A black majority government was coming, and they were imagining the future: Riots. Corruption. A nationalized economy. Redistribution of land and wealth.
"What's going to stop a black government from taking everything from us?" Celeste asked back then. "I can't imagine them governing this country."
The surprise for the Van der Merwes, and for many whites across South Africa today, is that the nightmare didn't happen. When the African National Congress swept to victory in 1994, there were no riots. Private enterprise flourished and foreign investors flocked in. No one took away their land. And that, in a way, has been liberating.
"For me, it's such a relief," Celeste said. "Even before, I often felt it was very unfair that a decent black person couldn't go into the same places we could go just because we've got a white skin. It wasn't right."
A disaster may have been averted, but it hasn't been easy for the Van der Merwes and other whites to adjust to their new role -- that of the economically privileged but politically disadvantaged minority. A nation once run by fewer than 5 million whites is now run by all 45 million of its inhabitants. The government is creating new opportunities daily for blacks, and whites have begun to realize that it'll be decades before that particular debt to society is paid.
Willie and Celeste still vote, but with the resigned certainty that it doesn't matter. Blacks outnumber whites 8 to 1, and the ANC won a 70% landslide in this month's national elections.
A recent poll found that six in 10 whites thought the country was headed in the wrong direction. By contrast, two-thirds of blacks felt the nation was on the right track, according to the poll conducted by the Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University.
Some days, the Van der Merwes think it's headed in the right direction. On many others, they think it isn't. What they are certain of is that they aren't anywhere near the steering wheel -- or, for that matter, the brake.
"Everyone we know has just lost interest in politics," said Celeste, who didn't decide which party to support this month until she held the ballot in her hand. She, like her husband, opted for the multi-racial African Christian Democratic Party, which scraped together 1.6% of the nationwide tally.
"There's not much you can do," added their 32-year-old daughter, Noelene. "The ANC has a mass of people behind it." Noelene voted for the Democratic Alliance, which got 12%, second to the ANC.
The family's black maid voted for the ANC, Celeste said, "but only because she was told they'd find out if she didn't." For Willie, that bolsters his belief that only those with "economic ability" should be allowed to vote.
South Africa's white population is roughly evenly divided between Afrikaners such as Willie, who traces his ancestry to the first Dutch settlers to arrive on the southern tip of Africa three centuries ago, and so-called English speakers, more recent immigrants from Europe and elsewhere. The Van der Merwes, for example, still speak Afrikaans at home.
Willie, a reserved, rail-thin 58-year-old, and his wife, Celeste, 56, remain solidly among the country's upper middle class. Willie's job as an accountant for a clothing company pays well enough to allow Celeste to remain a homemaker. They have health club memberships, late-model cars, a cottage at the beach and all the creature comforts they need.
But many things about their new life frustrate them. A particular vexation has been inefficiency at government offices, which they blame on the ANC's overeager efforts to replace white lifelong bureaucrats with untrained blacks. Tasks that used to take a few minutes at the post office or an hour at the Home Affairs Ministry now take hours or days.
When she gets a notice that she has a package at the post office, Celeste said with exasperation, "I want to cry because I know I have to go down there and pick it up. You'll have five people sitting there, doing nothing. And not one will fetch the parcels."
In the private sector, many whites are wary of the ANC's efforts to steer state business to black-owned companies. The Pretoria firm where Willie works lost several longtime government clients because, the state agencies said, the company owner is white. But several of those clients have returned recently to order uniforms, he said: "They're coming back because they can't get the service" from black-run companies.
It is rampant crime, however, that dominates the cocktail party chatter among the Van der Merwes' all-white social circle. Just a month ago, the elderly parents of a friend were killed in their home.
"When it happens to people you know, it really has an impact," Celeste said. "It makes you feel that you wish you could pack your things and just leave. But we realize other countries are in worse shape." Bringing back the death penalty, she argued, is the only way to stop the most serious crime.