POTCHEFSTROOM, South Africa -- Throughout the five-hour rally of 10,000 white farmers under a hot sun in this town surrounded by flat country filled with cornfields west of Johannesburg, Piet Hauss had been the personable master of ceremonies.
He introduced speakers, quieted the crowd, joked good-naturedly.
The atmosphere was charged, though. The gathering -- thought to be the largest ever of farmers in South Africa -- followed a series of killings of farmers and their families in their isolated homes. It was considered a very public statement of a new militancy by the often-divided and contentious right wing.
And as the rally drew to a close, Mr. Hauss' polite manner fell away. His easy smile disappeared as he delivered a series of ultimatums for the rally to approve.
He talked of a plan by the black African National Congress (ANC) to take their protests about education into white schools.
"I call on all whites who have some integrity left to tell the ANC that this will not happen and if it does, that people will die trying to do it," he said to thunderous applause from the farmers sitting in a rugby stadium, spilling out of the stands onto the field.
His sudden descent into racist rhetoric showed that powerful tribal forces lie just beneath the surface, emerging to threaten the delicate structures designed to reach a negotiated settlement for a post-apartheid multiracial government in South Africa.
Much of the anger at this rally was aroused by the chant of "Kill the farmer, kill the Boer," uttered recently by Peter Mokaba, president of the
ANC Youth League.
Mr. Mokaba has since said that the chant was aimed against apartheid, and not against farmers -- called Boers in the Afrikaner language. But coming as it did amid recent killings of farmers, the reaction was not surprising.
Moreover, the radical Pan African Congress (PAC) has unabashedly called for the deaths of whites. Some of its adherents still chant "One bullet, one settler," referring to whites who settled on African land. Throughout yesterday's rally, speakers linked the ANC and PAC.
"If one farmer is murdered again, due to all the calls by the PAC and the ANC, it will be considered a declaration of war on the farming community of the country," Mr. Hauss said. "We ask all reasonable South Africans to say that we are going to fight back with every means available to us."
With close to half of the almost all-male audience carrying holstered handguns, it was clear what means Mr. Hauss had in mind.
In the past week attention has been focused on violence from the left with the murders of five whites in a coastal bar and four policemen in the Soweto township for which the PAC has reportedly claimed responsibility. But there is a great fear of violence from the right as a one-man, one-vote election approaches and whites realize that their domination of the government is about to end.
That fear was heightened last month by the formation of a so-called Committee of Generals, five respected former military commanders, who are positioning themselves to take leadership the parties committed to white separatism. The movement had some impetus from the recent death of Conservative Party leader Andries Treurnicht, who had kept the right at the negotiating table.
One of those generals, Constand Viljoen, the country's former top military leader, was the featured speaker yesterday. While he did raise the specter of the country's military refusing to obey an ANC-led government, for the most part he was a moderating influence.
He called for a suspension of talks -- "Let's wipe the slate clean and start over" -- but did not repudiate the negotiation process.
"It was inevitable that we would have to give our people some rights," he said, referring to the majority black population. "But this is not the way to go about it."
Mr. Viljoen also kept from referring to the situation in racial terms, instead using political ones, trying to paint the ANC as a Communist-dominated organization.
"The majority of blacks, people who built this country with us, have been silenced by their children, youngsters indoctrinated with the Communist theory of revolution," he said.
A farmer himself, Mr. Viljoen referred to "Our loyal black workers who are in a worse situation than we are. We must help them."
Out in the crowd, signs read "White Race, The Master Race" and "It's Time for the Farmer to Grab His Gun." The flags of the former Afrikaner states, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, flew alongside the flag of South Africa.
That flag will soon disappear as a new government finds a new design. These farmers, descendants of the original white settlers of South Africa, Afrikaners who trekked inland to escape English domination, and then fought the British in the Boer War, fear their way of life might disappear with it.