He's a communist, he's black, and he lives in a shack. For the die-hard Afrikaners of Ventersdorp, the new mayor is a nightmare come to life
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The Independent Culture
A THURSDAY night in December 1995, Ventersdorp, South Africa. About 9.30pm. The bar at the Walk Inn hotel looks as though it's hosting a convention of over-age boy scouts. The joint is jammed with farmers in khaki shorts and knee-high socks, proud Boers all of them, knocking back brandies and beers, and carrying on in general.

One man, a fat, middle-aged ex-preacher with breath that could fuel a tractor, is groping after a blonde barmaid with a talent for backpeddling. It's lunge and dodge, dodge and lunge all around the tables and hallways. Everytime it looks as if the woman's going to lose this lecherous game of tag, she screams and the bar chortles.

What has the place packed on a Thursday is dearth of choice as much as any thirst for mid-week fun. In a dorp with no cinemas, no discos, no video arcades, and no other bars for whites, the Walk Inn is, literally, the only game in town. There are black taverns, of course, including one 50 yards down the road. But for this crowd, the "new" South Africa notwithstanding, white is still white, and black is still black and never the twain shall meet, especially after working hours.

Any doubts about this are swiftly dispelled when I ask the bartender - a tall, hairy man - about the bar down the road, and he stares at me like a wolfhound that has just heard a funny noise. "It's a shebeen," he says after a while. "It's for non-whites. You drink here." There is a finality in his voice and a look in his eye which say, "No more stupid questions."

Back near the billiards table sits a handsome right-wing paramilitary commando whose black jeans and black and grey camouflage T-shirt set him apart from the short shorts and knee-sock brigade. He is a true neo-Nazi, which is to say that he really believes that whites are meant to rule the earth and that it is the mission of blacks, Jews and other "mud people" to destroy them. He preaches the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and other anti-Semitic tracts with a gleam in his Aryan eyes. The holocaust? Never happened. The massacre of Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas? A ploy by Jewish- backed US federal agents to crush god-fearing Christians. "It's all part of the Jew conspiracy," he says, and when he says all, he means all: recessions, depressions, the Second World War, communism, socialism, and most importantly, change in South Africa and the advent of black rule.

"Who do you think backs that nigger so-called president of ours? Jews," he says with unshakeable conviction.

South African right-wingers almost always refer to blacks as kaffirs, a hateful word but one without any resonance for an English-speaking foreigner. The use of the "n" word for Nelson Mandela is for my benefit, and it stings. I struggle to turn my wince into a shrug, and at the same time slide my left hand - the one with my wedding ring and the Hebrew inscription on it - underneath the table.

But the worst of the venom in the bar tonight is not for Jews, nor for President Mandela. It is for the new mayor of Ventersdorp, a shy, black 26-year-old part-time school teacher called Meshack Mbambalala.

"Weren't you with our new mayor today?" a squat young farmer called Petrus Botes asks me: "Mboom-boom or whatever his name is." You can almost hear the ears bending, waiting for a response.

"You were with him," Petrus says, his pool cue in his hand. "I saw you. What were you doing with that kaffir? He's a criminal."

"He's been in prison," adds his friend, Brood.

"Got drunk and stabbed someone last week," another voice chimes in.

"Can you imagine? A drunk kaffir as mayor of Ventersdorp, the town of the AWB," says someone else, and the bar falls briefly silent as the drinkers, both those who belong to the AWB [Afrikaner-Weerstandsbeweging], the neo- Nazi Afrikaner Resistance Movement which hopes for an all-white "homeland", and those who don't, try painfully to digest this grim new truth.

THERE are whites in South Africa, many Afrikaners included, who are committed to change; people who realise there must be sacrifices along the way to the creation of a multi-racial, multi-cultural society; people who understand that taxes must rise, and wealth must be redistributed, and that blacks have to take the reins of government.

There are whites like that, but, by and large, those in Ventersdorp are not among them. For the people in the bar, it was bad enough that a black man had taken the helm of the country. Now one was running their town.

