Boers go down with the old flag flying: The new South Africa is being born at the polls, but the apartheid republic dies hard in Afrikaner heartlands

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The Independent Online
ABOUT 150 miles north-west of Johannesburg, there is a little unofficial museum of apartheid - or an unwilling memorial, now, to its passing.

Below the chandeliers, on the walls and in the display cabinets of the Abjaterskop Hotel in the town of Zeerust are enamel signs reading 'Whites' and 'Non-whites'; shackling devices for people or animals - it's hard to tell which; a jutting- chin portrait of Hendrik Verwoerd - master builder of apartheid; a print of the Battle of Blood River, 1838 (Boers v Zulus); and a treasured newspaper cutting from 1992, telling how a party of journalists, on a wildlife trip, failed to be served lunch in this hotel (some were black, and white colleagues were told they were 'asking for trouble by bringing kaffirs' on to the premises). There is also a South African flag - the old South African flag.

It's a hot day. The hotel's co-owner, Carel Breytenbach, is in his office, sweating a bit. Country and western music seeps through from the restaurant. Breytenbach smiles, and says of the new South Africa: 'This isn't democracy. This is mob rule.'

The flag design in his hotel's lobby - destined to become a symbol of resistance - was superseded at midnight last Tuesday by a green and gold and red and black and white and blue flag - a design as full of compromise as the incoming government of national unity. (A company called National Flag is making about 3,000 a week, and has queues outside. The demand is said to be for about 100,000 - for police stations, military bases, courts).

On Tuesday night, across the country, at the end of the first day of voting - when old women were joyously comparing their democratic experience to giving birth - civic ceremonies marked this flag's arrival.

In Johannesburg, a modest crowd braved the badlands of the city centre. It was a multiracial moment - of a kind that still surprises and excites South Africans. And after the old flag had come down and the new one been raised, and Nkosi Sielel' iAfrika had been sung and Winnie Mandela had raised her fist, there was a kind of hysteria: 'It's the end] It's the end]' There was dancing to a live band, including the white man's toyi-toyi, the conga. Fair-haired teenage girls danced wildly with black men, and were photographed doing so. A middle- aged man in an anorak - a dental surgeon, he explained apologetically - said: 'Even the old apartheid buildings here seem like new buildings. They're beautiful.'

A black albino - cruel genetic joke to play on a South African - said this night might mark the end of 'a long list of atrocities'. Another man said: 'The flag's ugly, but I don't care how ugly it is. It's the most beautiful flag in the world.' At about one, the crowd dispersed.

That was Johannesburg. In Lichtenburg, a short way from Zeerust, they raised the old South African flag on Wednesday. As white power was draining away, armed far-right Conservative Party supporters, led by Dr Ferdi Hartzenberg, sang Die Stem. Journalists were told those who voted were 'allying themselves with communists and the Antichrist'.

This is true khaki-shorts country. The roads are long and straight, the towns squat and gloomy. Army personnel carriers move slowly, built like buckets on wheels. Nelson Mandela posters are defaced with moustaches, and when you ask black people about the election, they answer in terms of fear: 'I'm not as scared as I thought I would be.' One white businessman in Zeerust says he cannot face going to his own store, because to hear the way his fellow Afrikaners talk to his black staff is too depressing.

This is one possible location for the Volkstaat, the notional Afrikaner homeland, for which - despite all the passion - plans remain strangely vague, as if stumped by the problem of how you find very cheap labour in a whites-only nation.

But talk of Afrikaner independence has kept up right-wing spirits since the 1992 referendum went the way of F W de Klerk's route of negotiation: bar-talk of the Volkstaat, and of the brave Boer history seen on Mr Breytenbach's walls; the Great Trek, the Battle of Blood River - the heroic wrestling of a living out of the land.

There was a moment in the election campaign when Brigadier Mpazamo Yonano of the PAC - the Pan-Africanist Congress, for whom all whites are 'settlers' - debated with Duncan Du Bois of the right-wing Freedom Front on the current affairs television programme, Agenda. Yonano, described as the PAC's director of ideological training and culture, wore fatigues and a camouflage cap; Du Bois a suit.

Immediately, the debate was about history and land. Who came to this country first? Who owns the land of South Africa? Who should own it in the new South Africa?

The host, a dapper man called John Bishop, forever tried to turn the conversation away from the past and the land - as if there were other things these two men could talk about. He failed.

At a polling booth near Zeerust on Thursday, big red-faced men and big women in print dresses - the people who own this land, who have built the act of settling into their mythologies - were taking their place in the queues behind poor black farm workers. 'I was used to the old system,' says one white man. 'I got used to it.'

In the same queue, past the sign that says 'No weapons beyond this point' is a black woman in her nineties, carried by two friends, all voting for the first time.

Richard Morakgosi is 65. He earns R165 ( pounds 32) a month as a farmworker (plus housing and some food). He was brought here, 15 miles or so, by his employer in a pick-up truck, leaving the farm for the first time since Christmas. He says: 'I'm looking forward to this.' Later, he shows me his home, which has no electricity, but is more solid than that of some of his co-workers. Thirteen Alsatians guard his employer's home a few feet away, and every few minutes they go into frenzies of barking. You can also hear the crackle of the battery-powered emergency radio that links 100 or so white families in the area.

Down the road, at the museum of apartheid, Mr Breytenbach sits in the heat. He has voted today - for the Freedom Front - and has therefore sold out, in the eyes of his Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB) neighbours. 'They say I'm part of the ANC now, all that sort of crap . . .' They have 'half-organised' a boycott of his bar, he says. In one of the puzzles of South African politics, this man is too left-wing for the town of Zeerust. (At about the time we are talking, AWB members near Rustenburg, an hour or so away, are attacking the black American journalist, Michael Allen, of the New York Daily News. The AWB men said they did not want 'slaves' near them.)

Mr Breytenbach defends his apartheid mementoes on the wall. 'They're just collector's items,' he says, laughing. 'That's history, that's not provocation.' Then he explains how 'blacks have got a different way of doing things. They don't care about time, punctuality'. He explains why black people tend not to stay in his hotel, or drink in it. 'White people preferred to drink here - it's more a voluntary thing. People prefer their own kind. That gave the impression that we kicked out the blacks . . .'

How does he feel today? 'It's an experience to know that after, some say, 350 years - it's 100 years at least - we're not the government any more. You do feel something. Magteloosheid - a powerless, helpless sort of feeling. You can do nothing about it. And the most tragic part is to see your flag being lowered. We fought two independence wars, and now I'm thinking about these people, these ancestors of mine - and what for did they die?'

Thursday afternoon, and people are still queueing and voting, and the old flag is down everywhere but Lichtenburg. Mr Breytenbach tells a story about a British guest staying at the hotel, taking him to task over a point of Boer War history.

But at the the punch-line, he gets stuck on the Afrikaans word nederlaag. He pulls a pained face, but the English won't come. He laughs. Time passes. His black employees move quietly through the lobby. Then he stands up and pulls down a dictionary, and finds the word: 'Defeat.'

(Photograph omitted)