Afrikaner chooses life in black Zambia

July 16, 1995|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun Staff Correspondent

KABWE, Zambia -- Depending on how you look at it, Thys Eloff is either continuing an old Afrikaner tradition or pioneering a new one.

Mr. Eloff, 26, left the dry soil of South Africa three years ago to try his luck in more fertile lands. The country he left was on the verge of revolutionary change, about to get its first black government. The land he came to had been ruled by blacks for almost 30 years.

In a sense, Mr. Eloff and a handful of other South African farmers now living in Zambia have done as their ancestors did 150 years ago: moved on, in search of land and peace. But they may also be the beginning of a new relationship between the once-reviled Afrikaner and neighboring black countries in southern Africa.

"The Afrikaner has traditionally had two responses to crises, either to laager or to trek," said Wilhelm Verwoerd, a professor at South Africa's University of Stellenbosch.

The laager was the Afrikaners' tight circle of wagons, the defensive measure that proved nearly impregnable when attacked by African tribes during the trek away from British rule into the inland stretches of South Africa.

Today's version would be the proposal for an Afrikaner homeland in South Africa. But Mr. Eloff doesn't think coming to Zambia is necessarily the modern version of the trek.

"Look, this is a black country," he said. "The magistrate is black, the chief of police is black, the president's black. If you're coming here for political reasons, you'd better stay away because you're going to find a problem here."

Mr. Eloff made the journey from his farm on the Botswana border after rumors swept South Africa that there was free land in Zambia. Hundreds of farmers arrived fleeing a terrible drought, but when the rumors proved untrue, most returned home.

"They said this was the land of milk and honey," said another white who has stayed, Elize Grobbelar, who runs a machine shop, mainly repairing farm machinery, with her husband, Martin. "It is only if you bring your own cow and bees. But you can make money here if you work hard."

The Grobbelars had endured drought, flooding and a tornado in South Africa.

"We decided to leave," she said. They brought their three children with them. "Most people thought we'd be back in a few months, but we've stayed three years."

Constand Viljoen, leader of the Afrikaner party, the Freedom Front, has held discussions with several African countries, including Mozambique, Tanzania and Zaire, about getting Afrikaners to bring their farming expertise in return for fertile land.

"I think these leaders realize that the Afrikaner understand what it is to be an African," Mr. Viljoen said, contrasting his ethnic group with white colonials. "We have always worked with Africans.

"Some people have said we want to go to these countries to start some sort of white homeland, but that is ridiculous. We are talking about maybe 1,000 farmers in a country of 10 million people."

"I've lived in Africa all my life," Mr. Eloff said of his feelings about Zambia. "I'm an African, I'm just white. I can't see myself living anywhere else."

The Grobbelars send their three children to a mixed-race school. They go to school with whites, with Indians, with Zambians," Mrs. Grobbelar said. "I wish some of my South African neighbors could be here and see us mixing happily together."

"All that apartheid stuff in South Africa was nonsense. It will take 30 years to straighten out that mess."

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