And what a town. Although just two hour's drive on a modern highway north- west of Johannesburg, Ventersdorp exists in another reality. One of the last bastions of Afrikaner nationalism and bloody-mindedness, its right- wing credentials are on display for all to see in the main square. There, among the monuments to Afrikaner Unity and the Boers' Great Trek, is a shrine to the AWB's fallen "heroes". Seven names, including those of the three right-wingers famously shot dead in 1994 in front of photographers while pleading for their lives in the dust of Bophuthatswana, are engraved on black marble obelisks decorated with swastika-like emblems.

Given its infamy, the town itself seems terribly small. There is just one main street with two small banks, an off-licence, a chemist's shop, a few grocers-cum-general stores and the odd boutique. There is a beauty salon, several churches and, on the outskirts, an empty car dealership and a golf course. And, although there are no high walls around the houses here (unlike Johannesburg) and the streets have an innocent, naked quality, everything about Ventersdorp reeks Afrikaner Gothic. It oozes white, Christian, conservative values.

That such a place could have Meshack Mbambalala as mayor is perhaps only slightly more unimaginable to the town's white population than it is to Mbambalala himself. Sitting in the corrugated iron shack that he calls home in the nearby Tshing township, surrounded by his posters of Bob Marley and of his favourite Soweto football team, Mbambalala holds his head in his hands and reflects on the irony. "You know, I never really wanted this. I only ever dreamed of standing in front a classroom with a piece of chalk in my hand," he says. "My comrades wanted me because they thought that I would be the last one to give in to pressure, that I would hold my ground, stand up for what was right and not allow myself to be pushed around.

"Sometimes when I am in bed or when I am relaxing, I ask myself, why did I agree to do this? Why did they choose me? But I have to be more of a man, not a cry baby. I have to face my responsibilities."

Mbambalala's responsibilities are to lift living standards in the township, maintain services to the white areas, and gain the trust of both black and white as he tries to forge a new identity for one of South Africa's toughest towns. With the best will in the world behind him, it would be a daunting mission. But Mbambalala does not have that blessing; he is the worst nightmare of white Ventersdorp come true. He is a black, communist, shack-dwelling member of the ANC. He is every enemy the old white-minority governments railed against rolled into one man.

And so threats have already been made against his life, and he is the victim of an ongoing smear campaign that has labelled him a drunk, a housebreaker and a cattle thief. But Mbambalala remains philosophical: "Rome," he will remind you, "was not built in a day."

This Rome, though, is going to take an especially long time to construct.

IN THE months before South Africa's historic 1994 general elections, there used to be a roadsign on the way to Ventersdorp that declared, in Afrikaans: "Here begins our Volkstaat". It was more a gesture of defiance than any proposed border of a white homeland. But what it really meant to tell the traveller was: "Buckle up your seat-belt and close your mind. You're entering Rip van Winkle country." And in many ways the western Transvaal has remained Rip van Winkle country, and Ventersdorp is still its capital.

The death of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela made very little impact in this corner of the country. Life continued as normal, more or less. Whites ran the town through their control of local government. Blacks endured in Tshing. There have been changes; blacks have found that they can show their faces in town and be reasonably confident that they won't get beaten up by white thugs. But there are still unofficial no-go areas, especially at night, and especially near the Walk Inn.

But what sets Ventersdorp apart, what enshrines it the minds of most South Africans, are Eugene Terreblanche and the AWB. The two are virtually indistinguishable from each other. They even share the same living space. The office of the movement, complete with a replica of a covered Voortrekker ox wagon in the front yard, is on a quiet tree-lined street next door to Terreblanche's house.

There was a time in South Africa when it was impossible to turn on a radio, television or Hoover without hearing Terreblanche threatening to release hell on earth if President FW de Klerk continued to roll back the system of white privilege. The figure he cuts these days, however, is a far cry from the fire-breathing orator in a starched khaki uniform who used to stir up crowds of gun-toting farmers on the nightly news. Indeed, the man who pulled up in a pick-up truck to the driveway between his home and office and found me waiting there was dressed in a brown work uniform with a matching wide-brim hat, both of which were covered in mud and clay.

