South Africa's White Extremists Fade Away
Right-wing whites remain divided nearly a year after black rule began. Some are in politics, others just lie low.
VENTERSDORP, SOUTH AFRICA — IN this town's heydey as a center for white right-wing leader Eugene Terre Blanche, armed guards marched through the streets waving their swastika-like flags and terrorizing local blacks.
Today, Mr. Terre Blanche's office in the town center is practically deserted, his paramilitary Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB) flag discreetly folded away.
Residents say Terre Blanche rarely drives through town anymore in his pick-up truck and no longer holds rousing anti-communist, racist rallies attended by thousands of white supporters. Terre Blanche's Volkstaat (White Homeland) sign at the entrance of the town has been removed.
Life has changed dramatically for South Africa's white right-wingers since the country's first all-race elections last April. The once-powerful group has waned politically; its clout is negligible and its hopes for a separate white homeland a faded dream. Right-wing threats of secession and even civil war before last year's elections failed to bear fruit. Pro-apartheid forces have marginalized themselves from the new black majority government led by President Nelson Mandela.
Aware now that they have no voice, those who boycotted the national elections have either slipped out of the political arena or are now trying desperately to rejoin the political process.
The Conservative Party, which rejected the national elections in opposition to the new democratic constitution, has now agreed to take part in local elections in October to give a voice to calls by the Afrikaner minority for self-determination.
But with the party's popularity among many rural whites evaporating, political analysts say the Conservatives, who were once the main white rival to the former ruling National Party (NP) and won 39 percent in the 1989 apartheid-era parliamentary elections, are now unlikely to muster substantial support.
Old order changed
``They missed the boat by believing erroneously too much in their own power,'' said Robert Schrire, a political scientist at the University of Cape Town. ``The power of the right wing was based on the old order and when that changed it became irrelevant. They are desperately trying to regain a voice but recognized too late that in the new order only people in office will have a say.''
The Afrikaners, descendants of Dutch settlers who make up about 3 million of the country's 5 million whites, largely voted for the NP, or for the Freedom Front of former defense chief General Constand Viljoen, who pragmatically broke with the right-wing boycott just before the elections and decided to work with the new black rulers.
Perhaps nowhere is the right wing's demise more evident than in Ventersdorp, the town in the conservative Afrikaner heartland that became synonymous with the country's extremist and feared neofascists.
With Terre Blanche's henchmen facing charges of sabotage from a pre-electoral bombing campaign and begging the new black-led government for amnesty, power has dissipated for the man who once took democracy negotiators hostage and tried to prop up a homeland dictator, Lucas Mangope.
Since the elections last year, Ventersdorp has been merged with a next-door sprawling black township of Tshing by a new interim town council. Since then, the AWB has lost its ability to intimidate townspeople.
``Everything is more relaxed now. The rough attitude is gone. Those AWB people are very quiet now,'' said Isaac Banda, a black member of the new multiracial interim town council.
``Maybe they are planning something to disrupt the elections. But maybe they are quiet because they know they have no power,'' Mr. Banda said.
Terre Blanche plans to boycott the local elections as he did last April's national one, essentially pushing himself further to the margins of politics.
``Their influence and profile has waned greatly since April. They are very quiet now. The most they get are 10 people at a rally,'' said town clerk Gerrie Hermann. Local police reported no violent incidents or assaults on blacks like in times past.
Rumors abound that the AWB is closing its Ventersdorp headquarters. Officials at the AWB office refused to talk to two reporters and escorted them to the door.
The local branch of the Conservative Party is glum about the registration for local elections which began on Jan. 27. Some 22 million voters are expected to be registered nationwide, and as in Ventersdorp, most white-dominated councils are expected to pass into the hands of the 5 to 1 black majority.
``At most we can get three out of the 12 town council seats,'' said the CP's branch secretary, Jan Hoogendyk. He called the elections an exercise in futility but admitted it was the only way to push for white ``determination.''
He expressed frustration that white taxpayers would have to support an impoverished black majority needing better services, adding: ``Relations between blacks and whites are fast deteriorating. It is like a pressure cooker where the lid has to come off.''
Blacks like Mr. Banda see the local poll as the key to effective change. They complain they are still denied access to a local park. They say most of the town resources go to Ventersdorp's 3,000 mainly white residents versus Tshing's 14,000 blacks.
Schooling is still largely segregated, and the Afrikaner school is much better equipped than the integrated one that opened in January.
Election officials trying to register blacks in Tshing often find residents confused about the October ballot. Several asked why they needed to vote again since Mandela was elected in April.
Others expressed discontent over the slow pace of change, demanding houses, running water, electricity, and paved roads.
One elderly woman, however, had a positive vision about the elections. ``We will finally have a black mayor who speaks our language,'' she said. ``We must vote so that the right-wingers don't bother us again.''