Whites long for a home in South Africa Afrikaners confront an uncertain future

April 20, 1997|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ORANIA, South Africa -- Riaan Potgieter has found his promised land, a whites-only enclave in the heart of black-ruled South Africa.

"You have to think 'In God I trust,' " he says, enjoying a communal barbecue under a star-sprinkled sky. "He sent us here. We gave up everything and moved down."

With his wife, Ena, and their three young children, he came to this remote and arid corner of northern Cape Province seven months ago to escape the changes that followed the 1994 election of President Nelson Mandela.

Potgieter is one of this country's 2.5 million Afrikaners, the

so-called "white tribe of Africa." They are the descendants of South Africa's first white settlers, Dutchmen who began arriving at the Cape of Good Hope in the 17th century. For centuries, they dominated this land, eventually formalizing apartheid. Now they are feeling threatened by the political, economic and social programs of the black majority who are running the nation for the first time.

They see themselves as being demonized in the post-apartheid bout of national soul-searching. They witness the symbols of their history being destroyed as statues are removed from town squares, pictures of their leaders disappear from Parliament, and names in the Afrikaans language of hospitals, schools, airports and warships are replaced with those of anti-apartheid heroes.

"Almost everything that is most unedifying in the country has been laid at the door of either the Afrikaner or his 'apartheid regime,' " says Chris Maritz, an ethnologist at Rand Afrikaans University.

In their daily lives, Afrikaners have seen religious instruction banned from their schools. Afrikaans, their Dutch-based language, is being submerged by an official emphasis on English. Their jobs are at risk from affirmative action, and their children face uncertain futures under black leadership.

Warning of a "widening gulf" between Afrikaners and the government, Maritz says: "Among more responsible Afrikaner people, not the extremists, I see an uneasiness, a sort of amorphous wriggling and dissatisfaction, which could be interpreted as a sign of energy being mobilized.

"This could be channeled in the direction of some sort of spatial order for the Afrikaners in the future, some sort of regrouping," he says. "Once you put pressure on a certain segment of society, the anthropological lesson of that is you make them aware of their own uniqueness."

A unique minority

There is no question that the Afrikaners here in Orania view themselves as unique. To live here you must meet two strict conditions: be committed to Afrikaner freedom and undertake never to employ "foreign workers," a none-too-subtle euphemism for blacks.

"The rationalization is, you can't have your own country if you don't want to do your own work," says Anna Boshoff, one of the early residents of the township.

This whites-only community is a model for the larger Afrikaner "volkstaat," or homeland, that many of the previous ruling minority, particularly right-wing activists, would like to establish.

To avoid violence during the 1994 election, when the Afrikaner activists threatened to take up arms to defend their privileges, Mandela agreed to form a council to study the possibility of an Afrikaner homeland.

"The idea was to investigate a territory where the Afrikaners can, to some extent, govern or rule themselves," says Mars de Klerk, council chairman. "We believe it is possible -- and the sooner the better. The pressure is on, and the people are getting annoyed, angry. The Afrikaner people have experienced things they never expected."

The council has proposed four homeland sites, either remote, sparsely populated areas or places already dominated by Afrikaners. But Mandela is now showing little interest in the "Balkanization" of South Africa. The government initially gave the council six months to make its proposals. That was three years ago.

"It's a question of whether this can be negotiated with the government," says de Klerk, suggesting that the initial stage of "volkstaat" should involve limited autonomy within South Africa, not a fully independent state.

"We can make it work, if the will is there," he says. "If you look at it from the Afrikaner point of view, it is vital. If the government doesn't solve the Afrikaner issue, there will be a clash. It's only a question of time. If minority rights are repressed, you get a lot of conflict. It's bound to come."

In an editorial headlined "Cast Aside," the Citizen newspaper urged the government last week not to "drive the Afrikaner against the wall, for it would make of him an enemy and all hopes of reconciliation will be shattered."

'Let us live in apartheid.'

Right-wing leader Eugene Terre-Blanche told 400 of his supporters this month that the only way to ensure peace in South Africa was to give the Afrikaners their homeland. He appealed to the ruling African National Congress to treat the "Boers" the way former Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, the father of apartheid, treated the blacks.

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