"I can't speak to you," he snapped. "What makes you think that you can just come to a man's house without an appointment and expect to talk to him?" I apologised for my unexpected appearance and explained that I had tried to call, but that no one had answered the phone; so I had decided to drop by to see if he could spare some time. He put a dirty hand on my shoulder and waved a finger in my face. "Manners, my friend," he said, "are as old as the mountains," and disappeared into his house, followed by a pack of Alsatians.

When he returned, he was cleaner and slightly more accommodating. He explained that he was "on leave" from political activities: "The rains came late and I have 200 hectares to plant with maize. I have no time for politics right now." Before departing, he bade me sit in his office and wait for his "girl" to bring coffee. The building itself was decorated with mounted animal heads; Terreblanche's own study resembled a museum of Boer artifacts. A stuffed eagle sat on top of a huge old mahogany desk; an old Gatling gun lay on the floor; and on the wall were dour portraits of bearded Afrikaner leaders of old. It spoke of a failed organisation. Indeed, the AWB's blundering mock martial antics and a bombing campaign before the 1994 elections are now widely regarded as an embarrassment by all but the most unhinged. Reports a few years ago of Terreblanche's extramarital affair with a young newspaper reporter drove many of his top aides to leave the AWB. Dwindling membership and a shortage of funds have further hampered its activities.

The movement is considered by many to be totally marginalised, if not moribund. But right-wing dreams are not broken here in Ventersdorp; they just walk with a limp. Every week fresh flowers are placed on the AWB monument. No one admits to knowing who puts them there. Yet despite its - and Terreblanche's - best efforts, Ventersdorp could not keep change at bay forever. The town had a unbreakable date with the new South Africa: 1 November 1995, the day on which the country held new local government elections.

After 18 months of ostrich-like behaviour, avoidance and denial, the good white people of Ventersdorp were going to have their heads democratically dug out of the ground, whether they wanted it or not. Like town and township throughout the country, Ventersdorp and Tshing were yoked together as one municipality, and the electorate was voting for a single, unified council. In the past, white-only electors cast their ballots for white councils which in turn appointed white officers for all but the most menial tasks. The council provided services exclusively for whites. It was a system of the whites, for the whites and by the whites. Townships rotted from neglect.

The 1 November local elections were intended to sweep all that away and to make government more representative of and responsive to the majority of South Africans. The new mayors and town councils would be at the sharp end of the machinery breaking down the last vestiges of apartheid.

That Ventersdorp was going to get a black majority council and a black mayor was beyond question. It was a matter of simple arithmetic: there are about 2,000 whites in Ventersdorp and 15,000 blacks in Tshing. This did not mean the end of white power, though. Under a complicated national formula, whites were guaranteed representation. More significantly, white civil servants who ran towns and cities across the country would remain in their jobs to show the new and inexperienced black representatives the administrative ropes.

So it was in Ventersdorp. The ANC's black candidates won five out of the nine council seats and the right to elect the mayor, while the whites, now a minority voice, held all the key jobs that made sure the grass was cut, the water and electricity flowed, and the rubbish was picked up.

Thus, erstwhile adversaries have been for-ced to sit down together and work things out. White politicians, who had previously done everything in their power to limit black progress, were suddenly conciliatory. "We are not against the development of black people," said Albertus van Zijl, a former mayor and the longest serving member of Ventersdorp's local council. "The right is not opposed to improving black life as long as standards for white areas do not drop."

This abrupt outbreak of white political pragmatism has not, however, turned Ventersdorp into a model of national unity.

White council members have already attempted to manipulate the situation to what they thought would be their advantage by trying to push the ANC to choose their prefered candidate for mayor - Tommy Lerefolo, a charismatic 24-year-old ANC councillor. It was the first test of the new majority's backbone, and if there were any doubts as to who was now boss, they were quickly quashed. "They tried to have me made mayor," says Lerefolo, laughing at the thought. "Maybe it's because they thought I was the most approachable or the easiest to push around. I really don't know what they thought. But we in the ANC decided that Meshack had to be the mayor. He had the best political vision, and, of all of us, he was the one most likely to stick to his guns."

