I expected to find a family in ruins.
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.
Andre Brink, the Afrikaner novelist and author of "A Dry White Season," once explained it to me this way: "Politically, I represent everything that is reprehensible to my parents and them to me. But we love each other, and we're prepared to pretend that a whole dimension doesn't exist altogether."
The Durrs' world view was shaped for years by reports of bombings and township violence in newspapers and television stations that supported the government. "I knew there were some problems, but I always thought the government would solve them," Leslee remembers thinking as a high school senior. "I never knew there was an African township of 100,000 people right outside of town."
Like students everywhere during their first year away from home, Leslee's eyes were opened when she entered nearby Stellenbosch University, the hothouse for generations of South African white rulers. She visited her first black township when she tutored black adults seeking high school diplomas, and she was shocked by the disparity in education: "These people wanted to learn, but no one had bothered to teach them."
On regular Sunday visits home, she brought word of repression and state-inspired violence not mentioned by the newspapers or television. And during family meals, speaking their native Afrikaans, Leslee began sparring with her disbelieving parents. "We've had standup fights in this house over politics," Leslee's mother, Evelynne, told me at the time.
Looking back now, Leslee's parents feel they were lied to by the white government, which insisted that blacks were happy with the status quo and that anti-apartheid leaders were Communists bent on destroying capitalism and taking away everything whites had built. "We were living in a cocoon. I think we were just damn gullible," Evelynne says. Adds Hennie: "We were all gullible, Evelynne."
As president of the university's chapter of the National Union of South African Students, Leslee pressured school administrators to desegregate the dorms. She led a protest march from the university library to the administration building, and the university rector later sent her parents a letter of complaint, along with police photographs of her.
To Evelynne, it came as no surprise. "Leslee was always terribly obstinate," she says. Leslee's father, though, was mortified. Hennie called the rector to apologize. When she was expelled two weeks later, Hennie took a long walk in the vineyard. "No parent can be happy when his daughter is expelled," he told me back then. "It was in all the papers and it was an embarrassment. It's a blot on your record. You have to abide by the rules."
The rector eventually rescinded her expulsion and promised to retry Leslee in a hearing he never got around to scheduling. A few months later, both Leslee and her sister were arrested in a march broken up by police using dogs and batons in downtown Stellenbosch. They landed in court, where they were fined the equivalent of $20.
When I first met the Durrs, I was looking to profile a family split over apartheid, to tell the larger story of transformation in South Africa. While Leslee's expulsion and arrest firmly established her as the radical of the family, she wasn't entirely alone. Her sister Lynne, who had just graduated from college, shared her political views but stayed out of the limelight, playing the role of peacemaker at home. Her youngest brother Johan didn't take sides, but he was nervous about his upcoming one-year stint in the army, worried that being Leslee Durr's brother might prevent him from getting a security clearance.
And Hennie Jr., a handsome lad with a shock of thick black hair, sympathized with his sister. He had just finished his mandatory military service and was entering Stellenbosch to study agriculture. He remembered taking plenty of razzing from his army buddies when he tried to defend his sister's politics. "She doesn't know this," he told me then, "but I agree with her quite a lot. Although I still think she's a bit too radical."
The Durrs weren't the only family where members were forced to choose sides. White rule and apartheid were wobbling toward collapse. But the solution was not clear. If blacks were allowed to vote, many whites feared, they'd drive the outnumbered whites into the sea. But if the country stayed the course, the cycle of violence would escalate. And if, God forbid, the ailing Mandela died in jail as a martyr, massive bloodshed seemed a certainty.
The stalemate was broken on a sunny day in February 1990, the middle of the Southern Hemisphere summer. When Mandela walked free, both Leslee and Lynne were among the cheering thousands on hand. As his motorcade sped past the farm, Hennie and Evelynne were in their backyard, enjoying a quiet barbecue with friends.
Leslee finished her degree, took a course in international peace studies in Norway and moved to Johannesburg to work for an affiliate of Mandela's ANC. By mid-1992, South Africa was deep into constitutional talks, a precursor to the first free elections, still two years away. Leslee made plans to take a job at the Organization of African Unity's peace institute in Senegal, to help spread democracy throughout the continent.
Back on the farm, Hennie, then 53, had a succession plan in mind. Of his four children, the only one who aspired to be a farmer was Hennie Jr., who had just completed his agriculture studies at Stellenbosch. Everyone in the family agreed that Hennie Jr. would run the farm with his father and one day take it over.
