The South African government is on the hunt for members of Boeremag, a shadowy right-wing outfit suspected in the nine bomb blasts that 10 days ago rocked Soweto, South Africa's largest township. The bombs, which officials see as a dry run for more lethal attacks in the future, killed one person, destroyed a mosque and disrupted vital rail service. Another bomb the same day damaged a Buddhist temple near Pretoria.
According to information from undercover officers, Boeremag ("Boer Power" in Afrikaans) is made up of highly trained white former soldiers as well as "sleepers" still serving in the newly integrated South African National Defense Force. Police say the Boeremag has been gearing up for a series of high-profile attacks since the beginning of the year -- including a scheme to explode bombs during the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in August. Most of these plans were apparently derailed, however, by the arrest that month of 13 alleged Boeremag members, including three army officers on active duty, who have been charged with high treason and terrorism for plotting the violent overthrow of the government. Since then five other alleged Boeremag members have been arrested and police have found hidden arsenals of weapons, including ammunition, grenades and homemade bombs. Taken together, the events raise the frightening specter of right-wing violence that could destabilize South Africa's still fragile democracy and precipitate a race war.
How can this be happening eight years after the famously peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy? While researching a book on right-wing extremism, I realized that it is because of a serious flaw in the government's otherwise laudable efforts to achieve reconciliation and national unity. The flaw is the failure to insist on the denazification of the South African army and police -- in particular, to identify and remove former members of such racist and ruthless counterinsurgency units as Koevoet, Vlakplaas, the Civil Cooperation Bureau and military intelligence.
Under apartheid, these units teemed with believers in baasskap, or white supremacy, who saw it as their mission to protect the Afrikaner volk from die swart gevaar, the black menace. They were implicated in the abduction, torture and murder of hundreds of black activists and, in the regime's final days, fomented black-on-black violence. As apartheid collapsed, the counterinsurgency units were disbanded, but their members continued their subversive agenda. Shortly before the transition to black majority rule, members of a neo-Nazi group known as the Afrikaner Resistance Movement assassinated black leader Chris Hani in the hope of sparking a race war. Since then, members of these right-wing groups have been implicated in gunrunning, drug dealing, carjacking syndicates and other illegal activities.
Nelson Mandela's fledgling government sought to address the problem: Like anyone guilty of human rights abuses under apartheid, these people were promised amnesty if they appeared before the government's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and proved that their actions had a political motive. In exchange for their testimony, they would have been protected from any prosecution. Most refused, and chose instead to hide behind a code of silence known as called bly op die bus, literally "stay on the bus." Their leaders demanded, and still demand, blanket amnesty -- without testifying. So the question remains open of just how many uniformed members of the services pledged to the defense of South Africa are in reality its enemies.
The situation seems untenable, yet it is understandable. A nation needs a police force and a defense force, and those inherited by Mandela in 1994 were -- like every powerful institution in South Africa -- dominated by white Afrikaners. The officer corps of the military is still chiefly Afrikaner. Most of these people are loyal and law-abiding, and there is no simple way to purge their ranks.
But as the emergence of the Boeremag makes clear, the government cannot afford to let the situation fester.
In 1993, on the eve of South Africa's first democratic elections, Constand Viljoen, the Afrikaner commander of the 50,000-strongSouth African Defense Force, stood ready to seize power. He was persuaded by Mandela and others to abandon violence and join the political process. He did and became leader of the Vryheidsfront, or Freedom Front, which agitates for the concept of "community rights," under which it hopes to eventually establish a whites-only homeland in part of the northwestern Cape Province. The Front placed fourth of 27 parties in the 1994 elections, and on the strength of that showing succeeded in getting a clause -- Section 235 -- into the new South African constitution that grants the right of self-determination to "any community sharing a common cultural and language heritage, within a territorial entity in the Republic or in any other way, determined by national legislation."
That clause is the linchpin of their homeland strategy, and the Boeremag is the latest in a series of groups to seek to pursue it by violent means. They do not hope to revive apartheid; their goal is rather to destabilize the South African government to the point where it will accede to their demands. Meanwhile, they seek to expand their support by exploiting white fears and grievances.
Some of the Afrikaner grievances are legitimate. One is the concern that the Afrikaans language is being discontinued as a medium of instruction in schools and universities. This is an emotional issue, for it recalls the era after the British victory in the Boer War, when Afrikaner children who failed to speak English in school were punished by having to wear a special hat with a donkey on it. Another grievance is the fear that Afrikaner property will be seized wholesale and given to blacks seeking the return of ancestral lands. This fear has been intensified by a recent spate of murders of white farmers as well as by the South African government's refusal to step up the pressure on neighboring Zimbabwe to halt the illegal eviction of white farmers there. A fair resolution by the government of the land repatriation issue is urgently called for.
But some of the Afrikaners' grievances are illegitimate, especially the charge that the African National Congress is ignoring their needs to focus on combating AIDS and poverty and on creating affirmative action programs for blacks. AIDS obviously should be a priority: 5 million of South Africa's 43 million citizens are HIV-infected. And the ANC's modest affirmative action programs -- which pale in comparison to those the National Party used to give jobs and promotions to Afrikaners after it came to power in 1948 -- are key to reconciliation, because they give the long-oppressed black majority a stake in democracy and help to undo the legacy of decades of oppression.
President Thabo Mbeki must distinguish among these grievances and address those that deserve attention. At the same time, he must make it absolutely clear that there will be no partitioning of South Africa and must find constitutional ways of eliminating Section 235, which has fostered right-wing delusions of a whites-only Vaderland. He also must continue to refuse to grant amnesty to the apartheid-era transgressors unless they confess their crimes, as so many blacks have done. Of the 7,000 people who testified before the TRC and applied for amnesty, more than two-thirds were black; yet it was Afrikaners who created and enforced apartheid.
Mbeki must enlist the aid of such moderate Afrikaner leaders as former president F.W. de Klerk, who with Mandela negotiated the end of apartheid and who has denounced the recent Soweto bombings. Though considered a traitor by white extremists, de Klerk is still respected by the majority of Afrikaners and can be a powerful ally.
Finally, Mbeki's government must make good on Defense Minister Patrick Lekota's promise to "identify and weed out" disloyal members of the new South African defense and police forces. For these are the very people who could yet ignite the race war that Mandela, de Klerk and the TRC have labored heroically to avert.
An overwhelming majority of South Africans are united in their opposition to right-wing violence. It is this unity that will strengthen Mbeki's hand as he seeks to purge police and defense forces of Boeremag members and their sympathizers so as to preserve his progressive government, which, despite its youth and mistakes, has been a leading force for democratization in Africa and a model for reconciliation and peaceful change around the world.