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White-Right Backlash Casts New Shadow in S. Africa

March 14, 1986|PETER HONEY | South African journalist Peter Honey is based in Johannesburg.

JOHANNESBURG — Political violence in South Africa is taking on a new dimension in the form of a long-expected backlash from right-wing whites.

It casts an incipient shadow across the glowing embers of anarchy and anti-apartheid protest that brutalize the netherworld enclosing black people of this divided nation.

It manifests itself in isolated incidents that seem almost inconsequential in a country where more than 1,000 people have died and 11 times that number have passed through political prisons in the last 18 months.

Yet in the Johannesburg area in February alone there were four cases of attacks by whites on blacks. Almost without exception the perpetrators have been young extremists--supporters of one or another right-wing fringe group.

The memberships of these organizations are generally small, and they cloak their racism in the guise of "cultural identity." Their followers are often linked to, or are in the ranks of, the security services of the South African government.

Of course there are the "legitimate" rightist groups such as the Conservative Party, which is shaping up to become the official opposition in the white Parliament, and the Reformed National Party, which holds only one seat but maintains the rigid apartheid doctrine that brought the ruling National Party to power in 1948.

But the real high priest of the white right is Eugene Terre Blanche, the leader of the extremist Afrikaner Resistance Movement, or AWB.

His movement is not a formal political party, and probably numbers fewer than 20,000, but it is his style that sets Terre Blanche apart from the rest. Put him on a podium before 2,000 ardent supporters and this 42-year-old former policeman transforms into a prophet, steeping his oratory in the atavistic nationalism of the Boer people--often with such effect that even burly farmers shed tears.

His message is always the same: The government is about to capitulate to the forces of revolution. The blacks will try to take all. The whites will fight for the land that is theirs. And the whites will win.

The three-cornered AWB emblem bears a striking resemblance to the Nazi swastika. Jackbooted militants on motorbikes often form a guard of honor at his public meetings. When Terre Blanche salutes his audience, he extends his right arm in a manner reminiscent of Adolf Hitler. If he had power, he says, no blacks, no Jews or non-Christians of any kind would be permitted a part in government. Yet he denies affinity with Hitler or his Nazi teachings. He even denies that he is a racist.

"I am a Boer," he declares. "I have no heroes but the heroes of the past of my people."

Terre Blanche also denies any violent intent, either on his part or on the part of his supporters. This in spite of the fact that little more than two years ago he and two other AWB leaders were convicted of illegal possession of weapons, among which were Kalashnikov assault rifles. The armaments, he says, were planted on him by left-wing radicals.

And he disclaims any complicity in the recent spate of white attacks on blacks: "It is impossible. The AWB is far too disciplined to do such terrible things."

Terre Blanche plunges into his self-appointed task with a vengeance, night after night preaching fire and brimstone to scattered congregations in the conservative white heart of the nation.

President Pieter W. Botha, he says, has betrayed the 2.8 million Afrikaners. When he accepted the principle of sharing power with the country's 24 million blacks, he was offering to destroy the Afrikaner way of life, Terre Blanche maintains.

Terre Blanche speaks of establishing an Afrikaner fatherland, based on the historical boundaries of the old Afrikaner republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.

Terre Blanche's outbursts worry the government. Police and army personnel have been prohibited from membership in the AWB. And recently two Cabinet ministers publicly attacked the movement in the same breath as the outlawed black guerrilla organization, the African National Congress.

While the AWB is still too much a one-man group to pose any major threatto government stability, the white right is clearly discomforted by the political changes taking place inside the country. One might conclude that the stridence of their protests is a barometer of how effectively the government is moving toward a non-racial South Africa.

But this is the irony: The rantings of the Terre Blanches of this world are no measure by which to judge how blacks receive the kind of political reforms enunciated by the Botha government.

The voice of black South Africa has become radicalized, and the radicals draw little distinction between Botha and Terre Blanche. They are tired of having decisions made for them, of being denied a say over their own affairs.

However deeply apartheid is buried, these people want a new government. And simple demographics say they will get it sooner or later, no matter what the Bothas or the Terre Blanches might say or do.

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