David Cohen went to find his family and the background that made him
It only takes a moment to drive through Naboomspruit, a strip of gaudy garages, cafes and motor workshops either side of the N1 motorway. But it is a place that holds fears and demons generations old; the long trek that Alwyn Wolfaardt and his confederates made to death in Bophuthatswana is an expression of its very soul.
We are 95 miles north of Pretoria, deep in Afrikaner resistance country in a town that boasts one hotel, one Wimpy, eight churches and 3,000 whites. In typical apartheid fashion, black workers live in the nearby township, Mokgophong, on the other side of the railway track and out of sight of the motorway. Blacks still call whites 'boss'; the hotel bar is still segregated and black children seldom return the waves of passing white motorists.
Everyone knew 'colonel' Wolfaardt. At 6ft 5in, weighing 115 kilos and with a prodigious beard, he was hard to miss. To some, he was just a mechanic, the guy who fixed their wheels. But most revered him as the Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB) commanding officer for the Naboomspruit region, and one of the select commandos who stormed the peace talks at the World Trade Centre outside Johannesburg last year. (He was arrested, but the case was thrown out.) A cafe owner tells me, sotto voce, that Wolfaardt was notorious for refusing to be served by black staff.
The mood in the town is bitter. The AWB believes that journalists were accessories to Wolfaardt's murder. An AWB man called Franois, wearing short pants and a pistol, imparts a warning: 'You journalists are not welcome here. Your name stinks. If you try to speak to his wife, you could get your heads bashed in.'
But Wolfaardt's father, right-wing but not an AWB member, is willing to talk about the character of his son and their 'proud' family record of Afrikaner self-sacrifice.
Alwyn Wolfaardt was born on 11 December 1949, the third child of Phil and Anna Wolfaardt, and grew up on a farm outside Pretoria. Phil was a general foreman for Iscor, the state-owned iron and steel works, an unglamorous, low-paying job. He elected to go to jail rather than fight alongside the British during the Second World War.
The wooden chest in the Wolfaardt's hallway once belonged to Pieter Jordaan, a relative who, together with the famous Boer commando hero Piet Retief, was 'double-crossed' and 'murdered' in Dingaan's kraal. Four of Alwyn's grandfather's siblings died in a British concentration camp during the Boer War.
Phil recalls that Alwyn was the most gentle and sensitive of his children. 'His mother died of a heart attack when he was four years old, and even when I remarried five years later, we'd find him crying and pining for his mother. At school he was never aggressive, never in fights and later, as a diesel mechanic, he went to Caprivi on the South West African/Angolan border, where he got on well with black people. Sure, there are hooligans in the AWB, but my son wasn't one of them.'
Tony Hitchcock, one of Alwyn's few English-speaking Naboomspruit friends, argues that Alwyn was 'a fantastic bladdy guy with a soft heart.
'If one of the whites in the area couldn't pay his electricity bill, Alwyn would make a collection,' he says. 'He would say: 'Look, the black location don't pay their bills and they don't get cut off. But poor whites get 48 hours.'
'And it wasn't just whites that he helped. I came to his workshop once and there was a black Rhodesian whose kombi (van) had broken down. The guy had no money. Alwyn let the guy sleep in his yard, gave him three meals a day, fixed up his kombi and sent him on his way. All he said was, 'one day when you drive past and you've got money, you pay me'.'
Franois, the AWB man who was so antagonistic about the press, adds: 'His feelings were the same as everybody's around here. We're fighting for an Afrikaner homeland. If a black respects us, he'll be all right. If he crosses the line, we teach him a lesson.'
But where exactly is that line? And what did Wolfaardt think he was doing when he crossed the clearly marked borderline into Bophuthatswana?
Koos and Flippie Wolfaardt, Alwyn's brothers, and Frans, a black worker from his father's farm, have come to Naboomspruit to dig and prepare Alwyn's grave. Koos finds it difficult to be as loyal to his dead brother as he would like. 'The AWB said that they went to Bop to protect white properties from black looters and to help their Freedom Alliance partner, President Lucas Mangope, in his fight against the ANC. But they had no business being in Bop. They are not properly trained, not an army. They're playing at this thing. It hurts me to say, but my brother behaved like a fool.'
The road to Wolfaardt's rented smallholding on the outskirts of town is not far from the cemetery. Contrary to warnings, no vicious dogs materialise and no AWB guards man the gate. His 35-year-old wife, Ester, emerges with her daughter Annalise, 8, in tow.
'The two of us joined the AWB eight years ago, before we came to live in Naboomspruit,' she says. 'Ever since I met Alwyn, his interests were politics, politics and politics. He used to sit with Annalise on his lap and read to her, in between making zap signs at De Klerk and Mandela on television. Maybe he became hardened by his 13 years in the Caprivi Strip war zone before he met me - he always said it was a sin that South West Africa was given to the blacks and he was determined that it wouldn't happen here.'
Ester recalls the day before her husband died. 'I knew he was going on a mission, but I never knew where. He called me from work, but he believed our phones were tapped, so we never discussed details on the phone.
'The next day, I turned on the television and recognised his car. They showed the whole execution. I felt numb. I phoned AWB headquarters and said: 'Dis my kar. Dis my man.' My daughter saw it too. She went very quiet. She was very close to her father. He died defending his country and his beliefs. I'm proud of him.
'To Alwyn, a kaffir was a kaffir,' she explains. 'If there was a stayaway, he would fire those employees who didn't pitch for work. If they got drunk, he would hit them with his sjambok, punch them in the face. He was the head of the family, the head of the town, the boss of this place.'
In the adjacent black township, everyone has a story about Wolfaardt and none of them is pleasant. 'One day black children from the farms were walking to school in the township when he blocked the road with his car, tore up their books and chased them away. He didn't like the fact that they are taught political awareness in the township,' says Andrew, a teacher.
The residents claim that Wolfaardt had a fearsome temper. He would call them names like 'kaffir dog' and 'black monkey'. Three months ago, Andrew's 19-year-old brother, Michael, brought a charge against him for assault. 'I was walking to the bottle store when he came in his car and made to run me over,' he says. 'When I asked him why he did that, he called me a 'fucken dog' and punched me in the eye. I fell down and he kicked me in the head and he was swearing, 'you dog, you kaffir'.
'I went to the police and they took a statement and promised they would call me. But they never did. There is no justice for black people in these parts. That is why the policeman in Bophuthatswana took the law into his own hands. He knew that if Wolfaardt lived he would never be made to pay for what he did.'
Stopping off in the township shebeen, I pull out the photograph of Wolfaardt taken moments before he was killed. They pass it round, the image becoming more crumpled as they hotly debate Wolfaardt's fate. Is it the definitive image of a generations-old battle finally lost? Or is it just a picture of a thug getting what he deserved? One man told how, on the night before the killing, he overheard Wolfaardt talking to one of his comrades. 'Get ready,' he had said, ' We're going to Bophuthatswana to kill some kaffirs.'
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