Case Study in Change: A Pro-ANC Afrikaner

May 01, 1994|By PETER HONEY

PRIESKA, SOUTH AFRICA — Prieska, South Africa. -- On the face of it, Albertus Vermeulen would never have joined the African National Congress, never even considered throwing his weight behind Nelson Mandela's election campaign.

From youth to manhood he had nurtured an iron certainty that the ANC was nothing less than the face of communism, nemesis of the Afrikaner volk, of his Christian beliefs, inimical to his very soul.

He'd gone to war against the Communists, or so he'd thought, drafted willingly in the 1980s as a counter-insurgency cavalryman to beat back the Namibian guerrillas who then were still struggling to wrest their country from South Africa's grasp.

After mustering out in the mid-'80s, Albertus Vermeulen returned to his remote and dusty little hometown to farm black-headed sheep in the desert heat of the Great Karoo.

Now married with a 2-year-old daughter, Mr. Vermeulen admits the going has been tough. Like nearly half the country's 67,000 white farmers, he is up to his ears in debt. He adds to his income by scrabbling salt from a vast white pan near the farmstead and selling it for cash to flat-bed haulers who come rumbling through the desert in search of raw freight.

In ordinary times this might well have been the open-and-shut story of Albertus Vermeulen: Just another Boer among a scattering of Boers in the drab, dry middle of South Africa.

But these are not ordinary times, and he is not just another Boer. That much was apparent when I first saw him rise from the audience at a recent television talk show, introduce himself in Afrikaans as "a sheep farmer for the ANC," and proceed to lambaste F. W. de Klerk's National Party for its racist past.

It was an intriguing start to an unusual tale. For although it is no longer strange to see Afrikaners in the ANC, even among the leadership, it takes rare courage for a Boer to stand up in the

conservative outback and campaign for a party that most of his neighbors consider "the enemy."

As expected, it has brought threats of violence and death against him and his wife, Hester. Usually they are anonymous phone calls, but right-wingers have also accosted Mr. Vermeulen in town, calling him a traitor and threatening to shoot him. The couple, heedful of right-wing attacks on dissenters elsewhere, have left their daughter in the care of relatives far away during the election period.

Ironically, Hester doesn't share her husband's ANC leanings, but she hasn't wavered in her support of him, he says. She was

away visiting family on the day of my visit, but as if to attest to her husband's faith, she telephoned him during the interview to ask what books (about the ANC, of course) he wanted her to bring back from the city.

Not only right-wingers but his father, too, reacted angrily to his son's political conversion. "He threatened at first to disown me," Albertus says. But the paternal mood seems to have softened over time.

"Lately he's been asking me about the ANC and what we stand for," he says, grinning like an expectant preacher at a baptism.

Stocky, green-eyed and sandy-haired, dressed typically in khaki shirt, shorts, hiking boots and rugby socks, the 32-year-old Mr. Vermeulen looks more like a buyer at a livestock sale than a political activist. Yet he's been doing a lot more of the latter than the former lately.

Since he joined the ANC last October, Mr. Vermeulen has spearheaded the party's drive for white credibility in the sparsely populated northern Karoo.

Thankless though his task has been in such a deeply conservative backwater, he insists that white attitudes are shifting, albeit slowly, towards acceptance of majority rule.

The big question is what drove him to do it? Is he really a bellwether of change in Afrikaner politics, or just an anomaly?

A locust plague was just beginning in the district as I drove out to his farm about 30 miles south of Prieska. Blood-red locusts, too young yet to fly, were on the move, teeming in such profusion that the dirt road and surrounding veld seemed alive in parts. And all along the way, someone had defaced the road signs with spray-painted slogans proclaiming a volkstaat, the right-wingers' Camelot. Somehow the locusts and the slogans seemed like omens, of what I did not know.

Mr. Vermeulen ushered me into a small office off the front porch of his rambling brick house and sat behind a small desk facing a narrow bookcase festooned with flags of South Africa and the ANC. Between them stood a framed photograph of his daughter. On the ledge of a frosted glass window were arranged dozens of bullets of various calibers and a drapery of machine-gun cartridge belts and other memorabilia from the Namibian war. A medium-caliber hunting rifle nestled in a corner.

It soon became clear that the war had had a great impact on him. In fact, he said, it was the war -- specifically the brutality of his own side -- that had tipped the balance and forced him to re-evaluate all that he had been led to believe about black Africans.

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