ANC should heed the Group of 63's warning

Patrick Laurence defends the right of Afrikaner intellectuals to voice their dissenting concerns.

The indictment of 26 alleged Boeremag members on charges of terrorism and sabotage shows that there are still diehard right-wingers who are willing to resort to armed struggle against the new order. Interestingly, their ranks include men of substance - doctors, wealthy farmers and military officers. Even more interesting was the cynical manipulation of public opinion by elements in the NIA and SAPS that took place after the Boeremag bombings, and following the publication of a letter from the Group of 63 to president Mbeki. The Group of 63, founded by Afrikaner intellectuals to debate issues critical to the future of Afrikaners, condemned the attacks but warned that they were a sign of growing Afrikaner alienation which could result in further violence if the root causes were not addressed. It identified these as the ‘elimination’ of Afrikaans in the courts and civil service, the targeting of Afrikaans schools by the government’s ‘policy of Anglicisation’, affirmative action, and the ‘apparent reticence’ of the government to halt farm attacks. It was clear that the Group was asking the government for help in holding the middle ground against extremist ‘perpetrators of violence’. Nevertheless, articles in two Sunday papers reported that the Group was suspected by the NIA and SAPS of providing intellectual leadership to the Boeremag, similar to that provided by Sinn Fein to the IRA, and that the Boeremag had nominated Group members Danie Goosen and Hermann Giliomee for political office after the overthrow of the ANC government. In letters to the Sunday Times, Danie du Plessis described the allegations as absurd, and Giliomee stated his belief that they came from people within the presidency who wanted to discredit ‘legitimate opposition’. Professor Goosen said he was reminded of the way in which the apartheid regime deployed its ‘security forces to curtail democratic debate’. He also accused the English media of denigrating the Group. Certainly the newspapers seemed unaware of the possibility that the NIA and SAPS were using them. Some prominent Afrikaners believe the Group has overstated the degree of alienation within the Afrikaner community, and that debate continues. In the meantime, it seems the presidency has changed its views on the Group of 63. According to Northern Cape premier Manne Dipico, Mbeki admitted that the matter had been handled wrongly and that the government should have entered into discussions with the group. It is not too late for those discussions to take place.

The arrest late last year of five suspected Boeremag fugitives, and their subsequent indictment on charges of treason, terrorism and sabotage, brought the number of alleged members of the Boeremag accused of conspiring to overthrow the democratically elected African National Congress-led government to 26. These headline-making events closed another chapter in the chronology of threatened or actual armed resistance to the momentous changes that have swept across South Africa since 1990.

The hunt for and capture of the five alleged Krygers van die Boerevolk - Warriors of the Boer Nation - in the wake of a series of bomb explosions at the end of October last year served as prism through which important threads in the fabric of the post-apartheid polity were refracted and thereby magnified.

One of the strands highlighted the continued existence of diehard right-wingers or contemporary bittereinders prepared to deploy armed struggle against the new order. Another showed that the ranks of the latest bittereinders included men of substance: doctors, wealthy farmers - one of whom, Lourens du Plessis, was later freed when charges were withdrawn against him - and military officers. The former soldiers allegedly serving in the Boeremag had greater military skills than those possessed by the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) bombers who sought to terrorise and demoralise South Africans on the eve of the 1994 election that brought the ANC to power.

If, however, the latter day bittereinders had jettisoned political debate for violent coercion, quite different and equally disturbing trends were manifest in the aftermath of the detonations in Soweto and Bronkhorstspruit. They pointed to the cynical manipulation of public opinion by elements in the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) and the South African Police Service (SAPS).

The manipulation exercise came as a response to the release of an open letter to President Thabo Mbeki from the Group of 63, a formation of Afrikaner intellectuals seeking to stimulate public debate on issues they deemed to be critical to the future of Afrikaners. Their missive to Mbeki provided a perspective on the bombing of electricity sub-stations, railway junctures and a mosque in Soweto and an explosion at a Buddhist temple in Bronkhorstspruit.

Founded in May 2000, the Group of 63 specifically stated in its communiqué that the bombing could not be condoned and characterised the blitz as "senseless and reprehensible". But their letter warned that it would not be enough to apprehend and punish the bombers. The bombings were a sign of growing Afrikaner alienation under the ANC-led government and, the letter argued, if Afrikaner alienation was not addressed there was a danger of further violence.

The Group listed several causes of Afrikaner alienation. Two of the causes identified were the "elimination" of Afrikaans in the courts and the civil service and the targeting of historically Afrikaans schools by the government's "policy of Anglicisation". Reinforcing causes delineated by the Group were the negative impact on Afrikaners of affirmative action or reverse discrimination and the "apparent reticence" of the government to halt the murderous attacks on farms in which the victims were "mainly Afrikaners".

