As John Carlin wrote in this paper last Sunday from Mafikeng: 'What happened . . . changed for ever the archetypal image of racial violence in South Africa.' For 300 years, whites held blacks down with the power of the gun. When they killed, they used the guns coldly, impersonally, as if they were putting down rats or hyenas caught near a farmstead. In that time, there were also moments when blacks killed whites, as they did in the Zulu War in 1879, but in those battles the blacks treated the whites as enemy soldiers, not as vermin. That was the difference. Then came Mafikeng, turning that difference upside-down.
It was in the old tradition that nobody bothered to give the black policeman a name, while the three white victims were Fanie, Alwyn and Nick. But it was utterly new that it was the black man who held the gun, who wore the uniform, who looked at the disarmed men sprawled on the ground and then, coldly and almost indifferently, as if he were completing some task of public hygiene, shot them one by one to death. As if there were no urgent reason to kill, but at the same time no sufficient reason why those three bodies should go on living. Because we live in Europe we can grasp, with Auden, that 'those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return'. But I think that you have to be a South African to understand just how hideous an irony was enacted there.
Reading Carlin's report, I noticed that the three white commandos all came from the same small town in northern Transvaal. Some years ago, I spent a few days and nights in Naboomspruit. It lies far to the north of Johannesburg, in a baking tropical landscape of bush, on a road which would eventually - days later - lead what was left of a car to the Limpopo River and the frontier with what is now Zimbabwe. Naboomspruit means 'Stream by the Naboom', which in turn is the Afrikaans word for a tree which seems to have no name in English. A Naboom, a local variety of euphorbia, is huge, intimidating, prickly and poisonous by reputation.
I had gone there for a stupid reason. In Johannesburg, an Afrikaner journalist had lost patience with me. 'Man]' he exploded, 'people like you just go round the same bloody well-worn trail; all those nice rich English-speaking Johannesburg liberals with big gardens in the northern suburbs, and all those educated blacks who tell you the same bloody stories about apartheid. People like you are too chicken to go to the public bar in Naboomspruit and face real Afrikaner people and find out what they think]' He seemed to have a point there about cowardice. Next day I hired a car and set off.
It was the period known in South African history as detente. President Vorster had begun to ransack the world for diplomatic support, or at least recognition, and was trying to construct some sort of relationship with the black 'frontline states' to the north. Only a few countries - Paraguay, Uruguay, Liberia, the Central African Republic under its mad emperor Bokassa - showed interest. At the same time, he tried to propitiate British opinion by tightening the screws on the rebel Rhodesian regime of Ian Smith. At home, the first cosmetic adjustments to 'petty apartheid' appeared. Blacks were allowed to sit in the Nico Malan Theatre in Capetown and, if they could afford the fare, to travel by the Blue Train or the Drakensberg Express.
In the public bar at Naboomspruit, they regarded this policy with utter contempt. The bar was dominated by the stuffed head of a warthog, glaring down on the drinkers. The Afrikaner farmers, their huge rugby-playing thighs bulging out of tiny shorts, had nothing good to say about Vorster or detente. 'Our government says we can't call a kaffir a kaffir; we have to say Bantu. Give the kaffir your finger, man, and he'll want your bloody hand.' At the time, the northern Transvaal was full of Portuguese immigrants, refugees from the collapse of the Portuguese colonial empire in Mozambique. Their fate was an awful warning to white Afrikaners, but they were regarded as a lower form of life. 'My boss boy is better educated than they are . . .'
Worst of all was Vorster's attempt to butter up African leaders such as Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia. To the public bar, they were all 'bloody baboons'.
Everyone insisted that they would go on voting for the National Party. But I was seeing the beginning of the great split which was to rend the Afrikaner nation and, in the end, to turn three children from the flowery streets of Naboomspruit into three dead neo-Nazi commandos in the dust of Mafikeng.
On the way back, I stopped at Nylstroom. Here, in a cemetery of tiny, hand-carved gravestones, lay little Anna Sofia Venter, aged two, with 500 other women and children who died during the Boer War in a British concentration camp. 'Those to whom evil is done . . .'
There are peoples in the world whose sense of identity is hopelessly tied up with the sense that they dominate other peoples. Most of them are tribes gathered around memories of their own humiliation. The Cossacks in southern Russia and Ukraine began as fugitives from serfdom; today the Cossack sense of Russianness depends on showing lesser breeds - once Jews, now above all Muslims from the Caucasus - who is the master. Orange marches in Northern Ireland are a self-assertion, a demonstration of power over those who so nearly overthrew the Protestant settlement in Ulster. For an unreconciled minority in places such as Naboomspruit, an Afrikaner who can no longer prove physically, visibly, that blacks fear him no longer feels entirely an Afrikaner.
If this were all, the future would look bad. Humiliated for centuries, the blacks of South Africa would take to humiliating others. But luckily that kind of distorted identity is confined to minorities, to 'outpost peoples' who fancy they are the frontier guards of civilisation against the barbarians. Outpost peoples half expect to be betrayed. The fanatics of the AWB, like the Ulster fanatics of the Black Preceptories, are not surprised that the high priests of 'Western Christian values', worm-eaten by decadence, are selling them out to 'world Communism'.
The mercy of Africa is the infinite readiness of Africans to forgive whites. Anger blazes up, but is forgotten more swiftly than we deserve - perhaps too swiftly. In 10 years' time, there will still be a few white men who remember Mafikeng, who think: 'I hate, therefore I am'. But in the bar at Naboomspruit, blacks and whites will be drinking carelessly together under the sign of the warthog.