/ 24 May 2012

ET verdict: Less roar, more grumble

Demonstrators supporting murder accused Chris Mahlangu and Patrick Ndlovu quickly lost steam.
Demonstrators supporting murder accused Chris Mahlangu and Patrick Ndlovu quickly lost steam.

As the 40-strong black crowd singing Dubul’ iBhunu (Shoot the Boer) rounded a corner three blocks away, the white family out for a late afternoon walk took turns glancing over their shoulders: first the father, then the mother, then the toddler. Without saying a word they picked up their pace, stroller wheels rattling over the rough ground that serves as pavement in much of the town, dragging along a protesting (black) lapdog.

At lunchtime on the same day, a black shop clerk was winning a staring contest with a white man dressed in khaki; the latter would speak only in Afrikaans, the former only in English. As he left the store, shoulders set in annoyance, she hurried to a window to see whether he was leaving or retrieving a weapon from his tattered bakkie.

“I speak good Afrikaans. I just do not feel like it today,” said the shop clerk, turning back from the window. “Tomorrow all this nonsense will be over and we can go back to being nice to each other, even if we do not like each other.”

This was humdrum Ventersdorp on Tuesday, away from the hubbub and posturing outside the court where Judge John Horn was in the process of declaring Eugene “ET” Terre’Blanche’s death just another farm murder. The mistrust ran deep – both ways – but probably no deeper than it did when ET was still alive.

On April 3 2010, the man who was once the face of the extreme right wing in South Africa was bludgeoned to death while lying in his bed. The two years since have seen fears of a race war in Ventersdorp, scuffles in the street between large groups, and it had been overrun by white supremacists for a day. Ultimately, though, nothing has changed.

Heartland of hatred
At one time Ventersdorp was considered the heartland of hatred, the home turf of Terre’Blanche’s Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) and its militant brand of racism. This week a small contingent of AWB supporters and related organisations, some of whom had travelled long distances to be there, in effect ceded the street to a singing and dancing group of local black residents. But even that demonstration, nominally in support of the man who murdered Terre’Blanche and his co-accused, lacked any real fire or consequence.

Having taunted the rightwingers and mildly denigrated the memory of Terre’Blanche, the black crowd drifted back to the township, losing energy with every step.
“Today they are brave because we are here to watch out for them,” said a burly white policeman, watching the performance. “Check, tomorrow they will not do anything.”

As presented both inside and outside court, Terre’Blanche’s once bellicose bigotry had mellowed into paternalism as he edged towards his 70s. His wife, Martie, told of a man who hired a farmworker simply because he needed work, then tried to manage his wages so he would not spend it all on booze. “Mrs Terre’Blanche stated – and this evidence was not controverted – that the deceased was kind to [his murderer, Chris Mahlangu], praised him as a good worker and they got on well with each other,” Horn said in his judgment.

More Santa than Satan
Other family members, and even AWB leaders with a reason to preserve a radical legacy for Terre’Blanche, also spoke of a man more Santa than Satan in the last years of his life.

Whether through cause or effect, the AWB followed much the same path as ET, sticking to a doctrine of white supremacy (or black inferiority) but applying it only through mild rhetoric. In the immediate aftermath of Terre’Blanche’s death it had a sudden resurgence of belligerence, vowing to wreak terrible vengeance on those responsible and all their kind, for good measure. This attitude lasted less than half a week before being replaced by promises to respect the rule of law to the letter.

The AWB once had dreams of retaking South Africa from its new black rulers by force. Today it dreams of an Afrikaner homeland while making do with training members to defend themselves against criminals.

And Ventersdorp, the town that once had a claim to fame, if only as a seat of prejudice, dreams of an end to suspicion – which may not be that far off.