S. Africa's 'only white tribe' forms separatist commune Dutch descendants cite 'need to survive'


BALMORAL, South Africa -- On a farm called Desolation here on the rolling High Veldt, 200 Boers are shaping new lives for themselves over the weekend weekend as far from post-apartheid South Africa as they can legally get while still staying in the country.

The Boers are the descendants of the first Dutch settlers in South Africa. They call themselves "Africa's only white tribe." Apartheid was the codification 50 years ago of their determination to treat black people as inferior and separate.

Andries Campher, 53, one of the founders of the breakaway movement here, is not happy with how things have gone since the end of apartheid.

"Things are getting worse every day," he said. "We are looking at an accelerating rate of deterioration, not in our favor."

Campher's answer: forming a self-sufficient Boers-only commune outside the capital, Pretoria, to allow its members to follow their God, provide themselves with homes and jobs, educate their children to their own standards and escape crime.

"There is a need for survival -- survival in the sense of being what we were, what we are and what we want to be in the future," said Campher, a tall, bearded, pipe-smoking farmer who sold his own farm to move here.

The Boer commune, which formally opened Saturday, is the latest demonstration of the increasing disillusion of many Afrikaners with life in the new South Africa.

Seeing culture threat

They feel increasingly threatened by efforts to improve opportunities for blacks and the sidelining of their own culture and language.

"At the moment there is a lot of discrimination against the whites. When people apply for jobs, it's the blacks who get them regardless of qualifications," said Campher.

He has other complaints against the black-majority government of President Nelson Mandela: declining school standards, increasing crime and a retreat from Christian principles.

"The Afrikaner, as a people, is not coping with the new situation," said Gen. Constand Viljeon, leader of the right-wing Freedom Party, which advocates creation of a full-scale homeland for Afrikaners.

"And one of the reasons for that is that the Afrikaner has been rather stunned by developments," he said.

During political negotiations leading up to the 1994 all-race elections, which brought Mandela to power, Viljeon agreed to avoid violence in return for an agreement by Mandela to establish a commission to study the possibility of a "Volkstaat," or homeland, for the Afrikaners.

The commission is working on its final recommendations, but few question that the ruling African National Congress will resist any form of independent Afrikaner state.

Earlier this year, Mandela, speaking at Rand Afrikaans University, said that the mood of pessimism among Afrikaners, fomented and perpetuated by intellectuals and commentators, was "eating at the very bricks and mortar of our entire new society and nation."

Isolation criticized

Signaling his opposition to any breakaway Afrikaner movement, he said: "It does not benefit anyone in the country to have parts of our community marginalized, dissatisfied and isolated."

"The ANC has the idea that the territorial self-determination idea we have will cause Balkanization -- will tear the country up," acknowledged Viljeon in an interview in his Pretoria office.

"I can understand their thoughts, but it is up to us to convince them about this. They say we can have nation-building. We say they are going to have assimilation."

This, he said, left the Afrikaners with four options: to leave the country; to stay and simply try to make money; to be assimilated; or to retain their identity within a Volkstaat while remaining loyal to South Africa.

The Zulus, the Swazis and the Lesothos, Viljeon pointed out, each have their own homelands within South Africa.

"We need to have our own area," he said. "We look for peaceful co-existence. We realize we are in one country, but assimilation we will resist."

He endorsed the Mandela mantra of South Africa being a "rainbow nation." But drawing a rainbow on a piece of paper on his desk, he said: "If the rainbow nation is this, all beautiful colors, peacefully co-existing, that's right. But a rainbow is no longer a rainbow if it blurs [its colors]. It loses its beauty, and it soon disappears after the blur."

He is not impressed by what is happening here at Balmoral, where this weekend the 200 members of the commune started choosing the lots on which they will build homes.

"It's wishful thinking," said Viljeon. "They will start some development and try to keep it Afrikaans."

Not a breakaway state

That is precisely what Campher and his three co-founders of the Boer Republic Co-operative Ltd. have in mind. They are not proposing a breakaway state or a military stronghold. Although the word "republic" is in their title, he denied it will be either a "republic" or a "Volkstaat."

"To me, Volkstaat means something different," Campher said. "It is a term formed in the past. It means a small completely independent state, self-governing. It is not viable. We can't have something like that here."

Already the commune owns the 270-acre Desolation Farm and is buying two neighboring farms, one of which contains 400 neglected graves of Boers who died in a British "concentration camp" at Balmoral during the 1899-1902 Anglo-Boer War.

Members must embrace the Boers' conservative Christianity and traditions. Each member pays $260 for a share in the company. This entitles him or her to a 885-square-meter plot on which to build a home and the right to apply to run a business or farm on the commune's land.

How did the members come together?

"What happened here is that people of the same idea, the same mind, same beliefs, same principles, came together naturally, and they are still coming together," he said, as preparations went ahead for a Thanksgiving service to mark the opening of the cooperative.

Could a black become a member of the commune?

"Can an Irishman be a German? Can an Italian be a Frenchman?" asked Viljeon. Returning to the same issue an hour later, he pointed to the cemetery down the hill, across the tilled red earth, which is ready for planting corn, soybeans and vegetables, and said: "For us it's a monument. It's part of our history.

"You asked me could a black man become a member? Could a black man have a history in that grave yard? It is not quite possible."

He continued: "There is no discrimination here. The main idea here is not to separate, discriminate. It is to make it possible for those of a kind to group together.

"We don't want to threaten anyone. We also would not like to be threatened. We will not lock ourselves away and put our heads in a bush. If I am threatened with extinction, I don't think I will be a coward on that day."

Pub Date: 10/13/97

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