The murder of the 69 year-old Afrikaner Weerstandsbewiging Leader Eugene Ney Terre’blanche asks the very real question: will right-wing “Boeredom” ever be the same again?
A larger than life figure, for some a public buffoon and for others a racist bully, Terre’blanche strode the South African stage with a combination of historical melancholia and brutal brashness.
In English, AWB translated into the “Afrikaner Resistance Movement”, something that described its raison d’être in more understandable terms, especially for those who didn’t understand Afrikaans. To put it bluntly: the AWB was an armed resistance movement looking to overthrow the state.
But there was never any prospect of alignments with the anti-Apartheid movement. The AWB was a secessionist, white supremacist group which loathed and detested the communist influences of organisations such as the African National Congress. The ANC was its sworn enemy, one that had to be fought to the death.
The AWB found its roots in the grievance that Prime Minister BJ Vorster, the beetle-browed successor to the assassinated Apartheid ideologue Hendrik Verwoed, had become too “liberal”.
Founded by a group of seven “worried young Boers” in 1973 in a Heidelberg garage, the AWB – initially a secret organisation – rose to prominence when 40 of its members tarred and feathered an Afrikaner history professor, Floors van Jaarsveld, in 1979.
Van Jaarsveld, a dry academic, had dared to suggest that the Day of the Vow (commemorating Piet Retief’s bloody victory against the Zulu monarch Dingaan in 1838) had nothing to do with divine Afrikaner destiny, and should be a moment for all South Africans to reflect on their common heritage.
Fuelled by a hatred of the British, the AWB claimed it was yearning for an “alternative to the Westminster system” that would allow the Afrikaner volk an ethnic state of their own.
However, the AWB’s mantra of the suffering of the Boerevolk did enjoy some historical resonance. The legacy of the short-lived Transvaal and Orange Free State Boer Republics, in defiance of the Colonial British, are paragraphs that should not be omitted in post-apartheid review.
The 1899 Boer War saw the British introducing a scorched earth policy, and causing the death and suffering of thousands of Boers in concentration camps. It cannot be denied that until very recently, this was a living memory for some white South Africans.
However, for Eugene Terre’blanche, living memory (his Huguenot grand-father fought in the Boer War) had to define his political reality, even if it was singularly based on sentiment and he was incapable of putting academic flesh to it.
A flag used by the AWB, the old Transvaal “vierkleur”, may have seemed innocent enough, but its logo betrayed a sinister motif. Its triskelion of three black 7’s against a white background and red frame was just too reminiscent of the Nazis. In the public eye, Terre’blanche’s Hitler salutes left little room for doubt.
Whilst Helen Suzman had once told me that Verwoed could convincingly intellectualise apartheid gibberish, it could be argued that Terre’blanche’s talent was to emotionalise the same racist nonsense.
I was always fascinated by his sense of theatrical, and his booming, pseudo-poetic oration. In the cold light of day, his words were of little substance. My abiding memory of covering the AWB was of a bunch of dim-witted racist bullies. Reason was a swear-word, and they were always nasty enough to be life-threatening.
Ironically, it was Terre’blanche’s sense of the theatrical that would eventually prove to be his undoing. A fall off his horse, whilst reportedly drunk at an AWB rally, publicly revealed him for the buffoon that I think he really was.
A Channel 4 documentary on the AWB by Nick Broomfield called The Leader, his Driver and the Driver’s Wife claimed an affair with Jani Allan, a Sunday Times columnist. Allan, who had written about Terre’blanche’s “blowtorch” eyes, later sued the channel.
But the damage had been done, and the allegations made by Allan’s flatmate that she had spied through the keyhole and seen a man with green underpants in a compromising position, further cemented the legend – even if it might have been an urban one.
Whilst Terre’blanche’s antics may have entertained some, for many the AWB was an unpleasant reminder that South Africa would have to deal with a right-wing prepared to pull the trigger.
In the 1980’ niggling incidences of violence became more frequent, the South African police having to use teargas to disperse AWB members disrupting National Party meetings. The release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 saw the AWB stepping up the ante.
In 1991 President FW de Klerk was due to address a public meeting at Ventersdorp, the heartland of the AWB, when violence broke out between para-military members of the AWB and South African security forces. By the end of the day six policeman, 29 civilians and 13 AWB members were injured, with three killed.
Later that year, the AWB stormed the Kempton Park World Trade Centre – where negotiations were taking place – by ramming an armoured vehicle through its glass doors.
In March 1994, a mere month before the elections, the AWB and Afrikaner Volksfront militiamen arrived unannounced in the Bophuthatswana homeland. Their aim was to entrench the despotic rule of its leader, Lucas Mangope.
The AWB and Volksfront convoy drove through the Bantustan, shooting randomly at passers-by and tossing hand-grenades out their car windows. This bloodthirsty joy-ride soon turned into a pitched battle as Mangope’s forces, initially standing back but hit by casualties, turned on the Afrikaners.
As three injured AWB members tumbled out of a battered Mercedes begging the media for help, a Bophuthatswana soldier shot them in the head. That cold moment shocked the world, but I think it brought home the message that white supremacy in Africa had finally met its nemesis.
After that, and the peaceful transition of 1994, Terre’blanche’s bluster receded and the AWB declined into what political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi describes as a “moribund” state. In 1996 Terre’blanche stood in the dock for the assault of petrol attendant, John Ndzima, and for the attempted murder of Paul Motshabi.
His conviction and prison term are history now, but right at the last flickering moments of his chequered life Terre’blanche wrote another dramatic chapter. And this has little to do with ANC youth leader Julius Malema’s infantile demagoguery to “kill the Boer”, or the hysterical notions that this country could plunge into a race war.
It’s got everything to do with the fact that Terre’blanche met a violent end because he had, as one of the mothers of his killers alleges, not paid her son his wages since December. And that, whilst it will soon leave the front pages, is the real story – the fact that in the dark rural recesses of the North West Province, 15 years after democracy, a white boss can still treat his black workers like Apartheid slaves.