South African Elections: Time catches up on God's chosen race

SALUTING the leader? Honouring the dead? A gesture of farewell? Hendrik Meyer's salute to the statue of Paul Kruger, the father and forger of modern Afrikanerdom, yesterday morning was ambiguous.

'I am saying to him that if he was alive today I would be at his side ready to fight,' Mr Meyer said, his lip trembling. 'That's why I am a member of the AWB (the Afrikaner Resistance Movement). This is our country and I am ready to fight for it.' What about the bombs in Johannesburg and Pretoria which have killed 21 people? 'I don't know who did it but they are helpful to us. Yes I approve of them,' he said.

Mr Meyer, 34 years old, stable worker, dressed in khaki uniform, had driven from Ventersdorp to make his salute. His voice and his lip trembled more. Yes, blacks are South Africans, but they do not have the right to take over. We must have our volkstaat (white homeland). Nelson Mandela is a Communist. Mr de Klerk has sold out.

A few yards away, Gideon Visagie, a retired steel worker, was feeding the pigeons. 'I never dreamed that I would see this day in my lifetime. Yes the future worries me. We whites must stand together and vote for the same party, or we are finished. I agree that what Mandela says sounds OK, but who knows what he will do? That's why I am voting for the National Party.' He condemned the bombs and came out with one of the commonest phrases you hear from all South Africans, black and white: 'It is God's will. Whatever happens is God's will.' Above this scene was the motto of the Boer Republics, emblazoned on the old Parliament building facing the square: 'In Unity is Strength'.

If you drive up into South Africa from the steamy Indian Ocean coast, or the arid desert of the Cape, it is possible to imagine what the Afrikaner voortrekkers felt when they came out on the rolling grasslands of the veldt. Like the Pilgrim Fathers, the Afrikaners were part of the Calvinist migration from the iniquities of Europe to a new world. Vast, rich and beautiful, this was the land promised to God's Chosen People.

When a heavily outnumbered Afrikaner force defeated the savage Zulus at the battle of Blood River in 1838, what further proof did they need that God was with them? With gun and Bible they had carved out their own world. But the British would not leave them alone, and when gold and diamonds were found in their republics, Britain annexed them. Two wars at the turn of the century cost them dearly. In the second, 28,000 of their women and children are said to have perished in British camps.

The peace settlement at the end of the Boer War opened up South Africa's wealth to British investment and trade, but consigned its politics to Afrikaners who wished to retreat from reality, and create a separate white world, by the establishment of apartheid. With the declaration of a republic in 1961, the Afrikaners created their own world, with their own laws fashioned to their own needs. The condemnation of the rest of the world simply enforced their self-righteousness - for a while.

But doubts set in, and this time the enemy was within. The children of apartheid wanted cars and televisions and modern comforts. In joining the First World, the Afrikaners became soft and comfortable, and unwilling to fight. They gave economic power to their enemies, the black people, who were increasing at more than twice the pace of their birth rate. The contradictions in apartheid were reflected in the Afrikaner soul. In public the image was macho, rugby-playing and beer-swilling. At home the story is one of domestic violence, high rates of divorce, mental illness and suicide.

History has caught up with them and this time there is nowhere to run to. Their image of South Africa as their land has gone for ever. History will judge them harshly, more harshly than their old enemies, their black fellow countrymen. If they survive, it will be because of Africa's forgiveness and tolerance. By Paul Kruger's statue I spoke to a young black man, hurrying through the square. 'We do not want to take away the statue. It is part of our history. I want to show my children and grandchildren what we have been through.' But what about that man who is saluting the statue? 'He doesn't worry us. His time is past.'

(Photograph omitted)