IT IS a phenomenon unique to South Africa that, after years of oppression, the newly empowered black masses are not looking to get their own back. This is not to say that there aren't those among black South Africans who think about or even pray for a settling of scores. But they are the exception rather than the rule.

But even according to the standards set by President Mandela, Meshack Mbambalala is a remarkably forgiving man.

Born in 1969 to a Xhosa migrant farm worker in Suiwerfontein, about 10 miles from Ventersdorp, Mbambalala began his schooling on the farm before attending a Church-sponsored boarding school for his higher education. Soon after his 17th birthday, just when he was ready to start his A-levels, Mbambalala's father died. Two days after the funeral, his father's employer told Mbambalala and his older brother that they had either to take their dad's place or leave the farm. They chose the latter and trekked with their mother 90 miles away to Modderfontein, near Johannesburg, to stay with their grandparents.

Shortly afterwards, Mbambalala's mother secured a job as a maid in Ventersdorp and the family moved to Tshing. For three years, Meshack and his family rented a room in a relative's backyard, before they were able to get a five square yard plot of their own. Mbambalala completed his studies in 1988, and the following year got a job as a part-time teacher at the Tshing primary school. "I saved every penny I made. I didn't spend anything. All I earned was for my education," he says.

In 1990, Mbambalala took the bus to Johannesburg and registered for a BA degree in education at the Vista University in Soweto, South Africa's first black-run centre of higher learning; it was there that he first got involved in politics. But just before sitting his final exams in 1992, he ran out of money and was forced to drop out of school.

Dejected and without a job, Mbambalala returned to Ventersdorp and to his part-time position at the Tshing primary school. His involvement in politics started seriously in 1993. "I did not go into politics because of power," he says. "But living in Tshing on the doorstep of the AWB, it was clear that things had to change. Low-minded people would come to the location [township] and beat us up. Once I had to run from such an attack. Politics was the way to fight back."

But now Mbambalala is in a position of power, he is not fighting back. Reflecting, for instance, on the farmer who evicted his family, he says: "I am a very forgiving person. What he did was justified at the time. This is what I mean by reconciliation. We have to move forward and leave the past. My goal is to make a new Ventersdorp, to turn the town of the AWB into the home of reconciliation in South Africa."

The words may sound like political-speak, but there is a disarming honesty and unassuming frankness in the way they are spoken. Indeed, Meshack's commitment to his beliefs is such that he has named his firstborn son Nhlanganiso, a Xhosa word meaning reconciliation. He also says that he has no plans to remove the AWB mounument from the main square: "It's part of this town's history, just as I am now part of this town's history. It's important for everyone to know what this town was and how it has changed."

LESEGO "Bon Jovi" Boiyanko, a 25-year-old local Communist Party official, rock fanatic, and well-known Tshing ladies' man, leans on the fence in front of Mbambalala's shack, watching the mayor play dice with a group of township children. "Our mayor is leading the way in reconciliation," Boiyanko announces. "He is working hard to make it work. Even when it's just us, his comrades, sitting in the ANC offices talking about things, he urges us to push reconciliation." Mbambalala looks over, smiles, and, to the cheers of the children, throws the dice once again.

Erasing the legacies of rural apartheid, however, will take more than good intentions and kind words. There is a great pressure on Mbambalala from his own community to deliver the goods and basic services they have done without for so long. Out of 2,500 houses and shacks in Tshing, less than 150 have electricity and running water. Even fewer have flush toilets.

The money to deliver these necessities depends partly on reversing black non-payment of local rates. Under apartheid, the ANC encouraged people not to pay their taxes, partly as a protest and partly to make black areas ungovernable. Now that the ANC is in government, it is finding out what other governments have known for years: that it is hard to get people to part with money.

