Boers trek north again to find rain

Zaire is the latest African state to push for the unlikeliest export from the new South Africa - Afrikaner farmers trekking north in search of land, rain and peace of mind. Afrikaner leaders said yesterday that Kinshasha had joined Mozambique, Angola and Uganda in wanting to exploit the farming experience of Afrikaner boers (farmers) to feed populations ravaged by war, misgovernment and Aids.

"This can serve as a catalyst to promote co-operation in southern Africa, around a common aim instead of the negative ideological differences of the past," said retired General Constand Viljoen, who led a pioneering mission to Zaire last week. With the blessing of President Nelson Mandela, the leader of the conservative Freedom Front, a cattle breeder, has already taken farm union bosses of the Transvaal and Orange Free State to Mozambique. Inter-government agreements are likely to follow that will grant 44-year leases of land to up to 2,000 Afrikaners.

The ironies are great. The Speaker of the South African Parliament recently made an official apology to Mozambique for the appalling damage done by South Africa's covert intervention in its civil war under the apartheid regime.

Times have changed. Mozambique's new president recently appeared on South African television, praising the Afrikaners' pioneering spirit. General Viljoen's expedition brought back expressions of great interest. And Hans Herbst was bowled over by what he saw in Uganda. "I was the first to go there. I talked to many people in government, now I'm reporting back," Mr Herbst said.

"The people is lovingful. It rains a lot there. There is open space for South African farmers who know anything about agriculturing." Mr Herbst said that from his district in the Transvaal, 14 farm families were ready to go to Uganda. He denied he wanted to leave because he was politically distressed.

Some Afrikaner farmers are however reacting to difficulties in the new South Africa, according to retired Colonel Pieter Uys of the Freedom Front. "The farmers get a message that is disturbing. During the run-up to the election, there was the man that said `Kill the boer'. Now they hear that the government is to tax everyone. Then there is restitution of property. The Afrikaner feels unwanted. And when he feels unwanted, he treks," Colonel Uys said.

Previous treks into Africa have generally been disastrous, and nobody is expecting a new Great Trek: the Freedom Front, has only 46 registered applicants, and not all of them are farmers.

"You can't leave your farm in debt and believe you will escape it. Unless the host country gives help, I do not know where they will get the capital, " said Tinie Burgers, the Minister of Agriculture in the province of Northern Transvaal, where drought has forced most farmers to mortgage to the hilt.

But farmers like Mr Herbst are determined to join pioneers in Gabon, Kenya and Zambia, whether or not they can persuade the World Bank to back them. And they say African governments are desperate for their expertise.