Mandela visits widow of his jailer

ORANIA, SOUTH AFRICA — ORANIA, South Africa -- Since this small, all-white town decided against joining the trek to the new South Africa, the new South Africa yesterday came to Orania.

In a gesture of reconciliation that bordered on the surreal, President Nelson Mandela walked down the steps of his helicopter into the whites-only community to have a cup of tea with 94-year-old Betsie Verwoerd, the widow of a former prime minister known as the architect of apartheid.


Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd's government imprisoned Mr. Mandela in 1963, and Mr. Mandela stayed behind bars the next 27 years. But here he was sipping tea with Mrs. Verwoerd and touring the town that is a self-styled prototype of an all-white Afrikaner homeland, or "volkstat."

"The way I've been received was as if I was in Soweto," Mr. Mandela said of the friendliness of his reception, referring to the huge black township near Johannesburg.


That was after his 45-minute closed-door session with Mrs. Verwoerd, a small, frail woman whose face beamed up at Mr. Mandela when they appeared together.

For her part, Mrs. Verwoerd read a statement in Afrikaans that asked Mr. Mandela to "consider the volkstat with sympathy, to dispose with wisdom the fate of the Afrikaner people."

During his 15 months in office, Mr. Mandela has proved a master at symbolic reconciliation between whites and blacks. But perhaps no one expected it to extend to the Verwoerds. As native affairs commissioner and then as prime minister, Hendrik Verwoerd turned the ideas of apartheid into laws that denied blacks the right of citizenship, condemned them to a second-rate education and to second-rate jobs.

Verwoerd still strikes a raw nerve with many blacks. Shortly after Mr. Mandela took office, statues of Verwoerd disappeared from some government buildings and town squares.

But Mr. Mandela was not to be deterred from his visit.

"It is always better to sit down and talk," he said.

After his tea -- he actually drank coffee -- Mr. Mandela walked to the top of a rocky hill to see a statue of Verwoerd, who was stabbed to death in his seat in Parliament in 1966 by a messenger later declared insane.

"In many areas, statues of Verwoerd have been removed by people I respect tremendously, whose integrity is beyond repute," Mr. Mandela said. "But I think it is better if we sit down with all concerned and work out guidelines as to what should be done with our old symbols."


The visit to Orania had its beginnings two weeks ago, when Mr. Mandela was the host at a lunch for widows of South African leaders, black and white alike. Mrs. Verwoerd was invited but declined, citing her age. But she said that if Mr. Mandela were ever in the neighborhood, he would be welcome for tea.

The president, in effect, called her bluff.

"We never thought it was going to happen," said Orania resident Yolanda Potgieter. "But before we knew it, it was happening."

Orania is not just any town: Only whites can live, work and do business here. But residents ardently maintain that there is no racism, that they are simply exploring a way to live in peace with their neighbors.

Mr. Mandela's visit did not sit well with everyone. "We had a meeting about it, and some people thought he shouldn't come," said Mrs. Potgieter. "Like in any community, there are some disagreements."

But most of the 460 residents judged Mr. Mandela's presence as a grant of legitimacy to the community, putting it and its ideas on the political map.


"It has implications in the sense that if a head of state sees it fit to visit Orania, it is the start of a volkstat for the Afrikaners," said Andre Van de Berg, headmaster of Orania's primary school.

Mr. Van de Berg was one of the 14 founders of the town, which began as a scattering of houses for laborers building a dam on the Orange River. That was four years ago, shortly after Mr. Mandela was freed from prison.

The legality of Orania's all-white policies has not yet been tested in court. The community has maintained itself as all-white by declaring itself a private business, run by a board of directors.

"I did not need a pass to come in here," Mr. Mandela said, referring to the government-issued passes blacks needed during the apartheid era to travel to white areas.

"And I think if I did, then the people here would have to get a pass to go across the Orange River -- which I do not think they would like."