Apartheid stained us for ever: Afrikaners will have to earn their place in South Africa's future, says Natasha Mostert

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LYNETTE was one of my classmates in high school. She spoke Afrikaans, like all of us, but she was not South African. Her parents owned a farm in Mashonaland in Rhodesia and had sent their daughter to school in South Africa when the bush war intensified.

Lynette told stories of a farmstead under siege: of barbed wire fences, dog patrols, mortar attacks and land mines buried in dirt roads. The world she described was alien to us. We lived in prim, suburban homes in Pretoria, where blossoms drooped from jacaranda trees that lined the quiet streets.

It was after Rhodesia became the Marxist People's Republic of Zimbabwe that white South Africans took to looking across the border when they discussed the future. Our apprehensions and paranoia were fuelled by a series of bizarre news stories. One such report, for example, told of whites stocking up on suntan lotion because the Zimbabwean government had considered banning this product as a luxury item not needed by the country's majority.

But what really interested us was how the white community was coping with a loss of political power that was sudden and absolute. If you belong to a minority so tiny that your vote can have no effect on the outcome of an election, is it still possible for you, and your children after you, to have an impact on your country's political destiny?

President FW de Klerk resents comparisons between South Africa and its neighbour across the Limpopo River. In his televised election debate with Nelson Mandela, he argued that in a colour-blind South Africa, whites would be able to safeguard certain values by forming a coalition with like-minded black South Africans. Unlike their counterparts in Zimbabwe, he explained, white South Africans would not huddle together in 'a corner'.

Encouraged by Nelson Mandela's healing words of 'nation-building' and the 'joining of hands', white South Africans are looking towards black leaders. Sometimes, however, the message they receive is disheartening.

Last year, Ibbo Mandaza, editor of the respected news magazine Southern African Political and Economic Monthly, wrote: '. . . viewed in a broader historical perspective, the white factor in Southern Africa will turn out to have been a transient even though immensely significant factor. The combination of the 'numbers game', the declining capacity for the reproduction of the white classes, and the growing aggressiveness of an African middle class - all will increasingly put paid to the white factor in South Africa in particular and Southern Africa in general'.

A similar view, articulated in a less scholarly fashion, was held by the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) during its election campaign, when it predicted that white domination would be 'swept into the sea'. Patricia de Lille, a senior PAC representative, suggested that whites should be encouraged to emigrate.

The PAC does not forgive. I am aware of its hate every time I pass by a graffiti-splattered wall that screams 'One Settler, One Bullet'. But this rage is easier to deal with than the force of Mr Mandaza's cool dismissal of what we, as whites, have to offer. I was startled at how resentful I felt when I read his words. The strength of my feelings has a lot do do with the fact that the logic of his argument is difficult to fault.

For Afrikaners the question goes beyond the debate of whether we still have a contribution to make to the continent. Afrikaners have to redefine their identity, re-evaluate their heritage.

When I visited my grandmother in Johannesburg last week, we discussed the elections. But she also remembered the past. She spoke about her mother, my great grandmother, who survived a two-year stay in a British concentration camp. She talked about her father, who was the head of a school in rural Potchefstroom and who failed to persuade the education authorities that Afrikaner children should be allowed to use textbooks translated into Afrikaans. She described the Great Drought of the Thirties, which exposed the inherent fragility of a beautiful land, and which led Afrikaners to leave their farms for a life of searing poverty in the inner cities.

Such tales of endurance are familiar to every Afrikaner. They give us our pride. But they are blotted out by the shame of apartheid. Future generations will concentrate on that part of our history which is dark and inglorious. We shall have to explain to our children why we allowed ourselves to benefit from a system whose brutality outraged the world.

But courage can be defined in many ways. Recently I saw on television a group of white, middle-aged South Africans singing, not the discredited anthem 'Die Stem', but 'Nkosi Sikelele iAfrika' - South Africa's 'black' anthem. They looked ill at ease, these thickset men and their wives with the old-fashioned hairdos. They were stumbling over the unfamiliar words of an unfamiliar anthem in an alien tongue, but they were trying. Some are resentful of the changes they have to make at a time in their lives when they are thinking of retirement. Many of them are afraid.

But they are not dreaming of life in an Afrikaner volkstaat, and refuse to live on the margins of society, the way many white Zimbabweans do. They are doggedly determined to be a part of the new South Africa. Many have volunteered to drive black South Africans to polling stations, knowing their passengers will be voting for the ANC. These whites, along with millions of patient and unembittered black South Africans, may yet change South Africa from a virile but violent land into a sane and moral place.

South Africans are very tired. We are tired of uncertainty. We are tired of waking up to pictures of crumpled bodies gleaming with blood. But we are also blessed. South Africa is an intoxicating place: a country that sets the imagination on fire. Despite the savagery, the elaborate killing rituals, the stupefying intolerance - despite all that - South Africans will have made a soaring, courageous leap of faith by the time the polls close. Who knows, we may even break the curse that has made Africa the world's saddest continent.

So here's to you, South Africa. May your days be golden and your nights peaceful and cool. Go Well. Hamba Kahle. Mooiloop. And be careful what you wish for.

(Photograph omitted)