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National Agenda : S. Africa's Changing Face--and Names : With black-majority rule in sight, symbols of the nation's apartheid past are disappearing.

March 09, 1993|SCOTT KRAFT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VERWOERDBURG, South Africa — The owners of a resort at the Hendrik Verwoerd Dam quietly moved a bust of Hendrik Verwoerd, the father of apartheid, from the airy lobby into dark storage the other day.

It wasn't thoughts of politics that made them do it, they insisted. They just needed the extra room.

But then the Hendrik Verwoerd Hospital admitted it was thinking of shrugging off a moniker that "recalls a system that surely does not exist in our vision." Only a year ago, that same hospital had separate listings in the telephone book for "white" and "nonwhite" callers.

And now even in Verwoerdburg, surely the biggest living monument to the former prime minister, the city fathers are giving serious thought to a new name. A recent opinion poll found white residents evenly divided over whether to strip Verwoerd from the signboards--and this in a city that keeps Verwoerd's felt hat and shoes under glass in a permanent exhibit at the library.

The political landscape in South Africa, controlled for decades by a white Afrikaner minority, is on the verge of massive change. And the thousands of symbols of the apartheid past, from the flag to the national anthem to the street signs, are endangered.

Across the country, whites anticipating a change from white-minority rule to black-majority rule are beginning to remove the names and likenesses of Afrikaner heroes and prime ministers from cities, airports and buildings and replacing them with neutral titles.

Some of the proponents of change are liberal whites caught up in the goodwill of a new South Africa, in which people of all races will have an equal say.

But others have more practical motives. Some want to sever their links with the past in hopes of luring overseas investors. Others hope the name changes will dissuade a future black government from replacing the Afrikaner heroes with a few of its own, such as black activists Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko and perhaps even communism's Karl Marx.

The moves to scrape the symbols of four centuries of Afrikaner history from South Africa's facade strike at the heart of right-wing white fears that their language and cultural history will be buried by any government controlled by the African National Congress.

"It's not going to stop with the name of Verwoerd," warned the Rev. Mossie van den Berg, who heads the right-wing Afrikaner Cultural Society in Pretoria. "After Verwoerd, it's going to be (former Prime Minister) J. G. Strydom. Then (former Prime Minister) D. F. Malan will be next. After that will come Gen. Jan Smuts and, in the end, (19th-Century Afrikaner leader) Paul Kruger."

Van den Berg and other rightists called a news conference recently to protest what they view as hasty attempts to erase the past, and they warned that white violence could result.

Other right-wing whites seem to have accepted the inevitable, demanding only that the monuments be preserved for what they hope will be an autonomous, white-controlled province in the new South Africa.

"We're not going to fight every name change," said Carel Boshoff, a son-in-law of Verwoerd and leader of the Afrikaner Volkswag (People's Sentry), a cultural group. "But we would like to keep the statues for the Afrikaner nation, to put them in our own nation-state." Boshoff has already set up an all-white settlement in a remote part of South Africa.

Oddly enough, the impetus for the name changes and statue removals thus far has come mainly from whites, who still hold the levers of power.

The ANC's Committee on Museums, Heraldry and National Symbols says it is premature to begin thinking about name changes. When the time comes, the panel says, those decisions should be left to local communities. But the ANC will recommend that communities choose new names that unite South Africans--avoiding names, including Mandela's, that are associated with political parties.

"We don't object to people changing names now, but we hope it's based on a sensitivity for how those names are perceived by the black community," said Carl Niehaus, an ANC spokesman. And while the ANC wouldn't specifically demand that Verwoerdburg change its name, "one must take into consideration that in the future, you're not going to have an all-white council there."

The ANC feels more strongly about the South African national anthem, "Die Stem" ("The Voice"), and the flag. Those are symbols of the apartheid past and should be changed, the ANC says, but the ultimate decision still will be left to a new democratically elected government.

That the name of Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd (pronounced far-VOORT ) would become the first target of the name-changing lobby is no surprise. The Dutch-born Verwoerd was a leading force in the Afrikaner government that came to power in 1948. A tall, handsome and highly intelligent man with a shock of wavy white hair, Verwoerd was a theologian and psychologist with a doctoral degree.

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