BLOOD RIVER, South Africa — A century and a half ago, frightened white farmers circled their 64 wagons on this broad plain in Natal province and hauled out muskets to fight spear-carrying Zulu warriors. After the battle, it was said, the thin river here ran red with African blood.
More than a thousand descendants of those early Afrikaners gathered here over the weekend. Under sunny spring skies, young children carried flags bearing a swastika-like emblem. Fathers wore storm-trooper uniforms with pistols holstered on their hips. Mothers talked worriedly about the future.
They had come, once again, to circle the wagons.
Illustrates White Fears
The rally and prayer meeting, sponsored by the far-right Afrikaner Resistance Movement, illustrates the fears many whites have these days as they contemplate the idea of a South Africa one day ruled by its black majority.
It also showed how right-wing Afrikaners are pressuring the white minority-led government not to hold power-sharing talks with black leaders or relax the system of racial separation.
"We will not allow the government to give our people's land away to the Zulus or the Indians," said Eugene Terre Blanche, the husky 46-year-old farmer and former police sergeant who is the group's leader. "We will kill people if they try to take our land."
Speaking to loud and frequent applause, Terre Blanche added that South African President Pieter W. Botha must realize "he cannot rule this country without the Afrikaner support." The most serious threat to Botha's National Party has come from right-wing whites, of which Terre Blanche's movement is an extreme example.
The AWB, as the movement is known after its Afrikaans initials, is a white separatist group that advocates the creation of small whites-only republics within South Africa.
"Why should we 3 million Afrikaners have to carry the burden for 28 million other people in this country?" is how Jan Groenewald, Terre Blanche's deputy, described the group's position.
For years the AWB was a secretive, paramilitary group. But in recent months it has tried to broaden its base of support, encouraging non-Afrikaner whites to join. It currently has about 5,000 members, and Groenewald claims it is the fastest-growing organization in South Africa.
Terre Blanche has made eloquent and theatrical speeches across the Afrikaner heartland to large audiences in the last year, and some political observers believe the group has attracted many sympathizers among middle-class whites.
Man Tarred and Feathered
In the past, it has used unorthodox methods to advance its cause. Several years ago, its members tarred and feathered a respected historian as he tried to give a speech. A year ago, AWB members stormed a rally addressed by Foreign Minster Roelof F. (Pik) Botha and carried a triumphant Terre Blanche into the hall to speak in his place.
Then, in August, several hundred singing and screaming members of the group crowded the arrivals area of Johannesburg's airport in an unsuccessful attempt to confront the delegation of 40 businessmen, academics and clergy returning from a meeting with the banned opposition group, the African National Congress. The delegation was escorted out a side door.
On Saturday here at Blood River, about 200 miles southeast of Johannesburg, AWB members sang Afrikaner hymns, listened to speeches and snapped up cuff links, rings, tie bars, bumper stickers, caps, cotton patches and polyester ties--all carrying the AWB symbol.
They stood inside a circle of bronze wagons that commemorates an 1838 battle in which the Dutch-descended Afrikaner farmers killed 3,000 Zulus after praying for divine intervention. The nearby river was renamed Bloedrivier--an Afrikaans phrase meaning Blood River.
Blood River has symbolic importance today for Afrikaners who believe South Africa remains a God-fearing country surrounded by the forces of evil.
"The Zulus smashed the heads of our babies against the wheels of ox wagons, but we do not hate them," Terre Blanche, speaking Afrikaans, told the rally. "We say to them: Keep your feet off our land."
Several members spoke openly about their fear of being ruled by blacks, who outnumber whites in South Africa 5 to 1 but who have no say in national politics.
Margaret du Plessis, who sews red cotton flags for the organization, said the problem with Botha's ruling National Party is that "it trusts blacks." She asserted that "the blacks are definitely going to cut our throats" if they come to power.
Du Plessis' husband, Charlotte, who brought a handgun to the rally, retired as a state auditor to take up full-time voluntary work for the AWB.
"We don't want the blacks' country," he said. "We only want what belongs to us."