South Africa will survive the killing of a neofascist – like in 1994
The death of Eugene Terre'Blanche is a sorry end to a deluded life. What it decidedly isn't is the spark for a race war
As South African diplomats, business people and sports promoters cross the globe to sell the coming glory of a peaceful football World Cup, two of Eugene Terre'Blanche's workers are charged with bludgeoning him to death. In response to this, Terre'Blanche's fading Afrikaner Resistance Movement (the AWB) is threatening revenge and the start of a new race war. Meanwhile, Julius Malema, the maverick ANC youth leader, crossed the border to treat Zimbabweans to a rendition of one of his favourite apartheid-era protest songs, containing the line "Kill the Boer". The rainbow dream, South Africa's critics say, is over.
Running under coverage of Terre'Blanche's murder, and the warnings for football fans who dare to venture into the dark continent, is an undercurrent of "I told you so". South Africa, we are told, is again teetering on the brink of explosion. Like Zimbabwe, the argument runs, the struggle for freedom is running into a free-for-all-bloodletting where all that matters is the colour of a person's skin. We should, it is suggested, throw away our wishful hopes that Nelson Mandela's magic would make apartheid's traumas disappear: realists knew all along that it would not, could not, be so.
But this is not a turning point for South Africa. If ever there were a moment when the AWB and its leader posed a threat to the stability, it was in 1994, in the months leading up to the country's first democratic election.
The four years between Mandela's release and the election were bloody in the extreme. In the apartheid government's version of "I told you so", black-on-black violence – much of which was later revealed to have been the work of government-sponsored "third force" provocateurs – had risen to terrifying proportions. The country, it was feared, was a tinderbox that would soon explode.
At the same time, and lurking in the background, was the far right, of which Terre'Blanche's AWB was an influential player. Fuelling the ANC's fears in that period was the possibility that this neofascist movement would join with undemocratic elements in the apartheid army and precipitate a civil war.
These fears came to a head in 1994. Lucas Mangope, puppet leader of Bophuthatswana, an apartheid satellite state, tried to stop "his" people from voting in the coming election. The response was widespread strikes with even his brutalised and brutalising police turning against him.
In the hope of holding on to power, Mangope asked the Afrikaner Volksfront, the organisation run by the rightwing General Constand Viljoen, to help him. Here was the moment the ANC most feared. The Volksfront and the South African Defence Force both going into Bophuthatswana, with the gun-toting, khaki-clad crazies of Terre'Blanche's AWB, though uninvited, coming along for the ride. The mavericks of the AWB were armed and not afraid to shoot and kill in the name of white supremacy. This was not the smooth tongue of FW de Klerk's reforming apartheid; it was its naked hatred.
For a few days South Africa held its breath. Then Viljoen was persuaded to climb down, and the AWB was asked to leave. They rode out in convoy, still firing, killing bystanders as they went. When Bophuthatswanan soldiers fired back, they managed to shoot one of the drivers. Their jeep halted, three AWB members came tumbling out. That was the moment that was to prove decisive. A Bophuthatswana police officer stepped up and, in cold blood and in front of cameras, killed all three.
The start of a race war? On the contrary. Men like Terre'Blanche had managed to persuade the country that his brownshirts were capable of seizing control. The sight of his men, pleading for their lives, unable to prevent their own deaths, gave this the lie. It was a turning point provoked not by blood or vengeance, but by an encounter with reality: a moment when it was made clear that the election would take place, no matter the deluded resistance of dinosaurs like Terre'Blanche.
As in 1994, so today. Though the killers were black and their victim white, the story can equally be read as the revenge of furious employees against a violent master. Terre'Blanche's may be a sorry end to a deluded life: what it will not be is the beginnings of race war.