RARE rains have brought temporary respite to this drought-ravaged expanse of semi-desert in South Africa's Cape Province, allowing the white farmers here to shift their focus from dwindling herds to what they see as another looming threat: black rule.
Worried about losing their land and privileges under majority rule after the country's first nonracial ballot on April 27, farmers here have joined a local commando unit supplied with guns by the South African Defense Forces (SADF).
They are part of a nationwide trend. More than 80 percent of South African farmers have bolstered the ranks of a national network of district militias that some black leaders worry could form the nucleus of a rebel right-wing army to challenge a majority government.
``I can't tell you when this thing is going to erupt, but things are building up to a climax,'' says Richard Rudman, a sheep and goat farmer in the district of Steytlerville, about 75 miles south of here.
``I have 15 rifles in my strongroom and haven't used one of them yet. But what are you going to do when your family is threated? I will defend them,'' says Mr. Rudman, a supporter of the right-wing Conservative Party and head of the local ward of the SADF commando network, which includes about 250 units nationwide.
In the past six months, farmers' wives and children have swollen the ranks of this 130,000-strong network by responding to the calls of right-wing leaders to join the commandos, which are made up of former Army conscripts and volunteers. Roughly 700,000 whites have undergone military training and could be mobilized in a national call-up by the SADF.
In just one sub-section of the sparsely populated Graaff-Reinet region, some 500 automatic R-1 rifles, 60 rounds of ammunition, and military uniforms have been handed out - mainly to women - in the past six months.
Children as young as 10 years old take part in target practice at the commando shooting ranges; at 16 years they can be issued with their own automatic weapons.
The eruption of black anger after the assassination of populist black leader Chris Hani in April and slogans by young radicals of the African National Congress (ANC) - such as ``kill a Boer [Afrikaner], kill a farmer'' - have mobilized the country's 40,000 white farmers.
Etienne Marx, a white rail worker in the remote rural town of Klipplaat, says that the events following Hani's assassination persuaded him to join the neo-fascist Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging.
``The fact that the SADF has suffered major budget cuts and consolidations that have weakened its strucutures made me realize I had to contribute to a paramilitary effort to defend my people,'' says Mr. Marx, a member of the local commando.
He says he would not hesitate to fire on soldiers of the SADF if they were defending what he sees as a communist-controlled African National Congress government. (The ANC maintains an alliance with the South African Communist Party.)
``By that stage there will be a clear division between those acting on behalf of the Boere volk [Afrikaners of right-wing persuasion] and those acting on behalf of the communists,'' Marx says. ``I will fight to preserve my land, my culture, my language, and my religion.''
William Whitlock, a farmer in the Klipplaat area of Cape Province who is sympathetic to the ANC, worries that a rebellion is inevitable. He says right-wing leaders have manipulated the farmers' fear of the future to build a force that could be used to thwart majority-rule polices.
``I think Gen. Constand Viljoen [head of the right-wing Afrikaner Volksfront] was successful in pressuring the government to hand out guns to the farmers,'' Mr. Whitlock says. ``The guns were handed out legally, but it was done under disguise. I am not fooled because I have done 17 years of training. But I think most people were fooled.''
But Commandant Rocco Gouws, a Citizen Force officer who heads the commando in Graaff-Reinet, says the commandos are a nonpolitical structure that could ultimately have a stabilizing influence on a new government. ``I don't think the reaction of a new government will be very positive initially, but they will need the commandos to achieve stability in the rural areas,'' Commandant Gouws says.
Some military analysts agree that the commandos could play a stabilizing role.
``They will fight to protect their farms, but they will not take on the SADF,'' says Brig. Gen. Bill Sass, a retired SADF officer who now works for the independent Institute for Defense Politics. ``The real threat is not a rebellion by right-wing commandos but the threat of right-wing sabotage and terrorism.... There is likely to be a confrontation between the SADF and these elements at some point which will force Afrikaners to choose.''
The generals of the SADF have reached an accord with the ANC leaders whereby the SADF will remain loyal to a black-led government as long as its command structures are left intact for a five-year period of coalition rule following the election.
The government has agreed that the SADF will absorb a large part of the ANC's military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation).
But ANC leaders, while eager to maintain the confidence of farmers who are the backbone of the country's food production, worry that elements of the commandos could turn against them.
``The SADF is handing out firearms to white women who don't even know how to use them,'' says Tokyo Sexwale, a senior ANC leader. ``The right-wingers know that they can acquire arms legally through the commandos ... and arms are being stockpiled.''