Still, most of the changes will have to be subsidised by the white part of town. This may be just, but it is certainly not going to be popular. And it is in this area that Mbambalala is going to have to make his hardest sell. He needs to convince the whites that it is in their best interests to uplift Tshing in order to create a prosperous, united Ventersdorp. Togetherness, though, remains a frightening idea.

Blacks and whites have always lived in a peculiar intimacy in small towns like Ventersdorp. Black women work in white houses and help raise white children. Black "boys" tend white gardens, drive white tractors and ploughs, and work side-by-side with white farmers. Despite this contact, there is little understanding of each others' worlds. There is, however, much mutual distrust.

Mbambalala himself admits to knowing very little about the white part of town. In the old days, it was a place where blacks simply never used to go. Even now, he prefers to stay in his shack and function out of the ANC offices in Tshing rather than live and work in town. It is not out of fear or because he is being prevented from doing so. It's a lack of familiarty resulting from apartheid. "It's just that I'm not used to spending time with white people," he says. "It's not a question of the pigment of their skin. It's just uncomfortable for me. Even being served tea by a white person makes me uncomfortable. I'm not used to it. I'm used to being asked to do jobs for them."

At the town's municipal offices, close to the main square and the AWB monument, Mbambalala is deferential almost to the point of being apologetic when dealing with the white civil servants upon whom he relies for everything from implementing his decisions to taking care of his mayoral robes. They, in turn, address him as "sir" and "Meneer Burgermeester" [Mr Mayor], and they wear their discomfort under their skin.

They of course deny this.

"There are no problems here," says Corrie Smit, the town secretary and the man in charge, among other things, of Mbambalala's robes. "We have a very good relationship. Everyone in this office is prepared to work for Ventersdorp and help our new mayor. We try not to think in terms of politics or race here."

But nothing can hide the fact that, apart from the mayor's, the only other black faces in the building belong to the municipal labourers who stop by the offices to receive instructions and to report to the "baases".

Nevertheless, Mbambalala is now under pressure from regional party officials to move into town and take what the party believes is his rightful place and entitlement: offices in the municipal building and a proper house with a garden. He has not made up his mind yet as to whether he will bite the bullet and move. "The people who voted for me live here in Tshing, and it would be like betraying them to leave and go to the town," he says.

It is easy to think that this self-effacing tee-totaller is perhaps not up to the task before him - which is what his mother believes. She once even went so far as to accuse him in front of some journalists of being "too soft and too shy for such a position".

"Take it easy," he told her with his slight stammer, "I'll get along." And initial signs are that indeed he will. He has great confidence in the ability of his council to work together. He has already convinced one of the white councillors to serve as his deputy and has agreed to share other key positions with whites. But when necessary, Mbambalala has also shown that he is quite capable of stepping on white toes. Recently, for instance, Mbambalala was having a difficult time with one of the senior white civil servants he had inherited from the old council. "I was tired of arguing with him, so one day I just told him: 'Don't forget that you were hired by the apar-theid regime and that times have changed. If you can't change and move on, you'd better resign now.' He said 'No, meneer. It's okay, meneer. Sorry to misunderstand, meneer.' I have heard no more complaints from him. It was the first time I started to feel like the boss."

And on 16 November, not even a full two weeks after his inauguration, Mbambalala's pregnant girlfriend went into labour. He called the police for help. Not knowing that it was their new mayor on the phone, the police hung up on Mbambalala because he had the temerity to ask for help in English instead of Afrikaans. After getting his girlfriend to the hospital, Mbambalala paid the police station a visit. "Mister Mayor, how can we help you?" asked one of the officers, and Mbambalala tore into him, lodging a formal complaint and putting the offending policeman on warning.

Perhaps the riskiest of his moves is yet to come. Mbambalala has plans to hit the whites in the place that is going to hurt most: the Ventersdorp Golf Club. A keen sports fan, Mbambalala taught himself the basics of the game by watching it on television. Since becoming mayor he has decided it would be nice to put theoretical knowlege to practical use. The problem is that the country club is "whites only".

