable question, of course, is which one.

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