Freeing a state of mind on Rip van Winkle's veld

Robert Block, in Bloemfontein, finds Afrikaners have a surprising capacity to adapt to their new lot
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The Independent Online
Orange Free State is considered by many South Africans to be an agricultural heaven and a cultural backwater, the home of rural Boer culture and Afrikaner stubbornness: Rip van Winkle country.

Cas Human, 40, an Afrikaner farmer, is not happy that he and his fellow Free Staters are regarded as yokels. "You have to understand Afrikaner history", he said. "The Afrikaner here always struggled but he is forward- looking. He is changeable when faced with reality."

It is a curious argument coming from a white man who has been an activist in anti-apartheid groups for 20 years, an outcast from his own community. But perhaps more than anyone else in the Free State, Mr Human understands his fellow Afrikaners' capacity to adapt. He has seen them go from cocking pistols to applauding their opponents.

Just over a year ago, he was told at gunpoint to leave a meeting of the Free State Agricultural Union because of his support for the African National Congress (ANC). More recently, as the agriculture minister in the ANC-dominated provincial government, he received a standing ovation from those who were ready to shoot him in January 1994 as a traitor.

"My house had been bombed by right-wingers the month before, but they showed me no sympathy. When I stood up to speak, they said they had heard enough. They showed us their revolvers and said they thought it was a good idea if we left immediately.

"Those same people now applaud us when we talk to them. I see them in the street and although they would never say it in words, in the way they talk to me and greet me, they are telling me that I was right," he said

One year after South Africa's historic all-race elections, Orange Free State has confounded even the least jaded South African expert, and has quietly emerged as a front runner in building trust between once sworn enemies. Whites did not imagine that rapid change was possible. Colin Legum, the veteran former Observer journalist who returned to South Africa from years in exile, wrote in the Johannesburg newspaper Business Day: "Those like myself who grew up in the Free State . . . would never have predicted in our wildest dreams that racial attitudes and acquiescence in democratic structures, involving the shift of power from whites to blacks, could have changed so radically in only 10 months." Now the radio jingles say: "Welcome to a freer state of mind."

Many Afrikaner farmers have not only accepted their loss of power with grace, but have shown a open willingness to co-operate with their new rulers. Sitting on the veranda of his farm house at the weekend in Tweetspruit, 50 miles east of Bloemfontein, Philip Henning, a 40-year-old Afrikaner cattle breeder and cash crop farmer, reflected on the year of black majority rule. An admitted "racialist", Mr Henning said he had attended several meetings with the new government and given his opinion on what he thinks farming policy should be. While not completely confident in the local government's ability to protect his interests, so far he had only one complaint: "I put those burglar bars up for nothing."

Iron gates, stockpiling of food, panic selling of property and sleeping with loaded weapons were all part of the psychosis that gripped white south Africans before the elections. There was even talk of race war by the white extremist groups. But that has all apparently evaporated. "Let's be honest," Mr Henning said. "My farming has not changed. Economically nothing has changed, except it's more peaceful." A large part of the reason for the change in Afrikaners' attitudes is that throughout South Africa whites have come to realise that their worst fears of chaos under black rule have not materialised. Life has been no worse for them than under decades of single-party rule by the National Party. Some farmers have also come to see their prosperity and the security of their own land as being tied up with improving the conditions of blacks.

Waning white militarism even led the Deputy President, Thabo Mbeki, to announce on Friday that South Africa no longer faced a serious threat of right-wing violence, because most whites now felt more secure under a multi-racial democracy.

In the Free State, much of the credit for winning over white farmers has gone to Patrick "Terror" Lekota, the provincial premier. The son of a Free State farm worker and once a militant anti-apartheid activist, Mr Lekota first worried the whites. Now, since seeing him in action and learning that he earned his nickname on the football pitch, they sing his praises.

Nonetheless, suspicion and a lack of goodwill still lurk. "There is still depression," said Mr Human. "Much of the change is still only on the surface. People feel they have lost prestige and privilege. The challenge is to get whites to see that this is also their government as well. That is going to take some more time."