South African Election: Behind the barriers with a nice Boer and his gun: In a tiny rural Orange Free State town Richard Dowden meets a baffled and fearful young Afrikaner unable to accept the reality of the new South Africa

IT WAS nearly midnight and the little town was asleep. The Mahem Hotel was full, but in the Birds Inn Ladies Bar (dress smart casual) we met Willem, a very beautiful, tall, blond Afrikaner lad dressed in a khaki jacket and drinking brandy and cola.

With a smile as open as innocence he offered us a drink and a bed for the night. What he really wanted was to engage us in conversation. He had never been outside South Africa and only away from Viljoenskroon on military service. His English was not good but he wanted to try. And he wanted to listen too. Where had we been? What had we seen? What did we think? A pleasanter, more open boy your mother could not imagine.

Viljoenskroon is a tiny dorp on the endless Free State plain. It is clean and Calvinist and I was surpised to find a black policeman on the street. I asked him if he was a real policeman who could arrest people, and he laughed. 'You could even arrest whites?' He laughed even more. 'I would lose my job - even my life,' he replied.

The white right have taken a stand here and erected watch towers, known as gun towers, and barriers across three roads into the town. It is a typically ineffective South African way of trying to keep reality at bay. But because the citizens, backed by the town council, have not actually lowered the barriers and stopped anyone, there is doubt about whether or not they are within their legal rights. Political parties in the area are crying intimidation, but the independent electoral commission lawyers say they cannot order the barriers and gun towers to be taken down.

The local black people are puzzled and inconvenienced by the move. 'We never had problems with them before,' said one old man, uncertain whether or not to continue cycling into town yesterday. 'It's just a precaution,' explained Willem. 'It isn't to stop them coming into town to vote - as long as they behave themselves.'

But he was afraid some of the younger ones would want to come and cause trouble. The African National Congress was an 'aggressive organisation' he said and was going to take away white farms and bring in Communism. 'They've got the rest of Africa, they took Rhodesia and South West (Namibia). Why do they want this part too?' he asked with hurt confusion. But he offered to take us to meet a local Afrikaner farmer who was an ANC member.

Willem insisted on paying for the drinks and we drove to his house, a neat bungalow set in a pretty garden. Inside it was comfortable but slightly bleak. Willem dragged in an extra mattress for us and then went to find another bed for himself. The walls of his room were bare except for a South African flag and in the corner was a grey metal gun-cabinet, which he opened to show me his shotgun and belts of cartridges. On a table by the bed was a well-used Bible bound in white leather and inside a little prayer-card marked 'Soldier of Christ' on it. He had a stereo system with a pile of rock 'n' roll and dance records. On the table was a sticker which said in Afrikaans: 'The Boer and his Gun are here to stay'. And in the wardrobe was his neatly pressed AWB uniform. He was such a kind young man.

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