Retired general leads Afrikaners' quest for separate homeland in South Africa


CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- To most of the world, South

Africa is a drama that has reached its rightful conclusion. But to Constand Viljoen, it is a continuing saga in which the white tribe of Africa is still trying to find its proper role and place.

For Mr. Viljoen and for many of his fellow Afrikaners, that place would be a homeland of their own -- a Volkstat, or people's state, where the Afrikaner culture could flourish.

It is not surprising that the Afrikaners would want their own state; they are the designated villains in the South African drama, the people blamed for apartheid. What is surprising is that the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has not dismissed the idea out of hand.

In fact, President Nelson Mandela said Tuesday that a referendum should be held to determine whether Afrikaners really want their own homeland. It's not that he's prepared to allow it to happen. He said such a vote would help the government to gauge the depth of sentiment for it among Afrikaners.

Mr. Viljoen, former general and commander of the South African Defense Forces, last year came out of retirement to lead a party called Freedom Front in national elections. In doing so, he went against the tide that pulled many of his fellow Afrikaners toward a boycott of the elections or toward violent protest.

"Plans were being made to fight a war," Mr. Viljoen said in his parliamentary office recently. "We could have gone that route, but we chose not to."

He is a stocky man with gray hair, and his hands have the callouses befitting a farmer, the part-time occupation he chose after leaving the army. He is known for his straight talk.

Indeed, he has a notably good relationship with Mr. Mandela, leader of the ANC. "Both President Mandela and I are interested in finding a lasting, peaceful solution for the future of South Africa," he said.

Mr. Viljoen is credited with taking the path of negotiation rather than confrontation. All the same, he is pursuing what he sees as the interests of Afrikaners, the descendants of the first white settlers -- the Dutch who arrived in the 1600s.

It was the Afrikaners who fought British rule at the end of the 1800s, and who in defeat developed a fierce brand of nationalism that led toapartheid policies that imposed the same type of oppression on blacks that Afrikaners once suffered under the English.

Because of their fierce devotion to this land, Afrikaners see themselves as Africans, as people who want to stay rather than emigrate, the path chosen by many English-speaking white South Africans today.

To ensure Mr. Viljoen's participation in last year's elections, the ANC promised to study the creation of a Volkstat. A commission appointed after the new government took office issued its report last month, listing areas where Afrikaners are in the majority -- including the territory surrounding Pretoria, the capital.

Mr. Mandela spoke favorably of the report, saying the idea of a Volkstat deserved a fair hearing.

There was some irony in the map prepared by the government commission. There were the scattered splotches representing an Afrikaner state, much like the scattered territories the Afrikaner government once declared to be the "homelands" of South Africa's blacks.

"What you see around the world is people moving into smaller political and larger economic groupings," Mr. Viljoen said, referring to the countries that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"That is what we would want here -- not a separate, sovereign white state in Africa, but a place where Afrikaners could practice their traditional culture, could send their children to Afrikaner schools.

"We want to find a way to be part of South Africa, and indeed of southern Africa," he said.

But the idea of an Afrikaner homeland hints at something akin to apartheid -- the separation of peoples according to ethnic lines, which has been fiercely resisted by the ANC and Mr. Mandela.

"Obviously, this is something we do not want to do," Willie Hofmyer, an Afrikaner who is an ANC member of Parliament, said the Volkstat idea. "It always seemed unworkable because, if you asked Afrikaners about it, they all wanted the boundaries drawn around their house."

The ANC, according to Mr. Hofmyer, had wanted Mr. Viljoen and the whites far to the right of him to keep talking about a Volkstat as a multiracial South Africa was taking shape. Once the national elections were past, and once Afrikaners saw that their fears about black rule were unfounded, the ANC had hoped that the white separatist movement would disappear.

The strategy has had some success; white extremists, such as Eugene Terreblanche and his neo-Nazi AWB, have been swept to the sidelines.

But the Volkstat idea has refused to die, and Mr. Hofmyer concedes that the ANC may have to give Mr. Viljoen and his supporters at least something. The government fears that if Mr. Viljoen obtains nothing out of negotiations, whites who advocate violence would be strengthened.

"If they do get a piece of land, it would not be a very rich one," Mr. Hofmyer said. "People who go there would probably be less well off than they were elsewhere. But that was the case with many Jews who went to Israel."

In Mr. Viljoen's view, the Afrikaner homeland would have much the same relation to Afrikaners as Israel does to Jews: The Volkstat would not be the place where every Afrikaner lives, but be a cultural touchstone, the place whose existence becomes part of the Afrikaners' identity.

The main stumbling block is racism, the problem that has dogged the Afrikaners since the British attempted to free the Afrikaners' slaves, and since the Afrikaners developed the system of apartheid.

Mr. Viljoen said that race would not be involved in the eligibility for Volkstat citizenship. Instead, he said, an "Afrikaner" would be defined as anyone who used the Afrikaans language and "accepted the Afrikaner view of history."

But as with so many ethnic conflicts, history is a point of contention. To many black South Africans, the history of Afrikaners is the history of racism. To the Afrikaners, theirs is a story of struggle for national liberation.

"We are a religious people," Mr. Viljoen said. "To us, what God had in mind for us is very important. The Afrikaner was destined to be the pioneer in southern Africa. Then we were stopped by the British.

"In the last century, we have deviated from our real mission. We are here to do upliftment, to help eradicate poverty. And we had a specific religious role, to bring religion to all people. It was when we stopped doing that in South Africa things started to go wrong. It might be that the Afrikaner is not destined to have a political role."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad