South African Elections: Natal surf and sand keeps conflict at bay

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The Independent Online
THERE IS not a cloud in the sky - 25 degrees on the beach with a gentle breeze and the surf rolling in from a bright Indian Ocean horizon. A dozen young whites are out surfing, another dozen lie sunbathing on a beach a mile long. This is Natal, where the government has imposed a state of emergency because of the mayhem and murder.

Steven Smith, a student aged 21, Liverpool-born, with sunbleached hair and bronzed body, surfs seven days a week. 'Politics doesn't really interest me. It doesn't affect me,' he said. Gordon Mare, 25, has the same life-of-ease look. He is a fitter but finds time to surf four hours a day. 'No, it doesn't affect us at all. Not many of them go surfing so . . .'

There are four of 'them' on the beach, selling ice-cream. It is not thought helpful to draw attention to the differences between black and white in the post-apartheid, non-racist, new South Africa, but unemployment among black people in Natal is thought to be around 50 per cent. Among whites and Indians there is full employment. The war for Natal between Inkatha and the African National Congress (ANC) is fought in the townships over the ridge from the beach. It simply does not affect whites, though its outcome will profoundly affect their future.

These whites are not Afrikaners who have lost their European roots. Natal is 'English-speaking' South Africa. Some 75 per cent of people speak English rather than Afrikaans as a main language, though many are of Portuguese, German or French origins. The grandiose baroque city hall in Durban is hung with pictures of Winston Churchill, Field Marshal Montgomery and the Queen. It feels like a truly loyal outpost of Empire.

Last night Brendan Willmer, a British-born small-businessman, held a meeting of the small right-wing party he leads, the Natal Freedom Campaign. At one time an avowed believer in 'separate development' - he was once involved with the National Front in Britain - Mr Willmer attracts a small following of neat and nervous white people who still worry that Communism is about to take over the world. He heightens their fears but looks back neither to a glorious British past nor calls for a return to apartheid, which he describes as an 'experiment that failed'. He is fully in favour of participating in the elections and fighting for a more federal constitution. In South Africa that is political shorthand for 'leave us alone'.

The weather is politically significant. It is the main reason many whites give for staying on. Mr Willmer told me that many whites rushed off to Europe, Australia and New Zealand about three years ago in a frantic search for escape routes if things went wrong. But fears that nearly 1 million white South Africans with British passports might turn up at Heathrow are ill-founded. Like Mr Willmer, many would almost prefer to lose all here than face the British weather.

He tried southern Europe but soon came back, as did most of the escapees. 'I was shocked at the poverty in Spain and Portugal. But most people came back because we missed South Africa . . . The thing is I am an African now. I think if things went wrong here many of us would look at other opportunities in other parts of Africa . . . maybe Malawi or Zimbabwe.'

Some people have recently been stocking up on tins and filling water containers. Gun shops have reported an increase in sales but there is no panic. To try to keep their businesses going, many whites are offering their workers floor space to sleep on during the election week. Only the richest whites can afford to go abroad for the election period. But they regard the state of emergency in Natal as an irritant.

The General Manager at the Durban Chamber of Commerce, Peter McLaren-Kennedy, said that he watched the violence of Natal on television, like people in Britain. No one he knows has been affected. But companies have reported increasing levels of absenteeism as employees are unable to get to work from the townships; and tourism, a mainstay of the local economy, has been badly hit. Worst of all, the reputation of the area has led outside companies to cancel contracts. Mr McLaren-Kennedy said: 'The state of emergency irritates us here because we have got a difficult situation but not one that is different to anywhere else. (Imposing a state of emergency) smells of politics.'

This weekend will be a test. Both the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party are holding mass rallies all over Natal today and tomorrow and in some cases they have provocatively booked meeting places near to each other's strongholds. One white businessman said yesterday: 'I'm telling you now that everything is fine but call me again on Monday morning. It may be a different story.'