Advertisement

COLUMN ONE : Apartheid Over the Airwaves : Blaring martial music and racist propaganda, a pirate radio station rallies a dwindling audience of right-wing whites. Short of armed assault, South Africa’s officials are not sure how to shut it down.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As security chief of this nation’s first renegade radio station, Pieter le Roux is clearly proud of his handiwork.

Atop a treeless hill, past the roadblocks and armed guards, is a newly dug moat. Razor wire bristles on a fence, and gun ports dot a concrete wall beside the gate. Inside are two lines of trenches topped with sandbags. Then chest-high barricades of sandbags, and a wall of tires filled with dirt, protect the broadcast tower and tiny studio.

But the rebel redoubt isn’t quite complete. Squinting in the bright sun, Le Roux points at five armor-plated structures in a nearby field. “We’ve got gun towers that will be mounted in each corner,” he says.

A khaki-clad guard with a pistol on his hip scurries up, salutes and asks if another journalist can pass the gate. “Never heard of him,” Le Roux says. “Send him back or shoot him.”

Advertisement

He continues: “If the government attacks this station, they will have war, and war with a capital ‘W.’ We will fight on an economic front; we will fight on the labor front; we will fight on the military front. And remember: Our guys don’t fight for a salary or for a government. They fight for their very survival.”

Welcome to Radio Pretoria, the voice and the symbol of right-wing white opposition to black majority government. Spoiling for a fight and beating a daily tattoo of martial music and pro-apartheid propaganda, the 4-month-old unlicensed FM station has become the rallying point--if not the last stand--for the dwindling number of white South Africans determined to cling to racist rule.

Tapping a longing for the past and a fear of the future, the pirate broadcasters--plus three new copycat stations--blare a shrill message of white supremacy and resistance to democratic change just as apartheid prepares to join Nazism, communism and other discredited one-party states in the junkyard of history.

The threats of violence, and the station’s refusal to obey court orders and government decrees to shut down, have sorely tested President Frederik W. de Klerk’s government at a time when South Africa is striving to put its racist past behind it.

Advertisement

The government controls broadcasting until a new, independent commission regulates the nation’s airwaves, after democratic elections April 27-29.

“Radio Pretoria expects one set of rules to apply to it and another set of rules to the other estimated 200 aspirant radio stations” that have applied for licenses, Home Affairs Minister Danie Schutte told reporters. “This is not acceptable.”

Short of armed assault, however, no one has figured out how to silence the pirate station. And that’s just fine with the conservative farmers, housewives and commandos who see it as the next best thing to apartheid.

“What we think is happening here is suddenly there’s hope,” said the ever-cheerful chief announcer Anieta Armand, the “Voice of the Volk.” “We were feeling pushed out and neglected. And then came Radio Pretoria and our people had hope again.”

Her people are Afrikaners, the 3 million descendants of early Dutch, German and French settlers. They are more than half of the whites here, who make up 14% of South Africa’s 40 million people.

Infused with a strict Calvinist faith, the Afrikaners are united by a harsh history and a bitter sense of persecution: beaten by British colonialists, despised by the modern world for the enforced racial segregation and exploitation of apartheid and, in their view, betrayed by white reformers like De Klerk.

But while the legal structure of apartheid has been steadily dismantled since 1990, many Boers, as the Afrikaners are also called, now see an even more insidious chipping away of their culture, language and myths.

Take Afrikaans, their Dutch-derived language. It became an official state language, along with English, in 1925. Hated by blacks as the voice of oppression, however, Afrikaans will be one of 11 official tongues in the new South Africa. Its use will almost certainly decline.

Advertisement

Afrikaners already see their language being eclipsed. The local Coca-Cola franchise and SA Breweries, the monopoly beer brewer, announced that they would stop printing Afrikaans on their cans. The national railway has dropped Afrikaans from its tickets. The national anthem, “Die Stem,” is sure to be replaced. Schools, television shows and businesses are using less Afrikaans. Even the new constitution was printed only in English until right-wingers complained.

“Afrikaans is going to be a little kitchen dialect within 20 years,” Johan Combrink, a professor of Afrikaans at Stellenbosch University, griped in the Cape Town daily Die Burger.

Then came the announcement last November that women and nonwhites will be eligible to join the Afrikaner Broederbond, an exclusive secret society whose members are required to swear fealty to white rule and the “eternal existence of a separate Afrikaner nation.”

The society, founded in 1918, once invited as members only well-connected, white, Afrikaans-speaking Protestant males. As its influence grew, membership was virtually required for leaders in the ruling National Party, church, academia, media and law. By the 1960s and 1970s, critics said, the elite fraternity controlled much of South African life and was a mainstay of the apartheid regime.

Today, with its influence waning, the group is adjusting to a new reality.

