Case Study in Change: A Pro-ANC Afrikaner


Prieska, South Africa. -- On the face of it, Albertus Vermeulen would never have joined the African National Congress, never even considered throwing his weight behind Nelson Mandela's election campaign.

From youth to manhood he had nurtured an iron certainty that the ANC was nothing less than the face of communism, nemesis of the Afrikaner volk, of his Christian beliefs, inimical to his very soul.

He'd gone to war against the Communists, or so he'd thought, drafted willingly in the 1980s as a counter-insurgency cavalryman to beat back the Namibian guerrillas who then were still struggling to wrest their country from South Africa's grasp.

After mustering out in the mid-'80s, Albertus Vermeulen returned to his remote and dusty little hometown to farm black-headed sheep in the desert heat of the Great Karoo.

Now married with a 2-year-old daughter, Mr. Vermeulen admits the going has been tough. Like nearly half the country's 67,000 white farmers, he is up to his ears in debt. He adds to his income by scrabbling salt from a vast white pan near the farmstead and selling it for cash to flat-bed haulers who come rumbling through the desert in search of raw freight.

In ordinary times this might well have been the open-and-shut story of Albertus Vermeulen: Just another Boer among a scattering of Boers in the drab, dry middle of South Africa.

But these are not ordinary times, and he is not just another Boer. That much was apparent when I first saw him rise from the audience at a recent television talk show, introduce himself in Afrikaans as "a sheep farmer for the ANC," and proceed to lambaste F. W. de Klerk's National Party for its racist past.

It was an intriguing start to an unusual tale. For although it is no longer strange to see Afrikaners in the ANC, even among the leadership, it takes rare courage for a Boer to stand up in the

conservative outback and campaign for a party that most of his neighbors consider "the enemy."

As expected, it has brought threats of violence and death against him and his wife, Hester. Usually they are anonymous phone calls, but right-wingers have also accosted Mr. Vermeulen in town, calling him a traitor and threatening to shoot him. The couple, heedful of right-wing attacks on dissenters elsewhere, have left their daughter in the care of relatives far away during the election period.

Ironically, Hester doesn't share her husband's ANC leanings, but she hasn't wavered in her support of him, he says. She was

away visiting family on the day of my visit, but as if to attest to her husband's faith, she telephoned him during the interview to ask what books (about the ANC, of course) he wanted her to bring back from the city.

Not only right-wingers but his father, too, reacted angrily to his son's political conversion. "He threatened at first to disown me," Albertus says. But the paternal mood seems to have softened over time.

"Lately he's been asking me about the ANC and what we stand for," he says, grinning like an expectant preacher at a baptism.

Stocky, green-eyed and sandy-haired, dressed typically in khaki shirt, shorts, hiking boots and rugby socks, the 32-year-old Mr. Vermeulen looks more like a buyer at a livestock sale than a political activist. Yet he's been doing a lot more of the latter than the former lately.

Since he joined the ANC last October, Mr. Vermeulen has spearheaded the party's drive for white credibility in the sparsely populated northern Karoo.

Thankless though his task has been in such a deeply conservative backwater, he insists that white attitudes are shifting, albeit slowly, towards acceptance of majority rule.

The big question is what drove him to do it? Is he really a bellwether of change in Afrikaner politics, or just an anomaly?

A locust plague was just beginning in the district as I drove out to his farm about 30 miles south of Prieska. Blood-red locusts, too young yet to fly, were on the move, teeming in such profusion that the dirt road and surrounding veld seemed alive in parts. And all along the way, someone had defaced the road signs with spray-painted slogans proclaiming a volkstaat, the right-wingers' Camelot. Somehow the locusts and the slogans seemed like omens, of what I did not know.

Mr. Vermeulen ushered me into a small office off the front porch of his rambling brick house and sat behind a small desk facing a narrow bookcase festooned with flags of South Africa and the ANC. Between them stood a framed photograph of his daughter. On the ledge of a frosted glass window were arranged dozens of bullets of various calibers and a drapery of machine-gun cartridge belts and other memorabilia from the Namibian war. A medium-caliber hunting rifle nestled in a corner.

