VENTERSDORP, South Africa — A band of white men in ski masks and khaki uniforms, brandy still sweet on their breath, stalked out of a cornfield here at 4 a.m. recently, armed with stiff whips, steel bars and pistols.
Fanning out in pairs, they broke down the doors of tin squatter shacks, shattered windows, swept kitchen supplies onto dirt floors and beat dazed black men, women and children stumbling out of bed.
"Get out of here!" they growled as they worked.
Minutes later, the attackers were gone and a dozen people lay injured, their tattered clothes drenched in blood. Left behind, deliberately or in haste, was the crumpled business card of the public relations man for the neo-Nazi Afrikaner Resistance Movement.
The attack a few weeks ago was a special warning to a dozen black families living on the edge of Tshing township, next to a white farmer's cornfield.
But that attack, like those that followed elsewhere in the country, also was a warning to the reform-minded government not to allow black people to tread on white rights and privilege.
As President Frederik W. de Klerk moves swiftly to dismantle apartheid and accommodate the aspirations of 28 million blacks and 5 million whites in a multiracial South African state, a small but dangerous minority of right-wing whites are on the warpath to stop him.
Frustrated by their impotence in Parliament, where the legal pillars of apartheid officially fell on Sunday, half a million champions of apartheid are plotting new tactics of resistance.
In recent days, they have threatened to stage countrywide strikes of white workers, fire black farm workers and force homeless blacks off "white" land--at gunpoint, if necessary. The extremists have already clashed with police while trying to remove squatters, prevented Nelson Mandela from speaking at a college campus, burned the flag of Mandela's African National Congress and shut down the streets of Pretoria with hundreds of parked tractors.
In one of the more peculiar displays of resistance, several hundred white marchers were dispersed by riot police recently while trying to deliver a videotape player to jailed right-wingers.
"Any nation worth its salt would use all methods available to it to avoid losing everything it calls its own," Conservative Party leader Andries P. Treurnicht told a recent rally. If blacks, whom he calls "a foreign nation," take power and "attempt to take our land, it will be seen as an act of aggression and we will take up arms," he added.
Treurnicht's party, which encompasses virtually everyone to the right of the ruling National Party, says it does not officially condone violence or lawbreaking by its supporters. But it never criticizes such behavior, saying only that increasing white militancy is evidence of growing frustration with the government. Paramilitary groups interpret that as a wink and a nod for their activities.
Although right-wingers often warn that war with the ANC is inevitable, the fight today is, simply put, an intertribal white feud over the future of 2.5 million Afrikaners, whose Dutch and French ancestors settled South Africa in the 17th Century.
On one side is De Klerk, an Afrikaner lawyer who believes that the prosperity and security of whites in general, and Afrikaners in particular, can only be assured in a multiracial democracy with protection for the rights of whites and other minorities.
On the other side is Treurnicht, an Afrikaner preacher who believes the only way to assure the survival of the Afrikaners' culture, traditions and language is to give them the right to rule themselves on their own land.
Since February, the Conservative Party has waged a strenuous and unsuccessful legislative battle against the repeal of laws that segregated residential neighborhoods, restricted black ownership of land and ended a racial classification system on which all apartheid laws were based.
With each law's repeal, the Conservatives' "nay" votes in Parliament were consistently buried in the combined "yea" votes of the National Party and the liberal Democratic Party. And the rivalry between the National Party and Treurnicht's Conservative Party turned ugly.
As the session drew to a close, the Speaker of Parliament took the unusual step of booting seven Conservative legislators off the grounds for five-day penalty periods. The Conservatives had accused National Party legislators of "treason"--and then refused the Speaker's order to retract the accusation. (It is "unparliamentary" to accuse another member of Parliament of treason.)
One National Party lawmaker, Piet Coetzer, grew so tired of being called a traitor that he took his own, extra-parliamentary steps. He sent a can of skin lightener to one of the name-callers, Arrie Paulus, a Conservative with a dusky complexion. Paulus later took a swing at Coetzer in the lobby.
In the end, though, the Conservatives could do little more than shout as they saw De Klerk's reforms take hold.