"I'm planning on having a little chat with the management to find out why they don't want our people," he says. "If they can pay the fees and abide by club regulations, what's the problem? I'm also going to apply to join. Let's see them turn the mayor down." He chuckles at the thought. "Even if the club is private, the owners must know the new South Africa is for all of us."

"BLOODY KAFFIRS. I hate them, I can tell you. The young ones, they steal. They murder. They piss on the street. No kidding. I saw a man the other day just pissing on the street. And I told him, 'Stop that, you bloody pig. This is not how you behave.' "

Marie Potgieter is sitting in the glare of a single bare bulb. Widowed just over a year ago, 48-year-old Potgieter struggles to make ends meet. Her two daughters and their three children live with her in the same sparsely- furnished but clean house. The money she gets from her husband's pension and her sons-in-law's wages does not amount to much more than what some black families in Tshing earn.

She is warm to strangers and unapologetic for her political and racial views. She hates President Mandela, Deputy President FW de Klerk and most, but not all, black South Africans. "I don't mind if they have manners. If they have manners, they are welcome in my home. The old ones I can talk to because they say, 'Marie, I know I'm a kaffir.' But say kaffir to the young ones and they'll take you to court." And she has this to say about Ventersdorp's new mayor: "We can't believe it, you know. The town was always KP [Konservatiewe (Conservative) Party] - you know what I really mean: AWB. No one wants to admit it because they're afraid to say so, but I'm not afraid to tell you. In fact, I went to school with Gene [Terreblanche]. He hit me once, as a joke."

In his seminal work on South Africa, Move Your Shadow, Joseph Lelyveld noted that there was a time when the aim of Afrikaner politics was to prevent poor whites from sinking to the level of even poorer blacks. "The worst thing," Lelyveld wrote, "that could possibly befall a white was to become a 'white kaffir'." So whites would insist that what raised them above the miserable natives were culture and manners. They were not, they said, racists; they simply abhored the way in which some blacks spat in public. When black manners improved, they suggested, so too would the willingness of whites to seek political accommodation. Those citizens of Ventersdorp who are not as honest about their bigotry as Mrs Potgieter try to mask their feelings about black rule with talk of "standards". The meaning, however, is the same.

"I think the people are afraid of squatters coming into white areas," said Sali Coertze, one of the minority white members of Ventersdorp's new town council. "As you can see, people maintain their property here. They are very house proud. It's not the same in the township. People are afraid of what will happen. What about their security? Will women and children be safe? We never had close relationships with the blacks. We don't know how they will react to change."

But it is the white population of Ventersdorp that has displayed the most difficulty in adjusting - not so much to change itself as to the idea of change. They behave as if something has been taken away from them; that the control they exercised over their lives and history is gone.

The extent of Afrikaner feelings of alienation and anxiety can sometimes be measured in tears. Standing under a flat sun in the dirt of a huge ploughed field, "Brood" Tukstra wept as he recalled his tour of duty in Angola during South Africa's undeclared war there. "We had real leaders then. Not people with big mouths who talked a lot, but guys who could take control with a nod; not like now, when we have nobody. Afrikaners need leaders. We are like that." Pointing at his brown, mud-covered workboots, he said: "If you tell me that this shoe is red, then it's red. I won't argue. Afrikaners believe what we are told. But if after years of telling me something's red, you suddenly say, 'No, stupid, it's blue', then I won't know what to think and my brain will become cloudy. I'll be lost.

"That's what happened to us. For years we were told that the kaffirs in the ANC were our enemies, that we had to fight and die to beat communists in Angola to protect our way of life. And we did..." He stopped in mid-sentence to fight back the tears before regaining his composure. "Then, out of the blue, we are told the ANC are not bad, and communists can be mayors and ministers. Shit..." He stopped again and the tears flowed.

After a while he added:"Okay, so who built this country? It may have been built with black hands, yes, but Afrikaners provided the brains. So maybe we were wrong, blacks should be able to have a say in government, but what about us?"