Leslee returned home that October to pack for Senegal. Lynne had already married and moved away. Johan was preparing to start college. During Leslee's visit home, though, a car driven by a drunken college student struck a car carrying Hennie Jr. and his girlfriend. Hennie Jr. was thrown from the vehicle, struck his head on a curb and died on the way to the hospital.
His son's death drove Hennie Sr. into a deep depression. "It changed all of our lives drastically," Evelynne says. With the natural heir to his farm gone, Hennie decided to sell his land and get out of the business. But Leslee surprised everyone by offering to help: She'd run the farm for three months, she said, and recruit a manager to take over.
"It seemed ridiculous," Evelynne recalls. "It was so out of her line of work to be a farmer. We never would have suggested that in our wildest dreams." Hennie appreciated his daughter's offer, but he had his doubts. "It never occurred to me that it could work," he says. Eventually, though, he agreed.
Leslee solicited farming advice from neighbors and learned on the job. It wasn't without hiccups. Her first attempts to apply her beloved principles of participatory democracy backfired. She gathered the male workers together and asked them what they thought should be done during the coming week. "It took me a while to realize that they just thought I was stupid, that I didn't know what to do," she says. "I didn't get very far with participatory democracy."
As Hennie emerged from his depression, the two began to clash on matters big and small. They had radically different management styles, and their differences over politics resurfaced. When she invited ANC officials to teach the workers their rights under the employment laws, her father was aghast. "He saw any worker agitation as an act of immense disloyalty to the farm," she says. "We always had arguments over South Africa, but now the arguments were much more personal." And much louder. "My mother would run around and close windows and doors. 'Everybody in town can hear,' she'd say."
While whites were losing their power nationally, Hennie Durr's authority was eroding at home. He had been accustomed to being in control, making decisions for himself and his family as well as his workers. Leslee contradicted him. She challenged him. She talked back.
In 1994, Leslee's brother Johan returned from school with a degree in agriculture. Leslee was forced to share the farm operations with her brother. "Suddenly, I became the girl and Johan became the farmer," Leslee says. "My father wanted me to do the girl work, the book work. That irritated me on a daily basis."
That same year, Leslee worked to persuade the farm laborers to vote ANC, and she volunteered as an election monitor during the country's first free vote. Her parents and brother voted for the opposition Democratic Party, which finished a distant second behind the ANC. Through the 1990s, Leslee continued to fight with her brother and father over ground-level politics--how to treat workers and what to pay them. And, increasingly, she became involved in the lives of her workers, especially the women, teaching them their new rights under the law, helping them navigate the government bureaucracy and intervening in cases of spousal abuse. "By default, I became a social worker," she says.
In 1999, though, after one particularly divisive argument with her father, Leslee abruptly announced she was leaving. She took off for India, where she traveled alone for three months. During her time away, she realized that the job that fate had handed her was what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. "Before I hadn't been sure," she says. "But it was very good to take that empowered decision. I resolved to be less confrontational with my father. And I came back."
When she returned, her father put Johan in charge of the farm's crops and Leslee took over the farm's bottled water plant. The plant gave Leslee an opportunity she hadn't had since college--to make a difference in the daily lives of the dozen black and mixed-race women who worked there. And she didn't intend to waste it.
On a recent day, pickers fanned out among trees heavy with lemons and clementines, filling bags with fruit and carrying them to a flatbed truck. Babes Diederiks, who met her husband on the farm and now supervises the day laborers for Johan, held a clipboard on which she recorded the bags each worker filled. A good picker can harvest up to 85 bags a day, earning the equivalent of $12.50.
In the bottling plant, the production line was down and four women in white lab coats, with Durr Bottling imprinted on the front, were working to fix a leak. Leslee was in her office with her forewoman, Hanna Baadjies, discussing one of their employees, Charmaine, a mentally disabled woman. "Is she not right today?" Leslee asks. "I can see she's not 100%." The problem, Leslee says, is that Charmaine sometimes lashes out at other workers. "If one is a bit patient with her, she is quite easy to manage," she says.
The Durrs live in a triangle of homes next to the bottling plant in the center of the farm. Johan and his fiancee occupy the main house, a two-story structure with a broad veranda. Hennie, Evelynne and Leslee live in smaller homes nearby. The farm's 20 permanent farm laborers live rent-free with their families in eight two-bedroom homes in a shady grove a short walk away.
