Boer MP on a great trek back to where he began: John Carlin talked in Pretoria to Andries Beyers about his return to the National Party

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ANDRIES BEYERS is the most promiscuous politician in South Africa. In the last two years he has hopped in and out of three parties, returning finally to the forgiving embrace of his first political love.

When Mr Beyers, MP for the Western Transvaal town of Potchefstroom, rejoined F W de Klerk's National Party last week after a 12-year absence, no one expressed outrage. At a time of profound confusion for the Afrikaner volk, at the start of a week when South Africa's first democratic constitution is due to be finalised, few doubt the sincerity of his struggle to get to grips with his political identity.

When I met him in his home in northern Pretoria, Mr Beyers, 47, gave an account of what is by any measure an impeccable Boer pedigree. His forebears partook in the Great Trek of 1838; his two grandfathers fought the British in the Boer war; his father was a staunch supporter of the National Party before it came to power on the apartheid ticket in 1948. He himself was a devotee in his youth of Hendrik Verwoerd, the prime minister who jailed Nelson Mandela. He fought attempts by Dr Verwoerd's successors to chip away at the apartheid edifice and in 1981 - 'I regarded P W Botha as dangerously left-leaning' - quit the National Party in disgust.

A year later he joined the Conservative Party (CP), became its national secretary in 1987, and in 1992 he captured Potchefstroom from the National Party in a by-election. His joy was short-lived. A crushing victory for the reformers in the white referendum of March that year finally persuaded him the time had come, in P W Botha's phrase, to adapt or die. He left the diehard CP and set up the Afrikaner Volksunie, a body dedicated to the idea of carving out 'a dramatically reduced fatherland'. The Volksunie's demise became inevitable in May this year when the the ambitiously separatist Afrikaner Volksfront (AVF) emerged under the leadership of Constand Viljoen, a retired army general whose charisma has lent credibility to right-wing threats of civil war.

Some of Mr Beyers's Volksunie colleagues have joined the AVF. He hopped left last week rather than right because he has come to believe that the democracy bus, as he put it, cannot be stopped. 'I'm sure the overwhelming majority of people in the right wing will see that too - and sooner than we think.'

What does he think of apartheid today? 'I have realised it was terribly wrong. I thought it was the best solution to the country's problems but it was wrong because I wanted to prescribe what was good for me and for blacks without asking them for their opinion. It is only now, in the last two or three years, after my whole life in politics that I have communicated with black leaders for the first time. Before I only related to them as labourers.'

At that point there was a knock and Mr Beyers opened the door to two black journalists. 'Please sit down,' he said. 'Would you like tea or coffee?' He called to his wife and asked her to make tea for 'the two gentlemen'.

'Today,' he resumed, 'I can't understand why in the Sixties my leaders did not talk to the ANC, why they threw them in jail. Because now I regard the leadership of the ANC as quite moderate people - as social democrats with whom it is possible to share a real democracy. I have met Mr Mandela three or four times and I regard him as a reasonable, responsible leader. I had expected something very different.'

But what about those who see Mr Mandela as a closet Communist? What about General Viljoen's call on the volk to mobilise and prepare for armed resistance?

'People will resist if they are truly oppressed. But not while they have jobs, investments, property and pensions. And besides, they don't know what they will fight for - even Viljoen doesn't know. Still, at this late stage, they don't even have a map of the volkstaat . . . I will tell you how some people see this 'war'. They get up in the morning and tell their wives, 'Look after the cattle, will you? I'm going to the war. I'll be back this afternoon'.'

Mr Beyers does not rule out the possibility of terrorist violence, but argues that it is not possible to wage an effective war against the South African Defence Force and the South African Police 'which I regard as loyal to the government of the day so long as De Klerk plays an important role in the government we will have after the elections'.

A coup d'etat would be possible 'only if De Klerk were out of the picture and Mandela ruled alone'.