S African whites in anxious mood tribes stand on their rights

ROBERT BLOCK

Johannesburg

These are blue days for South Africa's white tribes. Rocketing crime rates, new hiring policies aimed at darkening the complexion of white institutions, and the promotion of black languages on television and radio are only some of the developments putting white backs up. But whereas many English-speakers are emigrating, Afrikaners are demonstrating.

Many feel that the government of Nelson Mandela has been trampling on their rights. Underlying their aggrieved mood are feelings of confusion and anxiety over their future, as well as a sense of betrayal by their own leaders.

Their quandary was underlined by an article in yesterday's Rapport, an Afrikaans-language Sunday newspaper, which said that the National Party (NP) - the organisation which created the apartheid system - was ready to dissolve itself. According to the paper, the NP does not intend to disappear, but is set to reform itself with both a new name and new structure which in effect will render the old party moribund.

The party has discussed the possibility of changing its name for months. Those favouring a name change have argued that the party needs to break with the past if it hopes to widen its appeal and challenge Mr Mandela's African National Congress (ANC).

Hence a new organisation, calling itself the "Foundation for Equality Before the Law" - a "civic movement", campaigning to defend Afrikaner rights. On Saturday, it convened a gathering of Afrikaners to air their grievances, which included the government's affirmative action employment policies and the prosecution of white security force officials for apartheid- era crimes. Of particular concern was the perceived attack on the Afrikaans language which has been demoted from its equal prominence with English, the country's lingua franca.

Whereas Afrikaner rallies during apartheid drew tens of thousands of volk, Saturday's in front of Pretoria's Pioneer Museum barely attracted 1,000. Yet, the meeting was important because it offered evidence of rising discontent with the government of Mr Mandela, even among moderate Afrikaners.

The speeches - which all focused on the raw deal Afrikaners believed they were getting - were notable for mild rhetoric when compared with the threats of all-out war issued by pro-apartheid whites in the run-up to the 1994 elections.

"We want to play a constructive role and we accept change, but we want to put it very plainly: we will not allow our rights to be trampled or our people to be hijacked," said General Johan van der Merwe, a retired police commissioner.

But the moderate tone was undermined by the failure of the Afrikaners to bridge differences among themselves. The rally got off to an inauspicious start when right-wingers tried to set fire to South Africa's new rainbow- coloured flag, which they said was a symbol of black oppression of Afrikaners. Rally organisers stepped in and grabbed the flag back after a short scuffle.

If the Afrikaners harboured any hope that Mr Mandela might be moved by their display, it was quashed only hours later when the President met Afrikaner intellectuals.

Mr Mandela accused them of seeking to maintain their "unjustly privileged position" and warned that unless they embraced the new dispensation, they would find themselves "on the political sidelines" for ever.

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