THOUSANDS of conservative South Africa farmers, having given up their dream of a separate white homeland, are planning a trek to formerly hostile neighboring black countries to find new fields to till in a modern era of African cooperation.
The pioneering spirit is like that of their forefathers, the hardy Dutch-descended Boer (farmer) settlers, who for 150 years in the 1700s and 1800s wandered from the southern Cape to South Africa's interior to find new territory.
Their search for more grazing lands, cultural self-determination, and establishment of independent republics brought them into conflict with local black tribes and the British Empire. That clash resulted in the notorious 1899-1902 Boer War. The struggle for Afrikaner cultural identity and survival is marked by various Voortrekker monuments erected across the vast country.
But these modern-day settlers travel in jeeps and on airplanes instead of on ox wagons, armed with seeds and tractors instead of guns.
Having once preached civil war rather than tolerating black majority rule, the fiercely independent Afrikaner farmers have accepted the end of apartheid after last year's democratic elections.
A drought in much of their traditional farming area is spurring them to take advantage of restored relations with nearby countries to seek highly fertile, cheap land to farm for their mutual benefit.
The farmers, under the leadership of the Afrikaner-dominated Agricultural Unions of the Transvaal and Orange Free States, are involved in talks with at least 10 other African countries about signing deals to cultivate land and set up self-sufficient communities with their own schools.
With the reputation of being some of the most skilled and hardy farmers in the continent, they argue they can bring expertise to the rest of the region.
''We are opting for development, not conflict,'' said Gen. Constand Viljoen, a leading right-wing parliamentarian and cattle farmer who has been negotiating on behalf of the farmers.
General Viljoen headed the military in the 1980s when South Africa was destabilizing the neighboring socialist states of Angola and Mozambique and trying to stamp out the African National Congress.
Before last April's first all-race elections, Viljoen and his supporters threatened civil war if demands for a separate white homeland were not granted. But now as a gentlemanly, silver-haired legislator, he is spearheading a new phase of reconciliation in close cooperation with President Nelson Mandela.
Viljoen and the agricultural unions have enlisted the help of Mr. Mandela's ANC-dominated government to seek government-to-government deals for 2,000 to 5,000 interested farmers to either buy or lease land in nearby countries.
Mandela and his government are committed to the development of poorer neighboring states, which look to the regional powerhouse South Africa for help. The poor conditions in those countries are causing a huge flood of illegal immigrants into South Africa.
The initiative, begun a year ago, has so far seen cooperation between Mandela and his Mozambican counterpart Joaquim Chissano in March. ''They signed a letter of intent in which South African farmers would help rebuild Mozambique's war-shattered economy in return for use of land on preferential terms.
Working on a formula
Viljoen sees the agreement as a formula for other countries -- the trekkers would settle their own communities, building their own Afrikaner-language schools, and making their own safety arrangements. In return, they would train local farmers and create separate schools for them.
The South Africans want permission to use internationally acceptable currencies like the dollar where the local currency is weak, and to be exempt from often Kafkaesque customs bureaucracies to easily import and export goods.
Viljoen visited Mozambique earlier this month on behalf of South Africa's government to hone details. Soon to follow is a team of largely Afrikaaner experts on game and conservation, forestry, livestock, grain, fruit, and cotton. The same delegation plans to visit other countries to assess further possibilities.
So far discussions have begun with Zambia, Tanzania, and Uganda. Zaire's President Mobutu Sese Seko invited a delegation of South African farmers to visit his residence in Gbadolite in March. A second visit is under way now to investigate potential food-producing projects in the Shaba mining province.
Contact has also been made with Malawi, Congo, Gabon, and Angola, while Cameroon and Ethiopia have expressed interest as well, says Dries Bruwer, president of the Transvaal Agricultural Union. ''We are seeking government-to-government deals and have the full support of President Mandela,'' he says.
The main thing holding the farmers back is bulky bureaucracy and political instability in many of the countries concerned, he said.