At first glance, South African farms appear to be run much as they have for decades. Whites are still in charge. Black and mixed-race laborers still live in houses owned by the farmer. And the farm still sends its truck to Paarl each morning to collect day laborers. Many of those day laborers live in squatter camps such as Fairyland, just 10 minutes from the Durr farm, that grew like weeds under apartheid--without electricity, sewage or running water. They are a reminder that the changes Leslee agitated for 16 years ago have been slow to become reality.
About 20,000 people live in shacks beneath the permanent, gritty haze of Fairyland, so named because of the government's refusal to recognize its existence. Residents cook on coal fires and share a central bank of restrooms and water spigots. This is not the life they had envisioned when black rule arrived in 1994.
One of the Durrs' day laborers, 21-year-old Olwetu Papa, shares a shack with her sister. "We're happy to leave the farming to the whites," she says. "But they should be spending money to develop the country, to pay us more."
"It's not good work," adds 30-year-old Faith Mphikwa, another Durr employee. She graduated from high school three years ago and laments that, despite her education, harvesting the Durrs' fruit "is still the best we can do. We voted for freedom, and yet we're going down, down, down."
There is hope for Papa and Mphikwa, though. On a hill above Fairyland, the government is building a new community--nicknamed Smartietown, for the multicolored houses that resemble Smarties, M&M-like candies popular in South Africa. About 3,000 new homes, with running water and electricity, have been built there in recent months; Herman Bailey, the region's ANC-supporting mayor, estimates an additional 22,000 units are needed.
In the apartheid era, the Durrs and other farmers ran their operations as Southern plantations, taking responsibility for the workers who lived on their property. When a laborer or his family member was ill or having a baby, Hennie, whom they called oubaas, or old boss, would take them to the hospital and pick up the tab for the treatment and even the baby clothes. When a dispute arose among laborers, Hennie was expected to resolve it. And when laborers had a misbehaving child, they took him to Hennie for a hiding with a strap of leather.
These days, the laborers call their bosses, Johan and Leslee, by their first names. The paternalistic attitudes also have begun to disappear, at least for Hennie and Johan.
"We're less involved in their lives today," Johan says. On a recent weekend, a fight broke out in the laborer community on the Durr farm. "Years ago, they would have called me or my father. Now, they've all got cellphones. They can call the police themselves. They must sort it out themselves now."
But Leslee believes that Johan and farmers of his generation have lost something important--a sense of humility. "They take for granted that things are the way they are," she says. "Johan doesn't understand that he has what he has because of the life he was born into."
Johan is a stocky 33-year-old with a buzz cut who favors checked flannel shirts and jeans. Like many of his friends these days, Johan feels he's a victim of discrimination. Farmers don't expect much from the government "because most of us are white," he says. "I can't see these guys looking after us for 20 or 30 years. We don't expect any favors."
His father doesn't dispute that, but in his mind, it's comeuppance. "Let's face it, Afrikaans people ruled the country," Hennie says. "We put down our bloody stamp and we all felt we were God's chosen race. Now, all of a sudden, the power is gone. If they don't like us, it's our own fault."
Today, Leslee Durr, one-time campus radical and enemy of the privileged white farmer, is a confident 37-year-old white farmer and card-carrying member of the ANC. Dressed in black sweatpants, with her wavy blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, she moves with ease among her employees, addressing each by name. She still wrestles with the irony that she is one of the privileged, if no longer politically powerful, elite.
When she runs into old college friends and tells them that she runs a farm, she sees the surprise on their faces. "I didn't turn this into a revolutionary cooperative," she admits. "There's no 'new deal' where the farm workers own half the land. I used to be ashamed of it. But now I understand this is where I need to be for my life."
She now believes that what drove her as a college student was not politics but rather a sense of duty. "As a white person in South Africa, you had to take a stand," she says. "There was no neutral ground. I had a moral obligation to speak out."
Now her sense of social justice is translating into a daily effort to improve the lives of the dozen laborers who work for her. When the child of one of her workers, Mandy, was murdered a year ago by a 16-year-old male cousin, Leslee took the case to the police and insisted on an investigation. When another worker, Patience, showed symptoms of HIV, Leslee organized an AIDS awareness workshop. Patience and more than 50 other laborers on the farm took an HIV test; two tested positive. Leslee helped Thandiwe, "a responsible, amazing person," obtain the paperwork necessary to get a government grant for her children. And when another, Rosie, was raped, Leslee tracked down the rapist and pushed the authorities to investigate and bring charges, which resulted in a conviction.