New members still must speak Afrikaans. But the roll call will no longer be secret and meetings may be public. Even the group’s name will change.

“It was time to come out of the shadow and into the light,” said Jan Pieter de Lange, a former rector of Rand Afrikaans University who recently retired after 10 years as chairman of the Broederbond.

He and his successor, Tom de Beer, see a black-led South Africa as an opportunity, rather than a death knell, for whites.

Advertisement

“We may be disillusioned, but fundamentally we have come to terms and said we want a solution,” said De Beer, who heads a major investment firm. “We want to be part of a free-market system and the First World way of doing things.”

And public support for the extremists appears to be fading.

Witness last month’s Day of the Vow, which celebrates the 1838 massacre of an attacking Zulu army and is the Afrikaners’ most emotional holiday.

Right-wing leaders had predicted a massive show of force at the Voortrekker Monument outside Pretoria. More than 100,000 people had come as recently as five years ago. This time there were about 8,000.

Still, emotions ran high. Potbellied men in camouflage fatigues rode horses and carried rifles. Khaki-clad women, their faces twisted in hate, marched with children under swastika-like flags. Under a tree sat a bearded 28-year-old former South African commando with mirrored sunglasses, a ponytail and a grinning death’s head symbol on his black beret. Race war is inevitable, he warned. “It’s survival of the fittest.”

But the right wing is hardly healthy. About 60 parties and fringe groups have gathered under the political umbrella of the Afrikaner Volksfront. The coalition has refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the transitional executive council, the new constitution or the coming democratic elections.

Instead, the group has demanded the right to create a “Volkstaat,” a white state carved out of the new South Africa. It’s unlikely.

Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress leader who is expected to be the country’s first black president, has offered to allow a vote on a white homeland. But he would also retain the right to veto the results.

It is unclear what or where the Volkstaat would be. Despite more than a decade of debate, most rightist groups can’t even agree on the proposed borders or who should be allowed to live there. And polls show only a tiny fraction of whites would want to move there anyway.

“Unfortunately, we are still struggling to demarcate or identify an area where self-determination can be established,” said Carel Boshoff, a right-wing leader who has tried to create a racially pure Afrikaner homeland in Orania, 600 miles southwest of Johannesburg.

Only a few hundred whites have moved to the desolate desert town since a Pretoria businessman bought the property in 1991 and invited other whites to move to the promised land.

“I am convinced the Volkstaat will emerge from the chaos and succeed,” Boshoff insisted in a telephone interview.

Whether the far right will be marginalized in the new South Africa, as the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups are in America, remains to be seen.

Last month, an attempt by 30 armed right-wingers to take over an abandoned fort--an effort to rally the faithful--ended, instead, in mass surrender and humiliation.

But threats of sabotage, terrorism and worse can’t be dismissed.

Afrikaners control the military, police, civil service, power installations and other key institutions. Government officials fear providing a flash point, such as an attack on the rebel radio stations, that could mobilize the extremists among them.

“They have the capability to do what they say,” warned Dr. Wim Booyse, a political analyst and expert on the right wing. “An IRA (Irish Republican Army)-style campaign is very possible. . . . What is lacking so far is the will and the commitment to do it.”

Commitment is not lacking, however, at Radio Pretoria.

Built on a barren hilltop about 20 miles east of the capital, the station began broadcasting with donated records and equipment four hours a day last September. It’s now on the air 14 hours a day, sometimes more.

The format is a mix of homey banter, call-in shows and music that ranges from “White Christmas” to polkas to German military marches.

No black artists are played.

The broadcast radius is about 50 miles, but word has spread far beyond. Indeed, Afrikaner fans arrive like pilgrims each weekend to stand guard, dig trenches and bring gifts for Armand, the chief announcer.

Her honey-sweet tones soothe the guttural rasp of Afrikaans. By her microphone is a book about the late prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd, the mastermind of apartheid. His speeches and other Nazi-like calls for racial purity are played frequently. Armand tried to explain.

“Our whole culture is being threatened,” she said. “We feel Christianity is being taken away from us. And communism is taking over.”

She grew up on a farm where Afrikaners were “caring” and black laborers were “happy,” she said.

“Then they came with politics, these politicians, to sow distrust between us. Oh, we used to be so happy,” she said dreamily.

“The blacks are a singing people, a dancing people,” she said. “We respect that. But then you’d see them saying, ‘We demand, we demand.’ And you get so sick and tired that, God, you don’t want to see them anymore.”

Still, Armand said she wishes only the best for the 28 million mostly poor, mostly jobless, mostly illiterate blacks who will be guaranteed basic freedoms for the first time, including the right to vote, after decades of Afrikaner power and privilege.

“We want a happy, laughing South Africa again,” she said with a smile.


Advertisement