Pietersburg, South Africa — ``It's as if you bring up your kids, day after day, on a clear set of principles. Then all of a sudden you turn to them and say: `No. It's not that way at all!' That is what our government has done to us.'' The speaker, in his late 30s, looked like no one's kid. His necktie, dress slacks, and blow-dried hair belied his support for the neo-fascist Afrikaner Resistance Movement, which has taken the lead in opposing race-policy reforms in South Africa. But moments after he spoke, he joined a mob that barred an appearance by Foreign Minister Roelof Botha, scuffled with government backers, and retreated only under a tear-gas barrage from police.
The protester -- a businessman from a town in the rural Transvaal province -- is one of hundreds of thousands of Afrikaners set adrift by the gradual demise of a dream called apartheid. Some have swerved right, others left. Most seem simply to be groping for anyone or anything capable of restoring the sense of unity, direction, and certainty apartheid once seemed to provide.
Where Afrikaners once sought assurance, they now find confusion.
The National Party, which rode a platform of apartheid -- forced racial segregation -- to power in 1948 and has ruled ever since, is split by wholesale defections on its right flank.
The Dutch Reformed Church, which preached apartheid as God's word, is riddled with ministers who reject it, though most don't seem sure what to preach in its place.
The Afrikaner Broederbond, or ``Band of Brothers'' -- which promoted Afikaners' separate identity, and acted as think tank and mass propagandist for National Party governments -- is split like the party. Once shrouded in secrecy, it is harried by leaks. Once self-confident, it seems as confused as those it embraces.
And many at Stellenbosch University -- Afrikanerdom's Oxford, and the ideological wellspring of apartheid -- now treat apartheid as if it is a dirty word.
One thing still seems to unite Afrikaners. It is a sense that unless they come to terms with South Africa's black majority, not only Afrikaner dominance but Afrikaner survival is threatened. ``It is fear that determines political thinking today,'' says Prof. Willem Kleynhans, who rejected apartheid before rejection came into fashion, and was ostracized for it. ``The fear,'' he adds, ``is growing by the day.''
But the dream of apartheid is slowly dying. The Afrikaner leaders who came after the slain Hendrik Verwoerd, apartheid's grand ideologist, lacked the intellect, single-mindedness, and personal authority to keep the dream pure against political and economic realities at home and opposition from abroad.
The retreat began on tiptoe at the end of the 1960s. Prime Minister John Vorster, by agreeing to inclusion of a nonwhite on a visiting rugby team, sullied the Verwoerdian principle that all racial mixing was heresy.
This was only the beginning. At Stellenbosch, Afrikanerdom's intelligentsia took a hard look at the ideology its fathers had helped devise and discovered it didn't, couldn't -- even shouldn't -- work. Professors began questioning or rejecting its tenets in the 1970s.
Many students, and most parents, were enraged. ``There was, and still is, a profound conservatism, nationalism, and authoritarianism in Stellenbosch students,'' one student says. But in the '70s, he adds: ``Intellectually, there was growing admiration for the professors who challenged apartheid.''
Another student, Hilgard Bell, did not take part in such admiration. His father had reared him to practice apartheid, not undo it. But his professors, he recalls, ``taught us to question, to probe.'' Before joining the Broederbond he questioned its ideology. And ``I realized that the members accepted values that I could not live by,'' he says.
In the church, others reached the same conclusion. Beyers Naude, a minister whose father was a founding light of the Broederbond -- quit the organization in 1963. For years he was a pariah. But by 1970 a few began to follow.
Nico Smith, a professor at Stellenbosch's Theological Seminary and a Broederbond member, recalls: ``Often I would come home from meetings feeling that I could not participate any longer. But I could not bring myself to leave. It would have amounted to committing social suicide!''
One evening in the late 1960s he finally stood up at a Broederbond debate and said, ``I can't stay in this organization.'' The others implored him to stay, but he walked out. ``I had such an enormous sense of freedom that night!''
But similar change was hard to find among other citizens. The Afrikaner revolution had succeeded too well. Before 1948, only some 30 percent of white-collar workers were Afrikaner. By the 1970s the figure topped 60 percent. Many of them worked, directly or indirectly, for the government.
In private business, however, the Afrikaners' tribal identity began to erode. They became acquainted with the doctrine that economic growth thrives on a free labor market -- something apartheid abhors.
