Constand Viljoen: on the Afrikaner Right

The divergent political paths of twin Afrikaner brothers reveal the forces pulling at South Africa as the end of white rule approaches

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

GEN. Constand Viljoen, the retired defense chief who left his cattle ranch six months ago to mobilize Dutch-descended Afrikaners fearful of majority rule, is seen by his growing band of followers as more than a political leader.

General Viljoen (pronounced `VIL-yoon') stepped into a dangerous political vacuum in May following the sudden death in April of Conservative Party leader Andries Treurnicht. Mr. Treurnicht's death had left an already fragmented Afrikaner people in deeper confusion.

The assassination two weeks earlier of populist black leader Chris Hani unleashed a wave of black anger that prompted a spontaneous mobilization of right-wing power - in disarray since March 1992, when reformists defeated the right in a whites-only national referendum.

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This past spring, a committee of former South African Defense Force generals formed the Afrikaner Volksfront (Afrikaner People's Front, AVF) and persuaded Viljoen to be its leader.

Since he hesitantly accepted the leadership of AVF, an umbrella organization uniting a plethora of white right-wing groups - Viljoen has emerged as a moral authority in Afrikaner politics.

He has quickly sidelined more radical conservative leaders. According to some recent public opinion polls, the Volksfront now commands more support among Afrikaners than President Frederik de Klerk's ruling National Party.

``The phenomenal growth of the Volksfront under Viljoen has very serious implications for De Klerk,'' says Wim Booyse, a political risk analyst who specializes in right-wing groups. ``It has greatly increased the pressure on him to accommodate the right-wing.''

Viljoen's supporters see him in the mold of the Boer generals of old who committed themselves to fight to the finish against the British in the Boer War of 1899 to 1902, a struggle that ended with the Boers' surrender.

His calloused and soil-engrained hands testify to his love of the earth and add credence to the image he cultivates of a reluctant politician.

Some of Viljoen's adversaries are beginning to see him more in the role of South African statesman Jan Smuts who, although an Afrikaner, identified with a broader South Africanism and was one of the founders of the League of Nations.

General Smuts, who died in 1950 - two years after the National Party came to power - was disliked by militant Afrikaner nationalists.

``Smuts was a wonderful man, but he was more interested in the world than in his own people,'' says Viljoen, a soft-spoken man with silver-gray hair, steel-blue eyes, and a disarming humility. ``I am more oriented toward my own people than toward the world.''

Ironically, Viljoen grew up in a strongly pro-Smuts household.

According to his twin brother Abraham (See accompanying story), their father, Andries Viljoen, turned his back on politics when Smuts struck a compromise with the more conservative National Party leader, Gen. J.B.M. Herzog, in 1934 to form the South African Party.

It was only when Smuts and Herzog broke over the war issue in 1939 that Andries Viljoen's interest in politics was revived. (Herzog wanted to remain neutral in World War II.)

Constand Viljoen's profile has skyrocketed recently as a result of the news that he had a clandestine meeting with African national Congress President Nelson Mandela in mid-August and subsequently led a right-wing delegation in a series of secret talks with the ANC about the Afrikaner demand for a volkstaat (people's state), or homeland for Afrikaners.

The theme of the talks was to find a formula under which right-wing parties could take part in the country's first democratic ballot on April 27, 1994, in exchange for a guarantee that Afrikaners will get a separate territory after the election.

A backlash against the talks within the ranks of his group forced Viljoen temporarily to suspend the contact and join a broader coalition of white right-wing parties and conservative black leaders known as the Freedom Alliance (FA). If the new grouping stands as an alliance in the April 27 ballot, there is a chance that Viljoen could become a leader of the party that comes in second to the ANC.

Contact between the Volksfront and the ANC - and independently with the government - has continued through the new alliance, but the special demands of the Afrikaners have been marginalized by the conflicting interests of some of the conservative black groups like Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party.

Viljoen blames the politicians for not seeking an accord with moderate blacks two decades ago and then for allowing ANC guerrillas to return to the country without disarming them.

Despite the demise of communism in Eastern Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Viljoen says there is still a good chance that communism will be implemented in South Africa once there is an ANC-dominated government.

`AS far back as 1969, I had very specific ideas about our black people, and I explained to the politicians the importance to accommodating black political aspirations to keep communism out of South Africa,'' he says. ``I was accused of heresy.''

``If the Afrikaners are forced to fight for their self-determination, there will be a war,'' Viljoen told the Monitor, with all the authority that he once commanded as defense chief.

Viljoen spent the first three months as Volksfront leader on a relentless campaign through the country's rural towns. He and his colleagues have addressed some 72 meetings around the country attended by an estimated 200,000 people.

He has subtly focused his attention more toward negotiation than confrontation, but has urged right-wing Afrikaners and their families to join the commando structures.

As defense chief from 1980-85, Constand Viljoen built a reputation as a soldier's soldier. He made several surprise appearances on the battlefront to direct military operations against guerrillas of the South-West Africa People's Organization in Namibia and in support of Jonas Savimbi's UNITA rebels in Angola.

``It is the responsibility of all of us to try to prevent a war,'' Viljoen told The Star of Johannesburg in a Sept. 27 interview. ``I know war, that is why I try to prevent it.''

By remaining above the strategic differences that separate the myriad of right-wing factions, Viljoen has given new credibility to the Afrikaners' claim to a piece of land they can call their own.

``Given their fear of wholesale change, it might not be a bad idea to let people like Viljoen ... have their own volkstaat,'' wrote black newspaper columnist Kaiser Nyatsumba in that same issue of The Star.

When Conservative Party leader Ferdi Hartzenberg threatened civil war last month if the government went ahead with a multiracial commission to control the security forces and govern the country in the run-up to elections, Viljoen said that Hartzenberg was speaking as a politician.

``If I - as a military man - would make the same remark it would be much more serious,'' he said.

Viljoen faced a similar dilemma in June when armed members of the far-right Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (Afrikaner Resistance Movement, or AWB) took over what was intended to be a peaceful demonstration by the Volksfront at the venue of the multiparty negotiations in Johannesburg.

Uniformed AWB members smashed through the plate-glass entrance of the building in an armored vehicle, daubed racist graffiti on the walls of the negotiating chamber, and hurled abuse at delegates.

Viljoen cut a lonely figure inside the building as he condemned the behavior of his right-wing colleagues and apologized for the damage.

``At least if they [the AWB] remain with us,'' said Viljoen in an interview at his office in downtown Pretoria, ``they are partly under control.'' If anyone can control them, Viljoen is probably the man to do it.

And that may be what makes him more indispensible to Nelson Mandela even than President De Klerk.

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