It required no great feat of exegesis to conclude that the Group feared that the hands of extremists would be strengthened if the causes of Afrikaner alienation were not tackled vigorously. They were seeking to persuade the ANC-led government to help them hold centre and, in the process, to help bolster its own position by addressing the grievances that were fuelling the resentments of Afrikaner desperados. As the Group noted in a later statement: "People who do not want to address the alienation felt in Afrikaner ranks directly play into the hand of the perpetrators of violence".

But, judging from a report in the Sunday Independent, their message was misunderstood or, worse still, wilfully distorted by the NIA and the SAPS. The NIA and the SAPS suspected that the Group of 63 might be providing intellectual leadership to the Boeremag, the newspaper reported. It quoted an unidentified "security official" as comparing the relationship between the Group of 63 and the Boeremag with the link between Sinn Fein and the IRA. "The political arm does not embark on armed activities and violence but it is ready and willing to explain why the violence is continuing", the anonymous security official reportedly said.

A contemporaneous report in the Sunday Times went a stage further. It linked the Group of 63 to the Boeremag conspirators more directly. It stated that Boeremag documents nominated Group of 63 chair Professor Danie Goosen and Emeritus Professor Hermann Giliomee, a historian and a patron of the Group of 63, to serve on the parliamentary portfolio committee for education, culture and language after the envisaged overthrow of the ANC government. The NIA or the SAPS presumably passed on the contents of the purported document to the Sunday Times. The report gave the impression that the Boeremag had nominated the two men as a reward for their alleged intellectual leadership of the planned coup.

For intelligence officials and/or police investigators to portray the Group of 63 as rightist intellectuals seeking to promote the cause of the Boeremag in particular, and the Afrikaner radical right in general, implied gross ignorance of the Group. The founders of the Group eschewed violence at a means of achieving political ends. They sought through dialogue to achieve an accommodation that would be less threatening to the Afrikaans language. In an earlier era they would have been known as verligtes. The patrons (beskermhere) of the Group were respected Afrikaner intellectuals who favoured and worked for negotiation with the ANC in the 1980s when it was still a prohibited organisation.

Apart from Giliomee, the patrons included sociologist Lawrence Schlemmer, a long time protagonist of negotiated settlement, and Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, the former leader of the now defunct Progressive Federal Party. After quitting parliament in the mid-1980s, Van Zyl Slabbert carved a role for himself as an extra-parliamentary leader in favour of a negotiated settlement with prohibited black nationalists and their communist allies.

He was described by the ANC as a modern Voortrekker in the 1980s in recognition of his pioneering role in promoting dialogue between the Afrikaner notables and ANC leaders.

In a letter to the Sunday Times, Professor Danie du Plessis, a member of the Group of 63, described the attempts to link the Group to the Boeremag as absurd. He noted the Group's members espoused liberal democratic values, supported the settlement talks in the early 1990s that led to an ANC government and were consequently berated as volksverrairers (traitors to their volk) by right-wing Afrikaners.

In another letter published on the same page Giliomee expressed astonishment that the newspaper had given credence to the reported offer of a senior post-coup position to him. He deduced that the information (or disinformation) emanated from highly placed people in the presidency and that its purpose was to discredit "legitimate opposition" articulated by the Group of 63 to aspects of government policy. He added sombrely: "As the history of Stalin's dictatorship shows so clearly, it is not the rumour that is important but the deadly use the party-state makes of it... cheered on, or given credibility by lackeys in the press".

In his response to the "mean and slanderous attempt" by the official intelligence agency to cast suspicion on the Group of 63, Goosen was reminded of the apartheid era and the manner in which the old regime deployed its "security forces to curtail democratic debate". He pledged that the Group would not be deterred by the "lies, distortions and misrepresentations" about it and would continue to convey its points of view "in the interests of greater democracy" and the "legitimate interests" of the Afrikaner minority. In would thereby contribute to the "fight against foolish rightist extremists" and against the "culture of pernicious conformism and parrotry".

The commitment of the Group of 63 to dialogue aside, there was another important difference between its ethos and that of the Afrikaner radical right. It did not share the Christian fundamentalism of the Boeremag and its kindred Afrikaner organisations. The Group's declarations were singularly devoid of the religious bigotry or radical religiosity that oozes from the political propaganda of the Boeremag and its political siblings. The nexus between political zealotry and radical religiosity was evident in the testimony in January of the three Afrikaner men charged with plotting to blow up the Vaal Dam to fulfil the prediction of the Boer prophet "Siener" Van Rensburg.

