Racial tensions flare at funeral of white South African leader

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VENTERSDORP, South Africa — Friends were alarmed when I said I was heading to this small farming town in South Africa’s conservative North West Province to cover the funeral of murdered Afrikaner white power leader Eugene Terre’Blanche.

“I’ve been to Baghdad and Mogadishu,” I said. “How bad can this be?”

“This is a different kind of crazy,” one friend replied.

This morning as I strolled among thousands of angry Afrikaners, some of them with automatic weapons strapped to their sides, having a dark face felt like a distinct disadvantage. A rare black face in the crowd, a fellow journalist, sidled up to me and whispered worriedly, “Are you standing here alone?”

It’s been that kind of week in South Africa, a week in which some people talked about “a race war” not as an outlandish idea but as something not to be discounted out of hand.

But this morning, through the roars of scores of motorcycles and burly men in combat gear waving the old apartheid South African flag, the reception of a handful of black journalists was tepid but civil.

One elderly gentleman holding up the Nazi-like AWB flag caught my eye and we both instinctively nodded our heads in a courteous and warm hello.

“Not everyone here is a racist,” said Jovan Pienaar, 24, who had flown 500 miles from the Indian Ocean port of Durban in KwaZulu Natal, to attend the funeral. “We are here to pay our respect to a man who fought for his people, just like Nelson Mandela fought for his people.”

Many would question the comparison, but there was no doubt that the gruesome death of ET, as Terre’Blanche is popularly known, has touched a nerve in many Afrikaners. ET was allegedly bludgeoned to death in his bed by two of his farm workers on April 3. The two workers then reportedly called police and said they had attacked their boss in self-defense.

The mood at church this morning was somber as nearly 5,000 mourners spilled out of the church and sat on the grass and on picnic chairs. They all stood as one and sang the national anthem of the old South Africa. They also waved the apartheid-era flag and held up signs that read, “World Cup, you are coming to a country that hates whites.”

ET’s murder was an almost too-convenient-to-be true fit in South Africa’s ongoing psychodrama of uneasy race relations. The country’s negotiated path to democracy has left both sides unhappy and dissatisfied. There are 4.4 million white South Africans, who make up about 9 percent of the country's 47 million population.

The South African government led by the African National Congress has accommodated whites, who retain most of the economic power, but it has allowed one of its leaders, Julius Malema, to taunt whites and threaten them openly with violence.

Malema, head of the ANC Youth League, is in the headlines almost daily, most recently when he sang an old liberation-era song, “Kill the Boer.” The Boers or Afrikaners did not take kindly to this, and when ET was murdered, they immediately blamed Malema.

Terre’Blanche has been a main character in the South African stage sine the 1970s when he founded the Afrikaner Weerstandbeweging, or AWB, which disdained the apartheid state as too liberal toward blacks. Terre'Blanche, whose name roughly translates to white earth, called for a separate white homeland in South Africa.  But the AWB failed to disrupt the transition to democracy in 1994 despite its members’ attempt to storm the conference center where the talks were taking place.

Terre’Blanche was recently released from prison after serving three years for assaulting a black petrol attendant and living him crippled.

Ventersdorp was ET’s stomping ground. Lucas Shilowa, a black school teacher, recalls first encountering him at a local supermarket.

“He rode his horse into the Spar and picked up his groceries while riding around,” Shilowa said. “I can’t say he was normal. “

Shilowa, 42, stood across from Ventersdorp’s city hall whose grounds house two monuments comemorating three AWB members who were shot and killed while attempting to take over one of the Bantustan homelands set up by the apartheid regime. While city hall is putatively controlled by blacks, the real power to this day remains with men such Terre’Blanche.

“You could see him driving up and down in his Fords Astra with his dog in the back, checking everything in the town,” Shilowa said. “One day he came to my house and said to my son, ‘Hey boy, come here.’ My son told him he was not a boy. He was a man.”

But beyond the bluster and Nazi-like flags flying all over town today, most blacks and whites in town got on fine, Shilowa said. “I got white people living on either side of me,” he said. “We share beers and live peacefully.”

Samson Mulugeta is an American journalist who has called Johannesburg home for the past nine years. He was born in Ethiopia.