It was always tempting not to take Eugene Terre’Blanche seriously. He swaggered around in a uniform that made him look like an overgrown boy scout, threatening the race war to end all race wars in defence of apartheid, but his platoons of potbellied men didn’t look like they had much fight in them.
I once watched his Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB) demonstrate “use of the horse in a revolutionary situation” — in this case rescuing a stranded white woman and her children from the heart of a black township. Terre’Blanche began by revealing a fundamental misunderstanding about townships by asking everyone to be quiet so as not to scare the horses. The crowd deemed the show a great success but Terre’Blanche was none too pleased when I asked him how the woman got to be in the township and how on earth his men got their horses there. He stomped off. Terre’Blanche did love his horse.
The old fascist — the AWB rode under a three-pronged, swastika-inspired cross — was good at pulling off dramatic stunts, on one occasion driving an armoured car through the front of the conference centre where Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk were negotiating over the shape of the new South Africa.
Terre’Blanche was no joke, even if he was not the threat to the transition to majority rule that he imagined himself to be. The AWB terrorised whole communities, assaulting black people with impunity. And he had one thing in common with Hitler: he exercised a powerful effect with his long appeals to Afrikaner nationalism and history.
His organisation met its Waterloo in the black homeland of Bophuthatswana, where it foolishly imagined the army of that nominally independent land would stand against the looming ANC rule. Three AWB members were killed as the organisation was sent fleeing by the soldiers it thought would do what these white men told them. But before the AWB was driven out, its members murdered scores of black people.
Terre’Blanche held a press conference the day after. He blamed other Afrikaner leaders for the failure, but it was quite apparent that his men had failed their greatest test — not only militarily but in judging the willingness of black men to fight. That day Terre’Blanche turned on me demanding to know where I was from. That it was England was bad enough. The English were the original enemy. That I worked for a liberal paper was worse. My paper fell within his very broad definition of communism.
Bophuthatswana ended the illusion of the AWB leading a white uprising but it didn’t end the violence. His men set off bombs around Johannesburg at the beginning of South Africa’s first free election, killing 21.
For all the idealism, the man proved to be as petty and bullying as you might expect from a small-town tyrant. When he did finally go to prison, in 2001, it was not for the big crimes (he folded and confessed to those and got amnesty from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) but for beating up a petrol station attendant and attempting to murder a security guard.
Terre’Blanche found himself one of the few white faces in an overwhelmingly black prison. One of dozens of cell mates during the AWB leader’s first night in prison described how Terre’Blanche spent the night wide awake, handing over cigarettes. In prison he became a born-again Christian and claimed to have moderated his views on black people. But on his release he tried to relaunch the AWB. He claimed there was a popular clamour. But this time it was a joke. – guardian.co.uk