The realization comes slowly to an outsider, from little things: Like the shared love for a shared language expressed by neo-Nazi Eugene Terre Blanche, and anti-apartheid leader Frederik van Zyl Slabbert.
Or the identical, Messianic sense of mission with which two clergymen, white-separatist ``theologian'' F.J.M. Potgieter and anti-apartheid firebrand Beyers Naude, proclaim rival visions of their country's future.
Or the proud, connoisseur's delight with which, under wide African skies, a liberal journalist and a pro-government game ranger separately initiated an American reporter into the sounds and species of the bush.
These men and women are different but for one thing: they are all Afrikaners, descendants of Dutch Calvinist and French Huguenot settlers who rode the ideology of apartheid - racial separation - to white electoral power in 1948 and have been there ever since. The bond runs deep.
This strong sense of clan has its roots in Afrikaner history. It has survived in part because of a lasting sense of economic, political, and social insecurity, often overlooked by outsiders focusing on the immense power Afrikaners now wield over a disenfranchised black South African majority. Afrikaner power is precarious. Only a few Afrikaners feel that it is not; or that they can, or should, negotiate it away.
``To understand,'' says Nico Smith, a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church - who is one of the extraordinary few who have rebelled against apartheid, ``you must understand how apartheid happened, and how we were taught to understand our history....''
The first Afrikaners came to the Cape in the 17th century along with the Dutch East India Company. They were dour, predeterminalist Protestants who, to a remarkable degree centuries later, have kept a sense of divine mission, of innate conservatism, and stolid humorlessness.
When British control supplanted the company's rule, the Afrikaner moved inland, and learned to farm. But by the mid-1830s, London's liberalism encroached. Faced with the demand that he treat black servants as equals, the Afrikaner trekked from all he had built - from the serene and sectioned beauty of the Cape - to the uncharted bushland of the interior.
There, he gradually established himself in autonomous control of much of present-day South Africa: the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. But the English encroached again, and in 1899 war erupted to settle the matter of Anglo-Boer hegemony. It was not until 1902 that the British won a victory of sorts.
London's postwar policy was essentially this: the Afrikaner could now flourish, but in partnership with a ruling Englishman whose language and traditions and ultimate authority must prevail.
The policy backfired. The Afrikaner of the early 1900s was poor and ill-educated. In the mines and small industries he competed with even poorer, even cheaper black African laborers.
The Afrikaner network
The Afrikaner organized into an underground network of farmers and village leaders, teachers and ministers, which called itself the Broederbond (Band of Brothers).
The Broederbond interlocked with other bodies - a ``National Party'' and Afrikaner trade unions. In 1948, the National Party stunned even itself by winning a white-electoral mandate to rule the country.
It was power with a vengeance or, more precisely, the power of revenge. The Afrikaner government put Afrikaner constituents in place of English-speakers (and blacks) throughout the government bureaucracy. The ideology of apartheid - a ``separateness'' that meant, in practice, forcing as many black laborers as possible into rural ``homelands '' where they could rule themselves - became law.
And every Sunday, in the Dutch Reformed Church, the centerpiece of Afrikaner life, apartheid was made ``right.''
Dr. Potgieter, who helped invent this ``theology of apartheid,'' explained it over tea at his home in Stellenbosch. The gist was - and, as far as he is concerned, still is - this: God, who made the Tower of Babel, meant men with different languages and backgrounds to be separate.
The need to feel that racial segregation, and Afrikaner supremacy, were not only workable but also divinely decreed remains strong.
As his government cracked down hard on all forms of black unrest earlier this year, President Pieter Botha revealed in an interview that he never lets a day go by without reading from the Bible.
In the Transvaal Province farm town of Lichtenburg, an Afrikaner landowner named Abraham Rootman brings an equally religious fervor to his contention that President Botha has gone too far in reforming apartheid. Whites and blacks do not belong together, he says. Then, he tells of the recent death of his own daughter:
``I know how the black workers here loved that child. It would not have been right for us to mourn together. ... But I arranged for a black minister to come here, and for the blacks to hold their own service. It was a beautiful, beautiful service ...''
``I am convinced,'' says Stoffel van der Merwe, a younger and reform-minded Afrikaner, ``that apartheid would never, could never, have lasted without our sense that it was morally right.''
Mr. Van der Merwe's views matter more than most: Since the beginning of 1987, he has been delegated by Botha to seek talks with credible black leaders on a system of ``power sharing'' to supplant apartheid.
Yet, he follows his observation on apartheid with a remark suggesting that reform-minded Afrikaners have changed what they think far more than how they think. ``I am sure,'' he says, ``that we will implement this new system with the same energy and determination that we applied'' to apartheid.
It is because Afrikaners remain Afrikaners - because of their history - that this reform plan is likely to prove easier to predict than to fulfill.
