Stark consequences if the laager is drawn

IN Vryburg, South Africa, a farmer named Peter Snyder told me his solution to his nation's woes. Exterminate the blacks, he said. Turn the Army loose. Even up the population, which now favors the blacks by a 5-to-1 margin. Mr. Snyder is a member of the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, the neo-Nazi movement whose group membership numbers about 50,000. Yet the influence of this group's reactionary ideals is far more pervasive among the nearly 5 million whites than this number suggests. Its philosophy of white domination is believed supported by between 10 and 15 percent of all white South Africans. As the West imposes sanctions against South Africa, we should remember that not everyone thinks as we do. We blithely assume that by making life economically difficult for white South Africans, they will simply hand power to a majority they have feared and vilified for 300 years. After extensive travels through southern Africa, I have concluded that this is a dangerously naive attitude.

Snyder is not a raving maniac. He owns a small farm, raising corn and wheat in a region resembling the high plains of the American Midwest. His wife and two sons discuss school and rugby at the dinner table. One boy is attending an agricultural college, the other is in high school. ``We will defend ourselves, which is our right,'' says Snyder, a man of few words. In a locked closet are the means for his defense: weapons -- lots of them.

When he speaks of strategy, he invokes the laager, a concept familiar to devotees of John Wayne westerns. As in America, the pioneers who ``settled'' the interior of South Africa circled their ox wagons when confronted by hostile natives. Called the laager in Afrikaans, this formation has long defined the attitudes of the Afrikaner people toward adversaries. They have always been few in numbers and have had to fight against incredible odds to preserve their way of life. They learned to be tough and resourceful. The Zulu, Xhosa, and British underestimated the Boers' determination. Not even the enticements of post-World War II riches and nearly 40 years in power have diluted the spirit of a people who invented modern guerrilla warfare during the Boer War at the turn of the century. Using methods now familiar from Vietnam to Mozambique, they early defeated imperial Britain at the height of its power.

If history is any guide, the Afrikaner people will not be pushed by sanctions into an accommodation with the black majority. It is true that a majority of whites polled in South Africa recognize that change must come. But this is a soft majority, the supposed ``moderate coalition'' of pragmatic Afrikaner and non-Afrikaner whites that has failed to oust the ruling National Party from power or to significantly alter apartheid. White moderates -- never mind the liberals -- have already declared their position futile, at least according to a former leader of the moderate opposition Progressive Federal Party, Alex Boraine. He resigned from the white Parliament last year, saying that the opposition was getting nowhere in formal politics.

The National Party has vehemently condemned the dark ideals perpetuated by radicals like Mr. Snyder. Despite what the rest of the world thinks, the government likes to believe that it is a defender of Western values, which includes a proper repugnance of genocide. Yet schisms in the ruling clique continue to enrich the political spectrum to the right with new parties and movements. Attempts to incorporate white liberalism into official politics -- by trade unions, public action groups, anticonscription students, and religious organizations -- have been ignored and increasingly repressed. They continue to flourish, however, in the rich undercurrent of extra-parliamentary politics, along with the powerful black movements that fill out the left wing of a national political structure unrecognized by Pretoria.

These developments should cause concern among those hoping that the current government can be pressed into a more liberal stance. It appears that international pressure is helping to push the white power base to the right. In light of this, the politics of Peter Snyder become more ominous. The figure of 10 to 15 percent who support his sort of reactionary ideals becomes more significant than it may seem at first glance. First, this percentage is rising, from just under 5 percent in 1980. Second, this group is becoming more vocal, better organized, and increasingly violent in its tactics, raising a specter of the feared white backlash that might precipitate a further slide to chaos. Third, these people are heavily armed and ready to use their arsenal.

At present, the radical right (and the radical left) are being held in check by a government that is detestable and repressive, but is still attempting to abide by what it considers minimal standards of human behavior. Things could get much worse, especially if the civilian government fell to the Army or became dominated by more oppressive leaders than Pieter Botha and his cronies.

So what about sanctions? Sanctions will weaken but not destroy the economy. South Africa's resources are simply too vast and desirable. It has an unblockable coastline of 2,500 miles (including Namibia -- South-West Africa) and strong internal industries. Despite this, I could wholeheartedly support sanctions for the moral argument alone: that it is simply not right to associate in any way with the apartheid regime. But I've had to consider farmer Snyder and his closet full of guns.

I shudder to think what would happen if Afrikaners reacted to full sanctions by forming a late 20th-century equivalent of the laager. They have an extensive domestic arms industry (born of past sanctions), highly organized police and armed forces, and, for many, the right that comes with a tradition of carrying a rifle in one hand and a Bible in the other. If only 15 percent of the people go to war, they could inflict unmentionable horrors on a largely defenseless black population.

President Botha himself warned the West to beware the laager. The comment came in a moment of anger last month when Britain succumbed to Commonwealth pressure and announced minimal sanctions. This warning should not be ignored or misunderstood. As we each make a personal decision about full sanctions, it should be clear that we have a tremendous responsibility to the 25 million people living in South Africa. We must ask the question: If South Africa is severed from the rest of the world, what will happen when the laagar is drawn?

David Duncan, a writer and traveler, recently returned from Africa, where he was researching a book entitled ``Cape to Cairo, An African Journey'' (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), scheduled to be released next year.

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