Building apartheid's pillars

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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``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.

For three years, at the turn of this century, the Anglo-Boer war raged. The British battled horse-borne Afrikaner kommandos, interned Afrikaner wives and children in tent camps where 26,000 died, torched farmsteads, and finally forced the Boers to surrender. In peace, the British tried to Anglicize the Afrikaner once and for all -- in custom, law, and language.

Farms were in shambles. Both blacks and Afrikaners flocked to the cities and the British-run gold mines. By the 1920s, barely half the then 1 million Afrikaners still lived off the land. No more educated, no more fluent in English, than many of the blacks with whom they competed for urban jobs, a once ``chosen'' people packed slums on the cities' edges.

On the surface all seemed smooth. Boer generals -- Barry Hertzog and Jan Smuts -- were co-opted as prime ministers of a Union of South Africa whose aim was Anglo-Afrikaner ``fusion.'' Afrikaners obtained government favors, notably railroad jobs, under a ``civilized labor'' policy that favored poor white over black.

Underneath, however, a revolution brewed.

Even those so favored were promoted less, and paid less, than English-speakers. Mines were exempted from labor ``civilization.'' The white Afrikaner farmers lost their cheap black labor to the mines. Laying foundations

By the 1930s, a powerful, overlapping coalition against ``fusion'' had emerged. Its pillars were the Dutch Reformed Church; the seminary-university set up by the Boers who had stayed on in Stellenbosch; a nationalist underground called the Afrikaner Broederbond (band of brothers); and a ``Purified National Party'' under the banner of a walkout from the ``fusion'' cabinet.

In the countryside the church helped its flock defy the law, in the years after the Boer War, by educating its young in Afrikaans. At Stellenbosch, a new ideology -- called apartheid -- took form and began elevating exclusive Afrikaner nationalism to a religion.

The Broederbond recruited ministers, farmers, especially teachers -- the best and brightest -- into dozens of cells across the country. They met, talked of a future South Africa whose government and economy would be Afrikaner, and refracted that vision through their schoolsand communities. The purified party rallied support more publicly -- and, with the help of young organizers such as Peter Botha in the Cape, heckled and obstructed rallies by politicians promoting ``fusion.''

The new nationalism attracted hard-pressed farmers, such as Terre Blanche's father in the Transvaal. It drew teachers, such as Smith's father -- whose own mother had perished in a Boer War concentration camp. Most of all it attracted the young -- such as Smith, who briefly refused to study English, then took up studies for the Dutch Reformed ministry.

In 1938, the revolution burst into the open. The Broederbond organized a reenactment of the Great Trek. Within days of its departure from Cape Town, it took on a life of its own.

By the time it halted on a hill outside Pretoria -- to break ground for a Voertrekker Monument -- 100,000 people converged.

World war intervened. South Africa joined on the side of the allies, over opposition from the new Afrikaner nationalists.

Jan Smuts, who served in Winston Churchill's war cabinet, and, at wars end, helped found the United Nations, emerged as an international figure. But in 1948, he faced the electorate at home -- and was stunned out of office by D. F. Malan and his allies, who gained a surge of support from the depressed farm areas and a boost from Transvaal mining constituencies.

``We rejoiced -- my father and I, both,'' recounts Smith. Mr. Malan, a Stellenbosch theology graduate and leader of the Purified National Party, became Prime Minister. But the tone of government was set by a Dutch-born Stellenbosch graduate whose single-minded clarity of vision made him the Vladimir Lenin of the Afrikaner revolt. His name was Hendrik Verwoerd. He refined apartheid from a principle to an all-embracing government formula. Implementing the plan

Malan led efforts to promote and protect Afrikaners in the job market -- in the mines, on the railroads, in government offices. State corporations were planted in key sectors of the economy, run and staffed primarily by Afrikaners. But Mr. Verwoerd -- first as minister of native affairs, then as prime minister -- was the grand implementer of apartheid. Dozens of new laws enforced the ideology. They registered people by race, prevented mixing. Then they set to reverse and erase all mixing that had already occurred -- destroying and rebuilding families, school classes, labor unions or political parties, neighborhoods.

Not only was white ideally to be separated from black, but Afrikaner from Anglo. In the Afrikaners' own schools, Afrikaner history was not only taught, it was -- in great heroic brushstrokes -- celebrated. In the Voertrekker Monument, child visitors were told of the Boers' battle against ``bloodthirsty savages'' in fulfillment of their God-given destiny.

The Dutch Reformed Church, initially endorsing apartheid, began in the 1960s to preach it as gospel. The church, critics scoffed, became the National Party at prayer. Stellenbosch theology professor F. J. M. Potgieter -- along with the editor of the church journal, Andries Treurnicht -- pioneered a theology of apartheid. God, after Babel, had decreed separate nations. Dr. Potgieter, who still lives by this theology, holds that only in heaven can racial distinctions evaporate. Citing the Book of Revelation, he says, ``It is antichrist who would reinstate Babel's egalitarianism'' beforehand.

Verwoerd succeeded in what Afrikaner writer W. A. de Klerk terms the ``messianization'' of apartheid. The doctrine became more than a policy. It was a privilege and a duty -- to be fulfilled with a Calvinist sense of mission, as an example for the world. Verwoerd also persuaded Afrikaners that apartheid could work.

Smith was one who rejoiced in attending party lectures. ``I remember listening to how this wonderful concept would work. . . . The speaker would say, `These blacks who are living and working in the cities are only temporar ily here. They do not belong here, and you must not get used to them.' '' They belonged in homelands, fulfilling their own tribal ``nationhood'' the way the Afrikaners of Johannesburg and Pretoria, Durban and the Cape, fulfilled theirs.

The Broederbond grew into a group of thousands. It ensured promotion of broeders in business, local government, school boards, university faculties. National government was already in the hands of broeders: such as Verwoerd, and John Vorster -- as was the church. The government consulted more closely with the Broederbond, on some important issues, than with Parliament.

Afrikaners, even former ``fusion'' supporters, flocked to the new banner. English-speakers still dominated big business. But Afrikaners moved from farm to city. By 1970 barely one-tenth remained on the land, but there they thrived as apartheid legislation restrained the exodus of black labor.

There were defectors -- but, until the 1960s, very few. Smith was one of the more typical. He began to have doubts, but kept them largely to himself. He joined the Broederbond, and heeded a call to teach theology in Stellenbosch.

There were problems with apartheid that anyone, who wanted to could see by the 1960s. It had failed to stem the tide of nominally ``temporary'' blacks migrating into the cities, especially as the Afrikaner shed blue collar for white. It engendered violence: In 1960, at Sharpeville, 69 people died when police fired on blacks protesting the pass-law system that determined where blacks could live and work.

Apartheid also made South Africa an international pariah. But Verwoerd preached faith, kept the new statutes coming, cracked down on black protest. In 1961 he proclaimed the Republic of South Africa, then led it out of the British Commonwealth.

In 1966, he won a landslide reelection victory. He was assassinated later that year.

Twenty years later -- at a right-wing rally in Pretoria against this government's retreat from apartheid -- a retired Afrikaner accountant railed against President Botha. ``The National Party is no longer the National Party,'' he protested. ``When they buried Verwoerd, they buried the National Party!'' Next: Cracks in apartheid's foundation

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