Fort Beaufort, South Africa — Punching the air with his right forefinger for emphasis, the South African military commander told some 250 whites in this small farming village: * The situation in the south-central part of the country had reached "somewhat of a crisis," with school boycotts and closings, resulting in some 30, 000 restive black youths now out of school.
* In the face of mounting unrest, authorities found themselves "short of manpower. This applied for the South African police and the South African Defense Force."
He urged his listeners to enlist in the local "commando" -- a reserve force of citizen-soldiers -- to help counter a growing threat to the country's security. South Africa, he told his audience, was now involved in a "total war."
His warning came during a remarkable 2 1/2 hour meeting of the citizenry of Fort Beaufort, a hamlet on the edge of one of South Africa's black tribal reserves.
The meeting was but one benchmark of South Africa's slow transition to a war footing, as unrest roils up among the country's embittered black populace. The South African military has been holding a number of similar gatherings across South Africa to brief citizens on how to cope with the challenge of growing black militancy.
For Beaufort provided a rich historical backdrop for one of these breifings. For it was in this region -- the eastern part of Cape Province -- whee the first armed conflict between black and white occurred in South Africa during the early 19th century. A series of "frontier wars" raged over the area as local black tribesmen resisted white settler encroachment on their ancestral lands.
Now, the citizens of Fort Beaufort gathered to hear Brigadier A. Potgieter, commanding officer of the South African Defense Force in the eastern Cape, tell them that the conflict had been rejoined.
"We have a concerted effort against this country of ours," he told the hushed audience.
The immediate problem might be "to control 30,000 school kids who are not attending school at this very moment," he said.(The students have engulfed the region in a wave of unrest, which so far has resulted in at least four deaths, the burning of a number of schools, and the indefinite closing of many others.)
But South Africa's current travail, said Brigadier Potgieter, should be seen in the larger context of "the question - the problem, if you wish -- of black nationalism."
Black nationalism, he said, was a powerful force, but it was being interwoven with the other "isms" -- Marxism, communism, and terrorism. Sinister forces outside South Africa were fomenting unrest among the black populace, he warned.
"We cannot afford to undeestimate the onslaught," which, he said, "is generated from a much more high level than was found in Rhodesia." (Rhodesia, formerly a white-ruled British colony on South Africahs northern border, now is the black majority-ruled nation of Zimbabwe.) He listed a number of nationalist organizations that were arrayed against South Africa. But he directed particular attention to the banned African National Congress (ANC), which is committed to the violent overthrow of white rule in South Africa.
"The enemy," he said, is involved in a two-pronged attack on South Africa, which concentrates "on our main strength, that is, our infrastructure, inter alia, our human as well as our physical infrastructure."
On the one hand, he said, the country could expect overt guerrilla actions, such as the multimillion dollar sabotage June 2 of an oil-frm-coal conversion plant south of Johannesburg.
It was vital, he continued, for communities not only to defend against such attacks, but also to undertake "effective planning" to enable industries to recover quickly once they occurred. The fact that these attacks so far had been confined mainly to urban areas should not lead to a false sense of security in "hinterland" towns like Fort Beaufort, he added.
"Chances are even, rural or urban, whatever is best for the enemy," he said.
But the South African authorities were "short of manpower" to provide for the defense of the entire country, he warned, and citizens should sign up for duty in local commandos to provide their own defense.
"Sir," he said to the mostly male audience, "you have a responsibility to muster your own manpower. That is what it boils down to."
But since the present conflict in South Africa was not a conventional military conflict, but a "revolutionary onslaught," he said, it called for action both "on the military field and on the political field."
One credo, he said, is that blacks "must not be regarded as enemies." On the contrary, he said, "sound race relations" would help to ensure that "terrorists" would not infiltrate the local black populace and "intimidate" them into joining a struggle against whites.
The brigadier made a cryptic reference to a forthcoming high-level government meeting in the South African capital of Pretoria on Oct. 14 to plot a total strategy to counter black nationalists on the politial, social, and economic fronts. Then he opened the meeting to questions, and the first person to rise was a hefty man with shiny black hair.
Concerns about race relations notwithstanding, he said, "The problem is one of lawlessness. Until the country is prepared to put it down properly, instead of mucking around with birdshot and sjamboks [whips], it's going to go on."
Brigadier Potgieter responded that "lawlessness . . . can be attributed to the socioeconomic situation" in South Africa.
Another man expressed his puzzlement with the brigadier's message, asking, "Just who is the enemy? I can't seem to identify it in my own mind."
To which the brigadier responded firmly, "The enemy is communism. Make no mistake about that."
Communist powers, notably the Soviet Union, wanted control of South Africa's minerals, he stressed, and were thus stirring black unrest. In fact, he said, the "onslaught" on South Africa was only part of "an onslaught on the free world."
But then, in a moment of extraordinary candor, he observed, "Sometimes I see our own people [whites] as the enemy, because of a lack of race relations."
In the kind of struggle in which South Africa was involved, he explained, prograss could not simply be measured in the number of deaths inflicted on the adversary, but also depended on the prevention of infiltration, indoctrination, and intimidation of the local black populace.
The enemy was exploiting black resentment against "colonialism," he said. And if whites began to treat black people in general -- and black school pupils in particular -- as "the enemy," racial polarization would be heightened.
Whites would then find themselves facing insurmountable odds, he said.
"If we see things in this way," he warned, "we will unfortunately go the way Rhodesia has gone."
The meeting continued in much the same vein, with the brigadier mixing entreaties for emergency preparedness with pleas for better race relations.
And, not surprisingly, the response from the audience showed that different people place differing stress on the two themes of his message.
One woman observed that, "As a Christian, I don't believe that Christianity requires violence to be answered with violence."
But another man argued that, "The black man has always respected power." Whites should not be fearful of using their "guns and planes," he argued, since timidity could lead to capitulation.
And the brigadier, in his concluding speech, agreed with both sentiments. "Wehve got to be strong," he said. "We've got to stand together."
And so the people of Fort Beaufort were left to ponder his words. They headed home in the chill night air, and most of the lights in the town were out by 10:30 as whites went to bed.
But in the hills surrounding the town, the fires in black African villages burned on much later into the night.