It soon became clear that the war had had a great impact on him. In fact, he said, it was the war -- specifically the brutality of his own side -- that had tipped the balance and forced him to re-evaluate all that he had been led to believe about black Africans.

"I grew up thinking blacks and coloreds [mixed-race people] were little better than animals," he said.

"But when I saw the atrocities our people committed in Namibia and Angola, the way we behaved and the millions of minds and souls we harmed or destroyed, I realized we were the animals. We were just as bad as the Nazis."

He wept as he recalled some of the more brutal episodes of the war.

Having rejected his apartheid background, he sought feverishly to learn more about blacks and black politics, he said. It was a mission eased considerably in early 1990 with the release of Nelson Mandela, the unbanning of the ANC, the Communist Party and others, and the freeing of a whole genre of previously suppressed leftist literature.

The more he read the more he realized how little he knew about his country, the whole country.

"I was taught in school that I was one of a chosen race, the Afrikaner, and that God had given us this country," he said. "But I found out it was all rubbish."

It took another three years before he actually joined the ANC. In the meantime he made it his business -- at farmers' meetings and private gatherings -- to argue his newfound cause. That's when the trouble began, with his former school and army buddies.

"Some of them said they'd shoot me, and I don't take those threats lightly because I've seen what they are capable of doing to their enemies," he says.

The Afrikaner churches were to blame, he maintains. It was they who provided the religious platform for "the great lie" of white, and more specifically Afrikaner, supremacy.

Having come to this realization he promptly abandoned formalized religion, forsaking an old tradition of Sunday church attendance.

"In the last six months with the ANC I've learned more about living the Bible than I ever did in 10 years with the church," he retorts.

He draws a Bible from the desk drawer and begins reading aloud passages from Acts to support his contention.

Suddenly I realize that this is no pretender. A zealot, yes, and intensely naive.

But the stunning reality is that Albertus Vermeulen has managed to rotate his entire political credo 180 degrees without abandoning a single tenet of his values.

This is no white liberal simply adapting his lifestyle to new circumstances. Albertus Vermeulen is essentially the same as he was before he changed allegiances, from apartheid to anti-apartheid, from white to black. If true, what is to prevent others from doing the same? Perhaps the white right is salvageable after all.

I test him: But what of the strong Communist element within the ANC? Does it not trouble him to support their cause?

The biggest shock, he replies, was meeting ANC Communists for the first time and finding that their commitment to humanism and civil rights was far stronger than anything he had yet seen in the Dutch Reformed Church or the National Party.

"I'm not a Communist," he says, "But I do believe that bad communism died with the Soviet Union and its allies.

"The Communists here are not trying to dominate everything like the generals in Namibia told us they would do if they came to power."

A second test: But the ANC has promised to limit white land ownership. Could he not lose his property through debt?

If he is no good as a farmer, he answers, he deserves to lose his land so that others more competent should manage it. In fact, he says, he expects thousands of white farmers who have stayed afloat only through state support to lose title after a black-led government takes power. And if he should be one of them, so be it.

And yet a third test: How much does he pay his laborers? And how does he relate to them?

Wages average about $40 plus one sheep, per month, leaving little or nothing over as spending money. Mr. Vermeulen says he pays about twice the going rate for first-timers, while more experienced workers get up to $150 and a sheep.

Alcoholism is a big problem throughout the region. Workers invariably get drunk over the weekends and often fights, seriously injuring or even killing each other, he says.

The reason, he continues, is that apartheid has built a culture of low esteem among some workers. But he has a simple, though brutal, solution.

If his workers fight, he wades in with whip and fist. After a year of that, he says, the fighting has stopped on his farm. The drinking continues, but the antagonism has gone. Chalk that one up to ANC activism!

"The problem is apartheid," he says, "Not people."

Peter Honey, former Sun correspondent in South Africa, is now a political analyst and writer in Johannesburg.

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