The conviction of a farmworker for the murder of Eugene Terre'Blanche has laid bare South Africa's bitter anger across the racial divide.
Afrikaans Weerstandsbeweging leader Eugene Terre’Blanche liked to tell me that he would die facing the enemy. He had in mind red communists, pink liberals and black terrorists. Colour was always a big thing for a man whose French Huguenot surname translated into “White Earth”. When the campaign to save the White Rhino got underway, he said simply: “To hell with the rhino – save the white man!”
The end was not as he imagined. The Leader, as he liked to be known, South Africa’s Führer of the Veld, founder of the far-right, AWB – or ARM as it becomes in English – was bludgeoned to death in his spartan bedroom, on his farm, near his home-town of Ventersdorp, on Easter weekend, 2010.
I first met Terre’Blanche in the 1980s, when he was written off as a freak, and I watched audiences at his rallies grow into hundreds and then thousands. He had what a certain class of dictatorial men I had seen close-up – Emperor Bokassa, Franjo Tujman , Robert Mugabe – all had in common: intense narcissism, menacing daintiness, a thing about hats and epaulettes, and a need for some kind of artistry beyond mere power.
For a while, in the late 80s, as the old apartheid state was cracking up, Terre’Blanche terrified its leaders because he reminded them of who they were and what they had always preached and were now putting behind them: the religion of race. The idea that God was a white man, probably of Dutch extraction, who condemned racial mixing, revolution and raffles. The old regime hated this preacher of racial rigour who accused them of betrayal and did all it could to destroy him. Terre’Blanche was a fundamentalist in an era of fudge.
Terre’Blanche had been, until recently, a spent force. After a jail term for beating up a black petrol-station attendant, he had fallen from the public gaze. But then he was always doing that: whether falling down drunk; falling in love with the wrong woman; or falling off his horse, at one of those quixotic Boer parades he so relished. Ironically, what put him back in the saddle in recent times has been his campaign to highlight the murders of many hundreds of white farmers up and down the land which Terre’Blanche called systematic genocide.
Charged with his murder was one of his workers, an illegal Zimbabwean immigrant, Chris Mahlangu. Also charged was Patrick Ndlovo, a 15-year-old boy, who slept in squalid quarters in the barn. Terre’Blanche had not paid their Easter wages and they were angry about that. Instead, he had bought them lots of booze, and then went to bed alone in his farmhouse. A few hours later, man and boy forced a window with a heavy iron bar, and using the bar and a panga, they hacked and bludgeoned their sleeping boss to death.
Next, Mahlangu and Ndlovo ransacked the farmhouse but found nothing worth stealing except a mobile phone. This wasn’t surprising because Terre’Blanche struggled to make ends meet. His attackers took his truck but it broke down and they fled on foot. However, the dead man’s phone kept ringing and this so disturbed Mahlungu that he tore out the sim card and chewed it to bits. At a nearby farmhouse, the pair told workers they had killed Terre’Blanche. “I’m your boss now,” Mahlungu told them, though the boast lacked conviction, because the fugitives then borrowed a phone, called the police and begged to be picked up before the “white Boers” of Ventersdorp learned of Terre’Blanche’s death, and came after them.
Ventersdorp, north-west of Johannesburg, is set in a flatland of red soil streaked with blond vistas of endless maize fields. It has always been an Afrikaner farming town, a Boer redoubt, with streets broad enough to turn an ox-wagon. An uneasy, testy dorp where big men, black and white, stare straight past each other, and the steeples of three Dutch Reformed churches, once the temples of the white Nationalist party at prayer, stab the skyline.
On the first day of what would turn into a marathon trial lasting for much of the past year, a platoon of Terre’Blanche stormtroopers gathered outside the courthouse on Voortrekker Street. A loudspeaker mounted on their car roof blasted out traditional Afrikaner tunes, and they greeted a black prosecuting official who happened to walk by with a derisory chorus of an old song called Bobbejaan Klim die Berg (Baboon Climbs the Mountain). One of the posters took sardonic aim at the recent refusal of the South African government, under pressure from the Chinese, to allow the Dalai Lama to visit the country. “Dear Dalai,” it read: “Don’t bother about a visa. Just fly to Zim and walk right in.” A reference to the many Zimbabweans who enter South Africa illegally, among them, Chris Mahlangu.
The AWB men at Terre’Blanche rallies, then and now, were always more sad sacks than SS. They never managed the nipped waist, the swaggering precision, the catwalk preening that real Nazis showed off. They never understood that real fascism is high fashion. You dress to kill – you mean what you wear. Even their party flag, three black sevens toe to toe in a white circle, against a blood-red background, was swastika kitsch.
“Nuremberg designed at Woolworths,” was the way I put it to Terre’Blanche. He took it as a compliment. “At least you know what Nuremberg stood for.”