Goosen accused the "English news media" of denigrating the Group of 63, of casting doubts on its authenticity as a "democratic and moderate interpreter" of Afrikaner interests. There was more than a little justification to his complaint (and that of Giliomee in his letter). The reports in the Sunday Independent and the Sunday Times referred to above contained little or no awareness by the journalists concerned of the possibility that the NIA and the SAPS were using them. There was no evidence that they had scoured the Group's website to acquaint themselves with the sociological profile of its membership, its origins and history and its objectives.

Leaving aside the criticisms voiced by Giliomee and Goosen of the way in which major newspapers allowed themselves to be used as a conduit for state-inspired propaganda, there was a wider sense in which the media generally failed to fulfil its duty as the "fourth estate" in contemporary South Africa.

There was an interesting parallel between the spate of bombs attributed to the Boeremag in October and November last year and the first foray into armed resistance by Umkhonto we Sizwe in 1961. Like the Umkhonto saboteurs in 1961, the Boeremag bombers focused on structural rather than human targets: electricity sub-stations, railway junctions and stations, a police airplane hangar and the bridge across the Umtamvuna River, as well as, of course, the mosque in Soweto and the Buddhist temple in Bronkhorstspruit.

The targets aside, the attacks usually took place when there were few people about (after midnight in Soweto when most people were in bed). A Soweto resident, Claudina Mokone, was killed during the Soweto attack. But her death - she was crushed by falling debris - appeared to be the accidental by-product of an explosion rather than the calculated result of bombing attack. There was a clear contrast between the attacks ascribed to the Boeremag - pending the outcome of the trial of the 26 suspects, they are entitled to the presumption of innocence - and those carried out by AWB bombers in 1994. The AWB saboteurs detonated their bombs in crowded places, including taxi ranks, in daylight, with the obvious intention of killing civilians and terrorising the citizenry, particularly that part of it that was black.

In their reportage of the Boeremag bomb attacks, however, few, if any, South African journalists address either the similarities with Umkhonto's early campaign and/or the differences in the modus operandi between the Boeremag and the AWB. Presumably they neglected to fulfil their professional duty because they were fearful of being castigated as Boeremag sympathisers. They could, however, have noted the parallels and reflected the differences listed above without condoning the use of violence to attain political ends in post-apartheid democratic South Africa. They were free, of course, to add the rider that Boeremag propaganda, in the form of letters to the press after the Soweto bombing, appeared to presage a bloodier phase in its armed rebellion.

It should be noted that there was disagreement within the Afrikaner community over the extent of Afrikaner alienation in post-apartheid South Africa. It was noteworthy, too, that the Afrikaans language press did not escape criticism for its coverage of the Group.

Thus Tim du Plessis, editor of Rapport, downplayed the degree of Afrikaner alienation. He compared it with the disaffection experienced by supporters of Jan Smuts after the National Party came to power in 1948. He observed, too, that some traditional leaders feel estranged from the ANC-led government in post-apartheid South Africa because of the priority it gives to elected leaders over hereditary chiefs.

Giliomee, writing before the open letter was sent to Mbeki, noted that some Afrikaner notables had reservations about the credentials of the Group of 63 in its campaign to halt the downgrading of Afrikaans. They saw the Group as taalstryders (language fighters) rather than taalonderhandelaars (language negotiators), Giliomee observed of university and media reaction to a Group of 63 conference on the future of Afrikaans in Stellenbosch in June 2002. Giliomee's analysis left no doubt that he thought vigorous intellectual defence of the Afrikaans language, in schools and universities no less than the civil service, was justified and necessary.

Dan Roodt, leader of the Pro-Afrikaanse Assiegroep, weighed in on behalf of the Group of 63 when he referred scathingly to the "almost hysterical condemnation" of the Group in Afrikaans newspapers in the Naspers stable. He agreed that "the current crisis among Afrikaners, compounded by crime, farm murders, affirmative action and (Education Minister Kader) Asmal's Anglicisation policies, provides an ideal environment for recruitment to extremist groups, whether left or right".

But the reservations of some Afrikaners about the Group of 63 - Rapport's editor labelled them "self-appointed" pleaders on behalf of alienated Afrikaners - did not justify depiction of them as intellectual leaders of the Boeremag or establish beyond doubt that they had over-stated the degree of alienation in the Afrikaans community. That was - and still is a disputed issue in the intra-Afrikaner debate.

Information relayed later to Danie Goosen by Northern Cape Premier Manne Dipico, however, pointed to a change of view in the presidency about the Group of 63. Dipico, a fluent Afrikaans-speaker, told Goosen that the Group's open letter to Mbeki had been discussed at a meeting between the President and the provincial premiers. Mbeki admitted, according to Dipico's account of the meeting, that the matter had been handled wrongly and concluded that, instead of tainting the Group of 63 as the brains trust of the Boeremag, the government should have initiated discussions with the Group.

It is not too late for those discussions to take place.