Afrikaners Struggle For Stability Against A Flood of Change

Apartheid reforms have elicited reactions ranging from strident racism to tolerance

THE Breytenbach family has everything going for it - except peace of mind about what lies ahead. ``The most important thing in life is security about the future,'' says Friedrich Breytenbach, an energetic man with a glint in his eye. ``You must know that what you are doing will not be destroyed.''

How to guarantee continuity in a changing South Africa is something that Mr. Breytenbach thinks about more and more. His doubts have intensified since President Frederik de Klerk signaled his willingness nearly a year ago to negotiate a political settlement with the black majority.

Those doubts have been intensified by Mr. De Klerk's moves to scrap the cornerstones of apartheid. ``I disagree strongly with what De Klerk is doing. It is not what a true nationalist would do.''

Breytenbach is not about to despair, but the certainty he once had about the future of Afrikaners as the dominant ``tribe'' in South Africa has given way to nagging doubt.

Changes at home

A generation ago, a family like the Breytenbachs could have lived in relative isolation from the country's racial problems. Today, changes are creating ripples that reach even to rural backwaters like Zeerust.

Breytenbach, and his wife Margaretha, are Afrikaners whose European origins have been submerged by more than a century in the harsh African environment.

His ancestors came from the town of Holle in Germany four generations ago and settled in the Boer republic of Transvaal - now one of the four provinces of South Africa. Like most Afrikaners, Margaretha's ancestors were of Dutch origin. They established themselves as farmers in the area where the Breytenbachs now live.

Some of the paradoxes that distort Breytenbach's once clear-cut world emanate from his own family.

His wife Margaretha has a flourishing legal practice in town, in addition to managing a family of four children ranging in age from eight to 17 years. For the past year, or so, Mrs. Breytenbach has been playing the unlikely role of a civil rights lawyer for black activists who have been victims of police repression.

``I regard it as just another job,'' she says. ``It did give me an insight, but it did not change my political views.''

This apparent paradox is partly explained by the fact that Mrs. Breytenbach is less forthcoming than her husband about her political views. They appear to be more open than his, but she was reluctant to acknowledge the differences publicly.

Breytenbach seemed to be least comfortable when defending hard-line apartheid and seemed to be moving - in his own mind - toward the principle of free association.

His doubts have provided fertile ground for the younger generation of Breytenbachs.

A year ago, 17-year-old Mariette Breytenbach was totally opposed to the idea of racial mixing and counted herself lucky that she went to an all-white school. Then, with her father's encouragement, she went on a six-week exchange program last year to live with a family in Germany.

In Germany, she had her first social contact with black people of her age. They got along very well, she says. The visit produced a series of revelations for Mariette.

When she returned to South Africa, she asked to be transferred to a multiracial school where instruction is carried on in German. Today Mariette's best friend is Rosemary Boulton, a girl of mixed-race who shares her school hostel.

``They [the black girls] were the ones who were friendly and made me feel welcome,'' she says. ``In a small town, you never make contact with other races,'' says Mariette in a joint interview with her friend Rosemary at the German school in Pretoria.

``The blacks there are different,'' she says, glancing awkwardly at Rosemary. Then the two girls exchange a reassuring smile. ``Here they are very nice,'' says Mariette, slightly embarrassed.

Changes across generations

Breytenbach did not seem in any way concerned by the broadening of his daughter's horizons. This seems slightly less puzzling if one looks at the changes that have taken place over three generations of Breytenbachs.

Breytenbach's views are enlightened compared to those of his father, Jan Breytenbach, who makes no attempt to conceal his racist stand and sees De Klerk's policies as part of a CIA conspiracy.

Breytenbach takes a somewhat less strident position, siding with the right-wing forces intent on thwarting black rule and ensuring the survival of the Afrikaner. He seeks his future security, at least in part, in the concept of a sovereign ``white homeland'' where Afrikaners will be able to live and work without the possibility of black rule.

But here, too, Breytenbach has reservations. A move to an undeveloped expanse of semidesert would entail enormous sacrifice. ``Whether or not I go to the white homeland depends on what happens here,'' he says.

The scrapping of apartheid laws has left Zeerust - a small town about 200 miles west of Johannesburg - almost unchanged for the white inhabitants. Blacks, who live in a segregated township, do not venture into the town's library or swimming pool, and schools are still rigidly segregated.

``The way of life here in Zeerust hasn't changed at all and I don't see it changing in the medium to long term,'' he says.

Five miles east of Zeerust, Breytenbach runs a small whites-only hotel known as Abjaterskop, a local landmark featured in the stories of South African raconteur Herman Charles Bosman.

A successful businessman, local politician, and farmer, Breytenbach has worked hard to achieve his position of prosperity and prominence in the conservative community.

Breytenbach's day starts at 6 a.m. Most of the morning is spent on the farm checking on his cattle and construction work under way in the town. The afternoon sometimes means business in town, where he is chairman of the town council's management committee.

Church takes stand

One of the most talked about topics in Zeerust today is the recent decision of the Dutch Reformed Church, the main Afrikaner church, to apologize for the sins of apartheid. That the church moderator chose to make the ``confession'' at a multiracial church conference, in response to a call from Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, makes it all the more difficult for Breytenbach to accept.

``This is begging forgiveness from the wrong person,'' he says. ``If you are going to confess, you must confess to God.

``I really don't believe that all our great theologians could have been wrong. ... In any case, you can find many verses in the Bible to prove that separation is justified.''

It is after statements like these that Breytenbach appears most uncomfortable. He left the Dutch Reformed Church several years ago, when it began to withdraw its theological justification for apartheid. Today he is a member of the Afrikaner Protestant Church, a right-wing splinter group of the church. ``That is where I feel more at home,'' he says.

Breytenbach has encouraged his children to learn German - the language of their ancestors - because he sees it as an insurance policy if whites lose their position of privilege.

``As I see the future of South Africa - with the rise of black power - you have to either speak Xhosa [the language of the dominant black tribe] or German,'' he says, in a candid assessment of the future. ``You either stay here or you go back to Europe.''

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