Later, he told me he wasn’t a Nazi, he was simply “a patriot, and a Boer”. But by then he had come to see that embracing Hitler was not good public relations, and he had grown convinced that his real enemies were the elite among his fellow Afrikaners, who had betrayed the Boer volk by selling out to a black government. And messy dressers though his troops may have been, they were competent enough when it came to the bombs they set and the people they killed.
Hitler was, of course, the very template Terre’Blanche understudied, and he brought real talent to the role. He was the most electrifying speaker I’ve heard in South Africa. The rich, round voice mixing insults and exhortations, in speeches that were a melange of poems, psalms, threats and shameless sentimentality, delivered with superb timing, leading, always, to the vow to defend to the death “the Boer nation”. He mastered the trick of turning his obsessions into operatic events. An early drama he wrote was a school setwork. He liked Shakespeare, and Macbeth especially – the bloody defiance of the Thane of Cawdor appealed to him. He wrote poetry all his life and, though marred by doses of self-pity, it was not too bad.
Terre’Blanche was known in South Africa as “ET”, and the extraterrestrial tang of those initials pleased him. But what was alarming about Terre’Blanche was precisely not that he seemed a creature from outer space. On the contrary, ET was very close to home; he was appalling embarrassing because he was so familiar. He was altogether “one of us”. A few years back, after the election of Mandela, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) polled the country on the greatest 100 South Africans, and ET came in at 25th, right behind the legendary liberal leader Helen Suzman. The SABC, still as much a government glove-puppet in the new South Africa, as it was in the apartheid years, did what came naturally and banned the news.
In court, the two accused claimed that Terre’Blanche had maltreated them, and there was talk of assault and sodomy. The police had done an inadequate job in gathering evidence, in safe-guarding the rights of the teenager, and in securing the site of the crime. But over it all hung an air of embarrassment. A lot of people wanted not to know who did what to whom; they wanted it over.
And when at last judgment was finally handed down, it came as a relief. There were one or two clashes outside the courthouse, some black people danced and sang and held up placards declaring: “Chris Mahlungu for president!” The AWB men smoked and scowled and the riot police were there in force. The judge dismissed the talk of assault and sexual abuse as fantasy, and found Mahlungu guilty of the murder of Terre’Blanche and Patrick Ndlovo, now 18, guilty in a lesser charge of house-breaking. Suddenly, it was over and it altered nothing and everyone went home with their sense of injustice as raw as ever.
It is said that Terre’Blanche has no heirs but I’m not sure about that. He constantly vowed he would die for the volk. This is one of those coded games the power-hungry have always played in South Africa and it rarely fools anyone. Pious protestations to the contrary, what drives politics in this country is fear and anger, and what counts in the end is firepower. When people speak of dying for their beliefs, they mean, all too often, that they will kill for them.
It is a sentiment that has even been set to music. Julius Malema, the ANC youth movement leader until he was suspended recently, has made a song of the struggle years, Kill the Boer, into his theme tune and though a court has condemned it as “hate speech”, it continues to be sung. Hatred is not something that can be suspended by court rulings. There is very real anger in the country and it has not been addressed.
Malema understands this, as Eugene Terre’Blanche once did, and whose alter ego, in the bitterly comic war of mirrors, he seems increasingly to have become. Eugene morphs into Julius; brothers under the skin: angry demagogues with a vivid store of racial abuse and withering scorn for those who rule the land. Terre’Blanche charged that brother Afrikaners were selling out, to not just international communism, but to capitalists, Jews and liberals who were plotting to destroy his people. Malema and his supporters burn the ANC flag and insult South African president Jacob Zuma for betraying the revolution and selling out to white capitalists, those “thieves” who have stolen the country and the continent. The state should take the farms away from white landowners, and nationalise the gold fields, the banks and the courts.
After the trial ended, I took a walk down Voortrekker Road, where the courthouse stands, and kept walking. Ventersdorp no longer stops where the black township begins. It is all one now. But 18 years after Mandela was elected, it is a wreck. Tembu runs a machine shop in his backyard, and when he remembers ET, he laughs and shakes his head, as if it was some fond memory of a mad but interesting neighbour. There is surprisingly little rancour felt for Mr White Earth. But there is alarm and fury about the corruption in the town council, about the sewage that runs into the streams, the lack of houses, jobs, dignity. The council is solidly ANC but for many black people in Ventersdorp, things are no better than they were in the old apartheid days.
I walked back into town, past the Xing Wei 5 and 10-cent clothes store, and a string of Chinese shops, the owners silent, industrious, ever-present. A boom-box bazaar was belting out township rap from speakers the size of fridges, and frequent funeral parlours testify to the grim harvest of the Aids pandemic.
Outside the Pennywise Pawn Shop an old ox-wagon waits on the sidewalk, unlikely ever to find a buyer. The clocks on each bell tower of the three Dutch Reformed churches had stopped; the old order they represented has gone. Gone, too, is Eugene Terre’Blanche. What remains is the bitter disillusion on all sides of the racial divide that his murder has laid bare. You may kill the Boer, as the song invites, but the anger – what will anyone do about that? – © Guardian News and Media 2012