Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Building apartheid's pillars

By Ned TemkoStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 11, 1986

Stellenbosch, South Africa

THE white Afrikaner people began here, in this town near the Cape of Good Hope. And the philosophy of apartheid began in its university. Both are experiencing a crisis; neither can survive unchanged. South African President Pieter W. Botha is chipping away at apartheid, the system of racial segregation his own National Party spent decades building. He faces unflagging political violence from blacks who want the system scrapped, and stiff opposition from right-wing white Afrikaners who want it preserved.

Skip to next paragraph

When asked what makes the President tick, a close associate of his remarks: ``President Botha does not want to go down in history as the man who sold out the Afrikaner people.''

Few peoples have suffered so much, trekked so far, triumphed so improbably, maltreated so many -- or been so often misunderstood. Yet, the roughly 3 million Afrikaners, not the 22 million blacks they rule, seem to be the people most likely to determine the future of the Republic of South Africa.

``You must look to our past to understand,'' comes an identical plea from Eugene Terre Blanche and Nico Smith -- one veering politically right, the other left, as the dream of apartheid has unraveled.

This past lies amid the lush fields and tidy lanes of Stellenbosch, where, nearly 300 years ago, the first Dutch burghers moved from the Dutch East India Company's seat in Cape Town to make their unfamiliar way as farmers.

These Dutch burghers were Calvinists. They believed that an all-predetermining God had elected them from a depraved humankind to settle the southern tip of Africa. Their education, all they needed or wanted, came from their reading of the Bible. Their language, a simplified Dutch called Afrikaans, evolved from the need to talk to the black tribesmen enslaved to help till the soil.

Yet, until early in this century, the Afrikaners remained more a group of persons, than a people. The Afrikaners unite

Outsiders made the Afrikaners a people. First, there were black tribes competing for grazing land, and a meddlesome Dutch East India Company telling the farmers how or when to fight the blacks. Then came the British, making a colony of the Cape, freeing the slaves, and imposing English justice on all.

In 1837, heirs of the Afrikaner settlers made common cause. ``We quit this colony,'' they said, ``with a desire to lead a more quiet life.'' They would attack no one, but find a place to ``permanently reside'' -- and defend it. They would take no slaves, but insist on ``proper relations between master and servant.''

It was, an Afrikaner historian has noted, not a revolution but a rebellion. Afrikaners left in order to be left alone. The urge was so powerful they could hitch up their ox wagons, turn their backs on the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and the ``fruitful land of our birth,'' abandon homesteads, and set off for unknown places.

Their journey is known as the Great Trek. Mr. Terre Blanche's ancestors and Mr. Smith's -- known as Voertrekkers -- were all part of it. The farmers -- Boers -- drove north, into the kingdom of the Zulus, descendants of Bantu-speaking peoples who migrated to that region in the 11th and 12th centuries. The Zulus gained the upper hand at first, murdering a trek delegation that had come for their signature on a cession of tribal lands.

But in December 1838 -- after seven days of communal prayer -- the outnumbered trekkers routed a Zulu force at a place known to this day as Blood River.

``It was a miracle from God,'' says Willie Olivier, a Terre Blanche ally on the resurgent Afrikaner right. ``We suffered only a few wounded. There were cattle inside the laager, but not one of them bolted!''

The trekkers quickly became Boers again. They spread out into three areas: northern Natal; past the Orange River in the Orange Free State; and across the Vaal River in the Transvaal. But there was gold in the Transvaal, diamonds near the Orange -- and soon, new trouble between Briton and Afrikaner.