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Afrikanerdom in crisis

''When I was a child Africans were our friends. Today they hate us. It's as though we have been bewitched.'' This comment by an elderly Afrikaner gives a vivid insight into the profound changes which are taking place in contemporary Afrikaner society.

Returning to South Africa after an absence of seven years, I found Afrikanerdom had changed dramatically in some ways. Old friends who had been politically naive and astonishingly unaware of the realities of apartheid were now bitter critics of the government, aware of the sufferings of blacks, and committed to change. An outsider's initial reaction is to expect such changes to be generational. But this wasn't so. The swing to the left in Afrikaner society cut across all age and social class barriers. A new realism seemed to have overtaken Afrikanerdom.

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Political scientists I talked to were equally optimistic. The government had five years to change, I was assured, and it would change. A de Gaulle-type constitution meant that de Gaulle-like actions could be taken. Parliament and the civil service were stacked with old-style baasskap (white domination) Afrikaners, but the new business elite and the army realized that change was inevitable. Prime Minister Botha was quite aware of this, and with their backing he would move South Africa to a new course. It was true, they said, that revolution was imminent, but the government knew it and it would win the hearts of the people before it was too late.

Winning the hearts of blacks would mean alienating whites, so before major changes could take place the government must educate its white electorate, the argument continued. Therefore the control of the South African Broadcasting Corporation and other government media was vital. More whites needed to see in practice the practicality of the government's plans and to be reassured by a strong army that their interests would be protected. Above all, the government had to make changes that would give the blacks a better standard of living without whites generally realizing the extent to which apartheid was being demolished.

All of this sounds feasible. But what are the realities? The key to peaceful change is the creation of a black middle class with a stake in the system. Optimistic commentators abroad and most enlightened Afrikaners in South Africa all believe that this is happening. Is it? The comments of black leaders, black reactions published in black newspapers, and a variety of survey materials all seem to indicate that it is not.

What in fact seems to be happening is that, while blacks in urban areas are becoming better off, government regulations are increasingly irksome. Older blacks may be less volatile than younger ones, but the support given by black parents to school boycotts and other actions by young blacks indicates that, although they may be less willing than the young to protest, they stand behind their children. Even the black elite of the so-called homelands are equivocal in their support for the South Africa government.

More significant than black reactions, though, is the reaction of the majority of Afrikaners. Although only 13.1 percent of Afrikaners supported the right-wing Herstigte Nasionale Party (HNP) in the election of April 1981, according to a poll commissioned by Die Transvaler, at least 30 percent of Afrikaners hold HNP views and the number is growing.

Afrikanerdom is dividing, but this does not indicate a general swing to the left and the end of apartheid. Rather the tide of change is swinging strongly to the right. At Pretoria University, for instance, student surveys have shown a swing to the HNP since the recent election. The apparent liberal swing among many of my friends and academics generally is real enough, but it is a change that is a reaction to an even stronger right. Liberal-minded Afrikaners are becoming vocal because the HNP has forced them to state their views. But as they do they expose themselves and their weakness.

Friends who assured me that things were getting better and that the government would meet the demands of Africans had to admit that their hopes were stronger than realities. A surprising number of these Afrikaner Nationalists asked me about life in Canada and the possibility of emigrating if the changes did not occur soon.

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On the black side there is a growing hostility and complete distrust of the Afrikaner. Although the government seems to have convinced itself and many Afrikaner leaders that it has a finger on the African pulse, I found Afrikaners are a people bewitched by their own ideology. Even those pragmatists who see through the ideological confusion are powerless to stop its onward march. The white electorate has not been prepared for change, and no group is capable of bringing about change in the face of an ideology which has steadfastly denied the possibility of real change. As one informed white ruefully summed up the situation: ''With the whites the Group Areas Act which decides where a person can live is non-negotiable. For blacks it's the only negotiation that makes sense.''

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