S. African rightists clash. Violence dramatizes far right's effort to force ruling party to abandon reform of apartheid
Pietersburg, South Africa
``The government is using our own guys against us,'' the ultra-rightist white youth cried as he fled tear-gas canisters thrown by South African policemen. Still, the rightists triumphed in their bid to keep a government minister from speaking -- and sowed fresh concern in the ruling National Party over a second possible showdown with the extremists this Saturday.
The fleeing rightist's wheeze of surprise at the tear-gas barrage here highlighted a specific government concern: that many policemen's sympathies lie with the far right.
``Yes, I'm for Terre Blanche,'' said one Pietersburg policeman, speaking of Eugene Terre Blanche, the leader of the ultra-rightist Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB).
``And 99.9 percent of the police is,'' he added.
The governing party's main right-wing rivals -- the breakaway Conservative Party and the often truculent ranks of Mr. Terre Blanche's AWB -- are planning a rally to dramatize opposition to the government's gradual reform of apartheid, the policy of strict racial separation. The rightists hold that the policy will inevitably mean black rule and the destruction of white ``civilization'' on the continent of Africa. They favor a separate Afrikaner republic in the country's industrial and agriculural heartlands, with blacks ruling the rest of South Africa.
But most black leaders have denounced the government's reforms as insufficient, calling for majority rule instead. Political violence continues in black areas, and police reported 21 blacks had died in unrest over the weekend. In addition, two blacks were killed and eight were injured Sunday when a land mine exploded on a farm 100 miles from Johannesburg. It was not known who was reposible for the land mine explosion. Major antiapartheid groups across the country have called protests for June 16 -- the 10th anniversary of a police clash with black students in Soweto, near Johannesburg.
The right-wingers have been denied permission to hold this Saturday's rally at Pretoria's Voortrekker Monument, the national shrine of the Afrikaans-speaking whites who provide the major support for both the government and the far right. But a spokesman for Mr. Terre Blanche said Monday that the meeting would go ahead on the grounds adjacent to the shrine.
The National Party (NP) meeting at Pietersburg last Thursday night was to have provided the occasion for cutting the ultra-right down to political size. In defiance of AWB threats to prevent government rallies in the conservative farm country of the northern Transvaal, the town hall was booked for a speech by Foreign Minister Roelof (Pik) Botha -- the most ouspokenly reformist member of the Cabinet. A Botha colleague privately described the rally as a bid to ``throw down the gauntlet'' against Terre Blanche.
Hours before Mr. Botha's arrival, hundreds of AWB militants gathered outside. When Terre Blanche showed up, they hoisted him on their shoulders, busted the lock on the meeting hall, and swarmed inside. Some yelled ``Pik, pik swart!'' -- an Afrikaans pun meaning ``Pik, pitch black!'' They took over the stage, fought with National Party members awaiting Botha's arrival, and left only when police hurled tear-gas canisters.
Botha, reduced to holding a closed-door meeting at the town's party headquarters, put a brave face on things. He said the ruckus gave force to his longstanding bid to convey the difficulty of his government's position in the West and that, all in all, the evening was ``encouraging.''
But local NP organizers, caught up with AWB militants and a horde of reporters at the town hall, were mournful. They said the outcome would add fire to AWB taunts that the government was ``weak'' and would further undermine support for those NP legislators elected in Transvaaal in the last national vote five years ago. An NP official from a nearby town grumbled: ``It makes it doubly difficult for us to go back and sell our policy -- or what's left of our policy.''
The next election is not expected until 1989.
In a reflection of the extent of official concern, one government minister whose constiutency is in the northern Transvaal took the unprecedented step of publicly questioning police loyalties at Pietersburg. Friday night, AWB backers prevented another minister from speaking in another conservative-Afrikaner area, the Orange Free State, by shouting him down.
Law and Order Minister Louis Le Grange, responded Saturday by successfully holding a Transvaal rally of his own. Police and troops were out in force before he arrived. The AWB mounted nothing like the challenge it did in Pietersburg; some three dozen rightists tried to enter the hall but were turned back. Four were detained.
In the long run, said an Afrikaner University political science professor over the weekend, the right-wing backlash could deprive the National Party of the comfortable parliamentary majority it has held since 1948.
But the immediate task for the government, said other South African analysts, seems to be to restore an image of decisiveness in face of the right-wing challenge.