Afrikanerdom's tenuous triumph
Afrikanerdom's triumph, in crucial ways, remains tenuous. The most obvious contrasts of white wealth and black disadvantage here still involve not Afrikaners, but the English-speakers, who have flourished despite virtual parliamentary powerlessness.
It is in English-speaking suburbs that impeccably groomed housewives emerge from shopping malls flanked by aging black domestics, who steer ``madam's'' shopping cart to a waiting BMW. It is the English high school senior who is apt to spend up to $1,000 - six months' salary for Soweto blacks fortunate enough to have jobs - on a prom gown.
But to share a steak around a mere mid-level Afrikaner government official's swimming pool, or in a police captain's almost identical backyard - impossible comfort just one generation removed from powerlessness - is to wonder whether these avowed reformers won't prove reluctant to offer genuine power sharing to blacks whom they suspect may want more than that.
Prospects for power sharing
And these Afrikaners are the lucky ones, presumably self-confident enough to at least contemplate this prospect. Hundreds of thousands of them - those who work at lower-level jobs in the civil service, or in parastatal companies erected in a burst of Afrikaner socialism since 1948 - have arrived more precariously.
Aware that their jobs might well be the first to change hands if black government were to supplant Afrikaner rule, they will not share power if they can help it. Sometimes the reluctance is explicitly stated. Just as often, it is implicit in the way such ordinary Afrikaners deal with, or speak of, ordinary blacks.
Recently, I put in an appearance at the Johannesburg magistrate's court in response to a traffic summons. Beside me on the court bench, doing precisely the same thing, were a dozen others, including a middle-aged black man who works as a ``delivery boy'' for a city retail store.
The burly young Afrikaner clerk asked each of us whether we pleaded guilty or innocent to the alleged offense. Several of the whites pleaded not guilty, a fact the clerk politely noted. But when the black man pleaded innocent, the clerk snapped, with a wag of his finger: ``You don't go wasting this court's time, hey?''
At the start of this year, I was invited by an acquaintance to be ``guest speaker'' at the annual parent-teacher association gathering in a Johannesburg-area school. The school, one of a state-run network segregated by ``population groups,'' was English-speaking.
The principal, a dapper man named S.J. Kempen, was an Afrikaner. Earnestly polite, he greeted me in his office and talked about how his nation had changed since 1948. The Afrikaner, he lamented, had softened a bit, become complacent. Back when he was young, Afrikaners worked and worshiped and, above all, procreated. Not so, these days. And this, he said, was a danger to the country's future. One can see this, he added, in the black population growth.
Even among more economically advanced Afrikaners, an atavistic insecurity survives. The difference is that it reveals itself less directly: for instance, in the relaxation of the shoulders, the sigh and smile, when an outsider speaks not English, but halting Afrikaans.
This year's white election quantified Afrikaner insecurity. The Conservative Party, which broke with Botha over his first moves toward power sharing, shunted the liberal Progressive Federal Party aside to become the parliamentary opposition. Together with the smaller, even further-right Herstigte Nasionale Party, the Conservative corraled a whopping 30 percent of the popular vote - against Botha's 52 percent. Since Botha benefited by unprecedented support from English-speakers, analysts here say the far right almost certainly polled a majority of the Afrikaner votes cast.
``And politically, it is the Afrikaners who ultimately matter to Botha,'' says one source who met at length with the President about two months ago. When asked in that conversation how he felt about Mr. Terre Blanche's neo-Nazi Afrikaner Resistance Movement, Botha is said to have replied: ``He is not the danger. The danger is Terre Blanche plus Treurnicht'' - a reference to the head of the Conservative Party.
The more reasoned tones of government negotiator Van der Merwe suggest that the blacks - more than 75 percent of the population - also matter to Pretoria. But to listen more carefully - to the accompanying, apartheid-era references to South Africa as a ``country of [black tribal] minorities'' to which, by implication, the Afrikaner's steadying hand is vital - is to sense that Afrikaners remain more determined to communicate to black compatriots rather than with them.
The Rev. Smith remains skeptical. Shunned by most Afrikaners as politically gullible or dangerous, he has become the country's first legal white resident of a black township. ``The central problem for South Africa, for we Afrikaners,'' he says, ``is that virtually none have had any real contact with blacks. Apartheid has worked! It is amazing to me how few have ever even visited a township. And how can we hope to communicate with people we do not know or understand?''
But it is a nonwhite leader who perhaps best senses the historical baggage with which the pioneers of apartheid approach the prospect of reforming it. Perhaps the insight owes something to the fact that clergyman Alan Boesak is not black but a mixed-race ``Colored,'' whose native tongue is Afrikaans. ``It's wonderful,'' he says, ``that when I talk to Afrikaners, they'll sometimes turn confidential, as if I, as a `brown Afrikaner,' am supposed to be one of the family!
``Yet, it is becoming clearer and clearer that the main problem with the Afrikaners is that they're scared. And they are scared that when blacks come to power, we'll do to them what they did when they got power.''
First in a three-part series. Next: Black South Africa