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Settlers Fled Political Turmoil in S. Africa : Boers: as Argentine as the Gaucho

December 22, 1985|ANTON FERREIRA | Reuters

COMODORO RIVADAVIA, Argentina — The Boers of Patagonia have some advice for white South Africans fleeing political turmoil--don't follow us.

At the turn of the century, three shiploads of Afrikaners left South Africa for Argentina to get away from the British, who had just won the Boer War.

Today, about 400 of them live in and around this wind-swept town 1,000 miles south of Buenos Aires, farming sheep in the vast, flat emptiness of Patagonia.

They still speak Afrikaans, attend the Dutch Reformed Church of their ancestors and eat South African delicacies like biltong, a type of dried meat.

But they have become as Argentine as the gaucho, drinking mate infusion and calling each other Che.

Three generations after the Boer War, some fought--and lost to--Britain again under the flag of their adopted country during the battle over the Falkland Islands in 1982.

"None of the Boers here wants to return to live in South Africa," said Gerardo 'Boetie' Myburg, who was appointed honorary South African consul here five years ago.

He said many white South Africans eager to leave their country because of racial violence had visited Comodoro Rivadavia over the last year to investigate the possibility of settling there.

Figures released in South Africa show that emigration has increased in recent months as the death toll from 21 months of rioting rises over 1,000. The political unrest has also badly strained the South African economy.

"I advise them against it," Myburg said. "Taxes on farmers are high here and land is very expensive. Anyway, the situation in South Africa is bound to improve over the next few years."

Another member of the Boer community, sheep farmer Conrado Visser, said South African farmers would find life in Patagonia far more difficult than at home.

"Most of us in the community have managed to do quite well, though we haven't become rich. But farmers coming out now would find conditions very different to what they are used to," Visser said.

When Visser and Myburg get together over a glass of whiskey, their talk, as with most South African farmers, turns to sheep, drought and politics.

The only element that might be jarring in a South African farmhouse are their liberal racial attitudes.

"We've grown up away from apartheid so we don't think like they do in South Africa," said Visser, who has visited South Africa five times. "I was quite shocked at how they treat the blacks there."

He feels changes are needed in South Africa if there is to be peace. "You can't rule a country under (apartheid) laws that are 40 years out of date."

The Boer community here is highly regarded by Argentines for its role in founding the town and accidentally giving birth to Argentina's oil industry.

Desperate for water in the arid region, the first settlers demanded that the government drill wells. The wells found little water but lots of crude.

Eight of the first Boers who came to Patagonia are still alive. One of them, 88-year-old Tante Lennie Brekkie, remembers the hardships of the first years in Comodoro.

"There was no water, no houses, nothing. We had to build everything ourselves."

Another, Japie Eloff, 76, apparently brought some of his prejudices from South Africa. "Did the Kaffirs chase you away," he asked a recent visitor from Johannesburg, using a contemptuous term for blacks.

For the Boers, the voyage to Patagonia was the third epic search for a new home made by families who first left the Netherlands about 300 years ago to settle in South Africa.

Their second migration, from the Cape to the interior where they found the Boer republics of Orange Free State and Transvaal, put an Afrikaans word into the English language: trek .

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