In 1976 came the rudest jolt yet to the Verwoerdian view that apartheid was just, and workable. A black revolt sprouted among the students of Soweto, a township near Johannesburg. Violence spread to townships countrywide, leaving some 575 dead in battles with police. Barely had a semblance of peace been restored, when the government's bungled attempt to secretly fund a friendly newspaper forced Prime Minister Vorster to resign and elevated Pieter W. Botha in his place.
Mr. Botha set out to pull the Afrikaner people back together. He hoped to co-opt some of Afrikanerdom's doubting intelligentsia, without losing many others he suspected still opposed changes to apartheid.
In church and university, he struck a responsive chord. Willie Jonker -- then-dean of Stellenbosch Theological Seminary -- explains: ``The outlook here had changed. There was a readiness for a new approach, a feeling that as Christians we must admit we had made many, and big, mistakes . . . and that it was partly the fault of the church that criticism of apartheid didn't start earlier.''
In a departure from the National Party's suspicion of ``Anglo-dominated'' private enterprise, Botha wooed businessmen. Part of his strategy was to end aspects of apartheid that were uselessly offensive or didn't work, while generating enough economic growth to co-opt some blacks into the country's mainstream.
But the Afrikaner intelligentsia doubted the change would go far enough -- while the right wing feared it would go too far.
When Botha proposed bringing nonwhites into the political system by creating separate parliamentary chambers for Asians and people of mixed race, Mr. Bell was head of Stellenbosch's student council. He rejected the idea, sensing that much more was needed. Bell's father was aghast: ``The idea, for an Afrikaner, of questioning the wisdom of authority, of the state President, was unthinkable!''
But father and son agreed to disagree. The elder man joined Andries Treurnicht -- an apartheid theologian and National Party figure -- and others in rejecting Botha's strategy and leaving the party and the Broederbond.
But blacks, excluded even from the new parliamentary setup, wanted much more than a rejection of Botha's reform plan. In late '84, just as the new Constitution was put in effect, violence erupted in black townships. It escalated, defying the imposition of a state of emergency. More than 1,600 people, most of them black, have died in the continuing upheaval.
Botha's reform continues as well -- chipping away at the structure of apartheid, brick by brick. First he legalized black trade unions. He has also ended so-called ``petty apartheid'' -- such as bans on interracial marriage, sports, beaches, and, in some areas, movie theaters. More recently he has taken steps once unthinkable to Afrikaners. He has scrapped the hated pass-law system, which determined where blacks could live and work, and expressed a readiness to restore South African citizenship to millions of blacks redefined as belonging to tribal ``homelands'' under apartheid.
Botha says he is intent on exploring some form of ``power-sharing'' with blacks. But his retreat from apartheid has come step by step -- the gait irregular, the destination unclear. This -- combined, since 1981, with the country's worst recession on record -- has accentuated, rather than removed, the political confusion and divisions in Afrikanerdom.
A small but growing minority dismisses the reforms as mere tinkering with apartheid. ``From its point of view, the government has come an enormous way,'' says Mr. Naude. ``But, power-sharing, as the government understands it, means not upsetting the apple cart of Afrikaner political dominance.''
Also growing is support for the extreme right, which is convinced Botha's reforms are the first steps toward black rule, and feels Afrikaner survival lies in Verwoerdian purity.
The middle ground is occupied by others. Some want reform, others do not. Virtually all ache for the kind of certainty Verwoerd once afforded. There is a groping for answers among Stellenbosch students and in the Broederbond.
According to one Pretoria businessman: ``I have several relatives in the Broederbond. . . . They don't know where to turn; the Nationalists aren't Nationalists any more, and the broeders [brethren, members] aren't sure what will or should come in its place.''
Hermann Giliomee, a professor who pioneered the questioning of apartheid at Stellenbosch, remarks: ``There has been a complete collapse of Verwoerdian ideology. There is a completely new set of concepts -- chiefly the idea of power-sharing with respect to blacks. . . . But for Afrikaners, you can't start tampering with the system unless you supply an alternative ideological framework.''
Amid the confusion, the extreme right seems to offer at least the impression of certainty. According to Eugene Terre Blanche, head of the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, the future of South Africa will be decided by blood -- Afrikaner and black: ``I offer people the possibility of greatness . . . of being Boer generals!'' Next: Search for a new identity