To some, that resembles paternalism. To her father and brother, it looks a lot like white guilt. When I ask her what distinguishes that from the paternalism of her father's generation, she admits, "Not a helluva lot."
"I'm no saint," she adds. "I order people around and I can be as big a madam as the next person. But it's about treating people as human beings and creating a culture where you can speak up. That makes all the difference.
"Giving black farm laborers the tools to help themselves is a long-term goal and it takes a lot of patience. Lately I've succumbed to the easier way--to interfere and help them."
"My way of making a difference in society is on this micro level. My role is to help this group of women who work for me. I've seen immense changes and empowerment in the women in this group. I don't know how to say this without sounding patronizing, but I'm proud of the women who work with me."
One of those women is Gwen Stevens. As children, Gwen and Leslee played together on the farm, and Gwen was named for Leslee's grandmother. "It isn't every black girl around here who is named after the landowner's mother or grandmother," Gwen says. And she remembers Leslee from her childhood as "the one who always liked to be the winner. She likes to be the one in charge."
Yet, Gwen says, "She always brings out the best in you. She has an ear to listen and a hand to help."
Leslee and her father are as close as they've ever been. They both agree that a kind of family truce has taken hold. They still bicker, but they know that their futures are intertwined. "It hasn't been easy for any of our friends with children in the process of taking over the farm," Hennie says. "The basic problem is that the younger generation wants everything faster and better, and they don't know where the money's coming from."
Two years ago, Leslee married Rolf Behrens, who was an anti-apartheid activist a decade before Leslee became an activist and now does freelance work in digital media. She chose a brightly colored African wedding dress over her mother's protests. "Why, on this day of all days, do you have to dress like Winnie Mandela?" Evelynne asked. But when the dress was damaged before the wedding, Leslee opted for a white gown. And after the wedding, Leslee and Rolf moved into a house on the farm. For Hennie, that was an important signal that his daughter planned to stay.
Hennie Durr, now a trim 66-year-old with a full head of silver hair and cobalt-blue eyes, is easing into retirement. And he faces the decision of every patriarch--how and when to hand down the farm, a property with a market value of several million dollars, to his children. Leslee's bottling business accounts for about 70% of the farm corporation's revenues. But Johan runs the traditional agricultural operation, and farms in South Africa tend to be handed down to sons.
Hennie has seen others make the mistake of dividing their farms among the offspring, turning a large economically viable farm into unprofitable smaller ones. He has been thinking that a practical solution is to split the shares of the family farm corporation between his two strong-minded children and add an accountant to the board to settle disputes. But that's in the future. "This works out very well for me now," he says. "They do the basic work and I can still stick my nose in."
As the Durrs look to the future, there's one sensitive issue that they don't discuss with each other. Leslee believes the farm's black laborers, especially those who have worked here for generations and now hold positions of responsibility, should have an ownership stake in the farm. Her father and brother disagree.
"Profit-sharing at this stage doesn't make sense," Johan says. "There'd be nothing in it because it doesn't make a profit. And if you get forced into sharing profits, a farmer can always manipulate his costs. There must be something in it for the farmer to make it work."
So for now, Leslee pushes for higher pay and better bonuses for her plant workers. One day, she hopes, workers like Hanna, the bottling factory forewoman, will have a financial stake in the plant. When I ask Hanna about that, she says, "I think it could happen. We must one day have a share."
Earlier this year, Leslee and Rolf added another shareholder to the farm--their baby boy, whom they've named Storm.
Storm represents a new generation of whites, born in a free South Africa. One day, Leslee says, he may grow up to defy his parents, as his mother once did. But her prayer is that Storm will be the farmer who shares his land with his black workers, because it's the right thing to do. Leslee beams with pride as she holds the blue-eyed child, and she introduces him to me as "another little white man in Africa."
As I left the Durr farm and South Africa, I finally had some answers to my questions. The Durrs had changed, but they had survived. And their saga, like the country's, offered reason for hope.
"I know a lot of families that have had immense differences," Leslee told me, "but I don't know of a single one to this day that has been torn apart. If Nelson Mandela can visit [former South African President] P.W. Botha, then fathers and sons with differences can get along. It has become OK to say you did this to me in the past, but now we'll move on. One doesn't forget, but one forgives."