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COLUMN ONE : Boers Seek Greener Pastures : White farmers are leaving South Africa, dreaming of a better life elsewhere on the continent. Many have met hard times--and skepticism about whether they're fleeing economic woes or Mandela's reforms.

September 02, 1995|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHISAMBA, Zambia — They rode up from South Africa in heavily loaded Toyota pickups, not covered wagons pulled by oxen. And they traveled on potholed pavement, not dirt tracks in a cruel wilderness.

But the six Afrikaners who rode past tall gum trees and rustling savanna grass into this dusty farming community on a recent bone-dry afternoon were following their forebears on a familiar trail.

Afrikaners, descendants of early Dutch and French settlers in South Africa, first spread northward in the 1830s in their legendary Great Trek to flee British rule. Their fierce battles against nature and local blacks became the bitter core of Afrikaner history and myth, and ultimately underpinned their oppressive policies of white supremacy under apartheid.

Now the Afrikaners--members of what's been called Africa's only white tribe--are on the move again. Hundreds, perhaps more, white farmers have packed their bags and set out for what they hope are greener pastures in a dozen improbable and impoverished nations, including Zambia, Angola, Mozambique, Zaire and the Congo.

And thousands more Boers, which means "farmers" in Afrikaans, are expected to join the strange new Diaspora.

"It's pioneer work we're doing," said Dirk Kruger, 42, one of the six tanned and burly Afrikaners who stopped here to buy provisions before heading deeper into the Zambian bush. "Lots of people would like to see this as another Great Trek to the north."

Kruger insists he hung a "For Sale" sign on his family's 1,800-acre farm in Coligny, 1,100 miles to the south, because of a severe drought and rising crime in South Africa--and not because of the collapse of Afrikaner dreams of building a whites-only homeland in President Nelson Mandela's newly democratic nation.

"Financially in South Africa, I don't see any future for me," he said, stroking his beard. "Here I have a future."

That remains to be seen. Zambian officials say most early arrivals proved more foolhardy than hardy and already have quit, broke and disillusioned. Others have run afoul of local customs and laws. By all accounts, only a handful of the new trekkers have succeeded.

"I honestly don't think they stand a snowball's chance in hell," said Guy Scott, former minister of agriculture in Zambia. "A lot of them are bankrupt, or just out of jail. They come up here with a clapped-out truck and a three-legged pot, and think they're going to find free land. . . . They're from another planet, these guys."

But Kruger says he and his friends are successful farmers who are prepared to invest up to $1 million each to buy and develop up to 5,000 acres each of uncleared bush in Serenje district, about 240 miles northeast of Lusaka, the capital. As they await government licenses, they will camp by the road, grill sausages and dream of vast fields of tobacco and corn.

"The rain is good, and the land is good," Kruger said. He added, "My priority is myself and my family. But I think we can play a role in developing Africa. We have the experience, and we have the know-how."

Surprisingly perhaps, the leaders of Zambia and most other sub-Saharan countries apparently agree. One reason is that Mandela has urged them to accept the white farmers as a kind of foreign aid from his cash-strapped government. Invitations reportedly have followed from as far afield as Gabon, Gambia, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Malawi, Tanzania and Uganda.

"We believe they will come and contribute to economic growth," Zambia's president, Frederick Chiluba, said recently in Johannesburg, South Africa.

"South African farmers have skills and capabilities," agreed Mozambique's president, Joaquim Chissano. He said he hopes white farmers will provide jobs and increase cross-border trade.

So far, no one is promising free land in the so-called promised lands. And war-devastated countries like Angola and Mozambique present special problems. Millions of land mines litter the landscape, for example, the deadly legacy of former, apartheid-era wars.

"This is a worrying factor," conceded Constand Viljoen, a right-wing politician and retired general who heads South Africa's Freedom Front, a political party that represents conservative Afrikaners.

*

Viljoen is leading the drive for what he calls "agricultural pioneers" to fan out across the lush, central belt of Africa to aid in development. He predicts a "few hundred thousand" Afrikaners eventually may join the trek.

"It is our contribution toward stability in the region," he said. "We are Africans, and we believe in Africa."

Still, history is awkward. As chief of South Africa's defense forces in the 1980s, Viljoen led the Afrikaner-dominated military in brutal wars and terrorist campaigns against apartheid's enemies in Mozambique, Angola and other neighboring states.

Viljoen denies that reactionary whites want to build a separate white homeland in chaotic countries such as Zaire, where government control has all but vanished. "They need not fear that the Afrikaner will bring unacceptable ideas," he said.

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