My small car crunched up the gravel road past acres of fruit trees to Hennie and Evelynne Durr's hilltop farm home, an hour outside of Cape Town. During my last visit, in 1989, the Durrs had been gripped by a conflict that echoed the battles of American families during Vietnam and the Civil Rights era. Across South Africa in those days, an idealistic younger generation of whites was clashing with a conservative older generation over apartheid, the system of legal segregation. In the privileged Durr household, it was threatening to break the family apart.
Back then, in the Durrs' grand Cape Dutch home, everyone agreed the agent provocateur was daughter Leslee. A 22-year-old college senior with curly blond hair and blue eyes, she was a prominent political activist, with a rap sheet to match. Leslee had just been expelled from Stellenbosch University, her parents' alma mater, for leading a march against segregated dormitories. Her expulsion had triggered a wildcat strike by university cooks and maids. Furious parents were on the phone to her father, complaining that their children couldn't study if they had to make their own beds and meals. Others, strangers, phoned with curses and unsolicited advice on how to rein in his rebellious daughter.
Hennie Durr found himself trapped between love and fear--love for his daughter and fear that the cause to which she was devoted might crush his way of life. He cut off his daughter's allowance because, as he explained at the time, "I can't support ideologies that want to destroy what I believe in."
Hollywood was enchanted by Leslee Durr's story. When my article on her appeared in The Times, a producer flew to South Africa with a contract and a screenwriter. But South Africa's revolution was in its final, decisive skirmishes. Two months after the article appeared, Nelson Mandela walked free from Victor Verster prison, just five miles down the road from the Durrs' farm. Within a year, constitutional negotiations had begun. Hollywood's interest faded.
As the years passed, though, I often wondered what had happened to the family. The story of the black majority was being thoroughly told: A democracy had been peacefully born, with once-disenfranchised blacks in control. A new black economic upper class was blooming, though the spoils of victory were seeping down too slowly to the millions still living in poverty.
Farms like the Durrs' had been much more than agricultural enterprises in South Africa. They were the soul of the Afrikaners' proud history of survival in a hostile land and the gearbox of the apartheid machinery. Whites, though outnumbered 8 to 1 by blacks, owned four of every five acres of productive land in those days. In the new atmosphere, with blacks pressing the government for a piece of the pie, had the Durrs' farm survived?
And what had happened to Leslee? Had she joined the new government? Had her parents come to accept black rule? Were she and her parents still speaking?
A few weeks ago, I returned to the rolling Cape Province in search of some answers.
During a week on the farm, I learned that the Durrs' lives had not turned out at all as they had expected. The democratic revolution in national politics had spawned a psychological evolution on the farm and in the country, with surprising consequences both for those who had opposed white minority rule and those who had supported it.
What I found was a family tested and remolded by a decade and a half of tumult. Not a single member is the same, yet these descendants of South Africa's original white settlers still cling to the land as their ancestors did. And, in important ways, theirs is the saga of a new nation built, day by day, on the ashes of 40 years of apartheid.
The Durr homestead is nestled in South Africa's lush grape-growing region, surrounded by multimillion-dollar wine estates in the Drakenstein mountains. The nearest cities are Paarl and Franschoek, the picturesque settlement of French Huguenots that draws tourists from around the world.
On a 400-acre tract that spills down from their veranda, the Durrs grow chenin blanc grapes, which they sell to a local wine cooperative, and other table fruit, including lemons, satsumas and clementines. A part of the land is planted in sweet potatoes, ensuring a year-round harvest of produce, and natural springs feed a small bottled water plant that sells to niche-market distributors.
Hennie Durr's German ancestors settled in this province in 1774, and the farm was handed down from his father. For years, Evelynne ran an antiques shop out back. Leslee, her older sister Lynne, and younger brothers Hennie Jr. and Johan grew up amid the blooming pink and white chrysanthemums. As toddlers, they had played games with the children of the black and mixed-race laborers who lived on the farm. As teens, they had spent school vacations overseeing the laborers and some of their onetime playmates as they sowed the fields and picked the fruit.
The revolution that razed white minority rule owed its success to multiple forces--to courageous black leaders who battled state-sponsored violence, international sanctions that squeezed white pride, exiled leaders of the African National Congress who had plotted guerrilla operations, and stoic, graying patriarchs such as Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu who bided their time in prison as symbols of hope.
But, in its final years, it also owed a special debt to a cadre of young Afrikaner converts such as Leslee Durr who planted seeds of doubt in the conscience of their generation--and who did so at considerable personal risk.
"When I talk to students now, who remember nothing of that time, one of the things I emphasize is how frightening it was then," Annie Gagiano, an English professor at Stellenbosch University, told me recently. "The repression was just terrifying. And to have Leslee and others acting the way they did, when the government was portraying them as traitors, took real courage."
Indeed, politics was more than a parlor game in South Africa in those days. Violence touched the future of every family, black and white. Death squads acting from within the government's security apparatus operated with impunity. Only a few months before Leslee was expelled, two white anti-apartheid activists, a professor and a lawyer, were assassinated. And, on the other side, ANC guerrillas had for years planted bombs in shopping malls, restaurants and movie theaters where whites gathered.
The strain was especially apparent in Afrikaner families such as Hennie Durr's, descendants of the hardy Dutch, French and German settlers who arrived on the Cape of Good Hope in the mid 17th century. For 350 years, the Afrikaners, also known as Boers, developed their own language, Afrikaans, and fought pitched battles against British colonialists and Zulu warriors, sharpening a flinty spirit of independence and pride. By the late 20th century, though, disagreements over apartheid were testing their unity.