Bitter Afrikaners go north to set up white-only territory

Mary Braid
Friday 10 October 1997 23:02

A 'Boer Republic' is being established this weekend just 50 miles east of Pretoria. Its founders - 200 Afrikaner families - say it is their right to go it alone. The blacks they evicted disagree. Now, the beleaguered whites once again circle the wagon trains.

Wind and heavy drizzle batter the headstone in the middle of the cemetery. In Afrikaans, T and B Steyn have inscribed "Here lies our dear Ella, born 12 January 1898, died 18 December 1901 in the concentration camp at Balmoral."

Around Ella's tiny grave are hundreds of others - mostly without stones - for the women and children who perished in the camp set up by the British during the Boer war just beyond the dirt road. More than 26,000 Afrikaners, mainly women and children, perished in such camps.

Apart from Ella, the bodies and names are largely unmatched and victims share the memorial engraved with their names at the entrance gate. The least fortunate are piled in mass graves at the far corner of the cemetery; history will never remember their names.

The concentration camps are etched on the consciousness of every Afrikaner, marking an episode of appalling victimisation of a people who would later become racial oppressors.

This weekend the graveyard finds itself at the heart of a new "Boer Republic" on land jointly purchased by 200 Afrikaner families from which black people will be banned. It will be governed by the old, austere, Calvinist principles which in the 19th century sent the fiercely independent Afrikaners trekking in wagon trains from the Cape into the wild interior to escape British rule.

Since the coming of black majority rule in 1994, deposed Afrikaners have begun to trek again, heading north into Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique, setting up farms and Boer-only communities. At home, 600 have trekked into the northern Karoo to found Orania, whose patron saint is Hendrik Verwoerd, the reviled architect of apartheid, and where blacks are so unwelcome that whites prefer to clean their own streets.

Balmoral is the most bizarre exercise in Afrikaner exclusivity so far. For these trekkers - shareholders in the new Boere Republiek Kooperatief Beperk (Boer Republic Co-operative Ltd) - have barely left the mainstream to circle the wagons. The republic - 470 acres of farmland - lies just off a main motorway, 50 miles east of Pretoria.

It is apt that the graveyard should lie at its centre, for once again Afrikaners feel victimised and under attack. "The intention of this regime is to destroy us," said Andries Campher, 53, a towering farmer with rough, shovel-sized hands, and one of the founders. "We just want to survive financially as a group, with our own identity still intact." The alternative, he insists, is annihilation.

Mr Campher complains about affirmative action for blacks and rising white unemployment. Christian values, he says, are being eroded in schools where educational standards are plummeting and Afrikaans is no longer spoken. To stop the rot Boers must build their own communities, businesses, homes and schools; and govern once again, albeit in a miniature kingdom.

Hopes have evaporated that the South African government will hand over land for a Volkstaat. And provided you are white and Afrikaner the Balmoral "republic" offers democracy. Every investor owns the same share and has an equal say in government. Although not all of the 200 investors will live on the land, some will begin laying the foundations for new homes this weekend. The group intends to buy more land later.

And land is the thorny issue. For the new republic has already evicted local black people. According to Mr Campher, farm workers employed by the previous owner were told that their labour was no longer needed. He claims they hung around for a while but eventually disappeared.

Blacks have told another story. One weeping woman says that the Boers conducted a campaign of terror and intimidation, forcing her off the land she was born on.

"That's rubbish," said Mr Campher. "They just moved on. I never spoke to them personally. They were nothing to me then and they are nothing to me now." New legislation which would have strengthened black workers' rights to tenure does not come into effect for another few months. In recent months farmers all over South Africa have been evicting blacks before the new laws are introduced. Mr Campher says he was well aware that the legislation was coming.

The African National Congress says that the Boer Republic Co-operative has operated lawfully. But the Pan Africanist Congress says the ANC is failing to grasp the land issue and is allowing Afrikaners to grab land as if it was still the 19th century.

Fritz Meyer, another "republic" founder, insists that the Afrikaner families are simply setting up a business and that racism plays no part. But the founders clearly feel they are the true defenders of the Volk. Yesterday, they petitioned the British High Commission in Pretoria for an apology for the concentration camp deaths. The vast majority of Afrikaners who are trying to find their place inside, not outside, the new South Africa are seen by some as traitors.

As Mr Campher conducted a tour of the cemetery, two middle-aged Afrikaners from nearby Witbank looked on. One rolled his eyes in disbelief. "This republic is just not viable," he said. His friend says the new South Africa is certainly tougher. Before the political changes he was never out of work. He has just spent six months unemployed.

But he has an interesting take on the old wagon metaphor. "It will do no good if the oxen pulling the wagon go in opposite directions," he said. "All South Africans must pull together now." He shrugged, without a hint of bitterness.


Three months ago South Africa was shocked to discover its population was only 38 million, four million less than previously thought. Calculations were apparently confused by the previous regime's over-estimate of black fertility rates.

Of the 38 million, 77 per cent are classified black, 12 per cent white, 9 per cent coloured (mixed race) and 2 per cent Asian. Roughly 60 per cent - 2.6 million - of white South Africans are Afrikaners, though their language Afrikaans is the third most spoken in the country after Zulu (22 per cent) and Xhosa (18 per cent).

Afrikaans is also far more common than English as a second language yet English, must to the ire of Afrikaners, is increasingly being adopted as the official "neutral" language of new South Africa.

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