South African Elections: Far right prepares for war against reality

The home town of the AWB, the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, was at peace yesterday, as peaceful as everywhere else in South Africa. But some of its inhabitants were preparing for war.

In Church Street, Ventersdorp, the broad main avenue of the town, the headquarters of the AWB looks like a Northern Ireland police station. Surrounded by sandbags and wire mesh, the low, white building is heavily guarded. Pinned to the wall beneath a crude eagle sculpture is a notice saying: 'No Press allowed'. Brawny men with tattooed arms peered out from the bunker but refused to answer questions. One emerged, a pistol, several ammunition clips and a dagger hanging from his belt.

In this pretty little town it is difficult to imagine what these men are hiding from, what frightens them so much, unless it is reality. Reality yesterday afternoon was four old white ladies stepping graciously out into the sunshine from an otherwise empty polling station on Church Street. Inside, election officials were standing around chatting and looking at their watches. 'No problems at all,' said the presiding officer.

The polling station had only dealt with about 300 voters yesterday. Most of Ventersdorp had voted the day before. On the pavement outside sat a group of young blacks wearing Peace Monitor tunics. They, too, reported no problems either here or in the township polling station, and they said half the people who had voted in the town had been black, a brave gesture in this very white town.

Unlike many other areas yesterday, Ventersdorp had not run out of ballot papers. In town after town I stopped in it was a case of panicking election officials and patient Africans as polling came to a halt until more ballot papers were flown in.

Ventersdorp is one of many small towns of the platteland, the flat high plateau carved into huge farms of cattle and maize. It is Afrikaner paradise. To the annoyance of many of its moderate white residents, Ventersdorp has become famous as the home of Eugene Terre-Blanche, the AWB leader. There is a monument in black marble in the town centre commemorating three AWB members shot dead by police during a visit by President de Klerk in 1991. At the entrance to each of these towns - Krugersdorp, Potchefstroom, Bloemhof, Klerksdorp - is a sign in Afrikaans saying: 'Volkstad. Here is the Afrikaner Homeland.'

The clean little towns each have a gleaming church spire, shops, police station, post office, grain silos, rugby field and a small white residential area. Somewhere, hidden out of sight near each town, is a grim township of tiny cement block houses or shacks. The townships house four to five times more people than the town though they are often smaller. The two are completely dependent on each other; the town for the township labour and custom, and the township for the town jobs and shops. A short dirt road joins the two, yet the barrier between them is still as formidable as the Berlin Wall.

The Ventersdorp township is Tshing. At the ANC headquarters, Meshack Mbambalala, the party agent, said it would take many years for town and township to merge. Towns have been told by the government to set up a forum of officials from both communities to discuss common issues such as health, education and transport. Ventersdorp's forum has yet to meet.

'Even five years may be too soon,' said Mr Mbambalala. 'How can a black child go to the white school? You cannot risk your child's life . . . The right-wing have said they will bomb the school if it becomes mixed. There are some good white people who mix well with blacks but there a lot of right- wingers here who are very cruel.'

He said two bombs had exploded in the township recently and there had been several attacks on black people. ANC members trying to canvass on some farms had been beaten up by owners. But he said the township people had been reassured by the army patrolling the town and promises from the police that the AWB would be kept quiet during the election.

What did Mr Mbambalala think should happen to the AWB after the election. 'We will try to accommodate them,' he said, 'even if they don't want to accommodate us. As long as they don't give us any problems we will leave them alone in their bunker. We want to forget the past.' And he said he had told the people in the township not to celebrate the election victory this weekend by going into Ventersdorp. He said: 'That might be provocative.'

(Photograph omitted)

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