That the Afrikaners' lives and history have been taken from them is a view rejected by Pierre Terblanche, another white member of Ventersdorp's local government, and no relation to Eugene Terreblanche. He has always been a member of the right-wing Conservative Party which, until the local elections, ran Ventersdorp. Now, as part of a power-sharing deal, he is deputy mayor.

"Nobody has lost the town. The truth of the matter is that the only party that can really benefit from this election is the township. But that doesn't mean that anyone is going to lose a piece of the town. No one is going to lose as long as we work together. It's not an election that loses a town, it's people's attitudes."

Those attitudes are perhaps the biggest threat to the town's future. Among people who fear change and history, the AWB will always be a refrain that never fades away. It represents a siren call of white supremacy that lives and sleeps and feeds in Ventersdorp.

Ventersdorp is poor. Farming, the main source of income, is in trouble. Drought and disappearing state patronage to white farmers have forced many farms in the area to close. Those who refuse to quit hang on by their fingernails and supplement the living they eke out of the land with other jobs or businesses. But there is little commercial activity in town. Even in the torpid white neighbourhoods signs of decay are starting to show. Pavements are cracking. And as long as the town maintains its reputation as a bulwark of right-wing militancy, the prospect of outside investment remains slim. And without an infusion of new money, Ventersdorp's future looks bleak.

Hendrik Grobler is 29 years old and is considering leaving the area, not because of politics but because there are few job prospects. "The panel beaters [car repair shop] where I now work is thinking of closing down, so I may not have any choice. There's no work here so I have to move. I don't know. Maybe I'll go to Pretoria."

As young people leave, the town's population ages, which in turn means that the tax revenue base that Ventersdorp so desperately needs to finance change shrinks. For those who hope to stay, the new town council has to reverse the town's image.

"In Ventersdorp, right-wing politics and activities were very high and today I think we [whites] are at the stage that the rest of South Africa was at two years ago: unsure, apprehensive about the future and fearing the worst," said Pierre Terblanche. "But I think at the end of the day we have to be honest with ourselves. If the rest of the nation has accepted [black majority rule] we must fall in. We can't resist our own nation and everyone else as well."

THE FIRST signs of change can be as simple and beautiful as music.

In the centre of town, a stone's throw from the Ventersdorp municipal offices, the heart of the white establishment, a small classroom bursts with African voices raised in joyous song.

The chorus is composed of smiling black teenagers practising for their end-of-year ceremony. Some of the kids are dressed in nice clothes, some in what could be called rags. But in the confines of the room, wrapped in their song, they are all beautiful.

The girls' high notes swirl effortlessly around the deeper voices of the boys. It sounds like honey and iron. They are singing and stomping the "Unonkala", a song of praise for the Messiah. It is a song children often sing to welcome President Mandela.

The chorus is being led by a big woman with a little girl's smile, Elizabeth Mosikidi, the headmistress of the Kgololosego intermediate school. "Kgololosego means freedom," she explains. "Freedom because we are free at last. We have a school in the middle of the town of the AWB."

Because of the dwindling numbers of white children, the government decided last year to relieve the pressue on the schools in Tshing by sending some of the township youths to the school in town. The whites responded by pulling out their kids. They then stripped the building of tables, desks, chairs and telephones, and merged with a still all-white high school down the road.

One white family, however, was not bullied into following the pack and continues to send its three children to the school. True, these are only three out of 618 students, but Mosikidi says that it is a start. Six of the school's 16 teachers are also white. "I know they give their love to the children," Mosikidi says. "There were some people in town who at first looked down on them for teaching black children, but now they have accepted it.

"Some people are slowly accepting change. Others don't want to. They don't want to believe that everything is changing. They want to think that they are dreaming and maybe when they wake up it won't be real."

What about the AWB? Are they finished? She laughs at the question. "I don't think so. They're just lying down. When they get a break they'll strike and lie down again. Those people are always up to something."

But it is too late to turn back the clock, says Mosikidi. "You can't stop change. It's already started and it carries its own momentum. I see it in the spirit and the ambition of the students here and the children at the location [township]. Their hunger is greater than ever because they see that their future is bright." !