Posted on December 22, 2005

SA Divisions on Reconciliation Day

Barnaby Phillips, BBC News, Dec. 22, 2005

Just as President Mbeki was giving his bleak assessment of enduring divisions in this society, a few hundred white people were gathered in Pretoria’s Church Square.

Many were dressed in khaki, some carried the flags of the old Boer republics. One family arrived in an ox wagon.

These were Afrikaners, who had come to hear Eugene Terreblanche.

In the early 1990s he threatened to lead Afrikaners in violent resistance to multi-racial democracy. But the resistance never materialised, and his militia faded away.

Mr Terre’Blanche was convicted of attempted murder and went to prison; he was only released last year.

He has not lost his sense of drama. He arrived in Church Square on a horse and told the crowd: “We, the Afrikaners, have lost everything, we’ve lost our country.”

Nor has he lost his sense of self-importance. He said: “I’ve come to gather our people, the volk; we must get together and go into a laager.”

A laager is the circle of wagons the Boer pioneers would form to protect themselves from black African people as they trekked across South Africa in the 19th Century.

Public holiday

I do not think a lot of white people will have paid attention to Mr Terreblanche’s words; those who did read them in the next day’s papers will probably have laughed.

But I also doubt that many white people noticed President Mbeki’s speech.

It was delivered on National Reconciliation Day, a public holiday with an earnest name.

Frankly, for most South Africans its real significance is time off work.

And on a sunny December day at the start of the Christmas break, white people would have been setting out for the beaches of KwaZulu Natal or the Cape, an annual pilgrimage for those who can afford it.

Or they would have been by the pool, preparing the barbeque. If the TV was on, it would have been tuned to cricket, and the test match in Australia.

Eleven years after apartheid, most white South Africans do not want to turn the clock back. Why should they?

Privately, some admit that they have never had it so good.


If you leave aside the threat of violent crime — and, granted, that is a big if — there is not too much else to grumble about.

The stigma of being a white South African has gone.

The economy is booming — at least for the rich — and a substantial part of it is still in white hands.

But when it comes to politics, a lot of white people have given up. The assumption is that the ANC is going to be in power for decades anyway.

White people have simply withdrawn from many areas of public life.

From the sidelines they grumble about aspects of the new South Africa — crime, affirmative action, the changing of street names by ANC officials — but, by and large, they are comfortable.

I know it is not fair to generalise; there are still some four million white people in South Africa.


Last week I stayed on a particularly beautiful and rugged part of the coast.

I love its deserted beaches, and seeing the whales and dolphins beyond the surf.

I have become friendly with the local hotel manager, Mike, who is white.

This time I could sense something was wrong; the staff looked depressed, the hotel was almost empty.

“We had a robbery,” said Mike. “They jumped over the electric fence and shot at me.

“They missed, but they knocked me down and beat me to a pulp. They put a pistol to my head; it misfired.”

Three men from a nearby village have been arrested, soon they go on trial.

Generosity of spirit

Mike is undecided whether to stay, but he seems to be leaning that way.

“It has been hard,” he said, “but this is still a beautiful place, and we’ve got 30 employees. We can’t abandon them.”

I asked Mike why it had happened. “The villages round here are dirt poor,” he said, “until we sort that out, we’ll carry on having problems.”

His attitude was different to that which one encounters a lot in South Africa; that of the complacent, slightly cynical white man; a bystander, not prepared to engage and shape this new country.

That reminds me of white Zimbabweans in the 80s and 90s. And that is where the danger lies.

The problem for white Zimbabweans came once the economy faltered. They were already isolated. And when President Mugabe started looking for scapegoats, they were vulnerable.

I know that comparison will offend white and black South Africans.

I am not saying the ANC will produce a Robert Mugabe, or that South Africa will go the way of Zimbabwe.

But — maybe — Mike represents the best qualities of his white compatriots; a love for this country and its fierce beauty, a generosity of spirit, and when the chips are down, raw courage.

And maybe others should show more of that generosity of spirit.