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COLUMN ONE : Boers Seek Greener Pastures : White farmers are leaving South Africa, dreaming of a better life elsewhere on the continent. Many have met hard times--and skepticism about whether they’re fleeing economic woes or Mandela’s reforms.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They rode up from South Africa in heavily loaded Toyota pickups, not covered wagons pulled by oxen. And they traveled on potholed pavement, not dirt tracks in a cruel wilderness.

But the six Afrikaners who rode past tall gum trees and rustling savanna grass into this dusty farming community on a recent bone-dry afternoon were following their forebears on a familiar trail.

Afrikaners, descendants of early Dutch and French settlers in South Africa, first spread northward in the 1830s in their legendary Great Trek to flee British rule. Their fierce battles against nature and local blacks became the bitter core of Afrikaner history and myth, and ultimately underpinned their oppressive policies of white supremacy under apartheid.

Now the Afrikaners--members of what’s been called Africa’s only white tribe--are on the move again. Hundreds, perhaps more, white farmers have packed their bags and set out for what they hope are greener pastures in a dozen improbable and impoverished nations, including Zambia, Angola, Mozambique, Zaire and the Congo.

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And thousands more Boers, which means “farmers” in Afrikaans, are expected to join the strange new Diaspora.

“It’s pioneer work we’re doing,” said Dirk Kruger, 42, one of the six tanned and burly Afrikaners who stopped here to buy provisions before heading deeper into the Zambian bush. “Lots of people would like to see this as another Great Trek to the north.”

Kruger insists he hung a “For Sale” sign on his family’s 1,800-acre farm in Coligny, 1,100 miles to the south, because of a severe drought and rising crime in South Africa--and not because of the collapse of Afrikaner dreams of building a whites-only homeland in President Nelson Mandela’s newly democratic nation.

“Financially in South Africa, I don’t see any future for me,” he said, stroking his beard. “Here I have a future.”

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That remains to be seen. Zambian officials say most early arrivals proved more foolhardy than hardy and already have quit, broke and disillusioned. Others have run afoul of local customs and laws. By all accounts, only a handful of the new trekkers have succeeded.

“I honestly don’t think they stand a snowball’s chance in hell,” said Guy Scott, former minister of agriculture in Zambia. “A lot of them are bankrupt, or just out of jail. They come up here with a clapped-out truck and a three-legged pot, and think they’re going to find free land. . . . They’re from another planet, these guys.”

But Kruger says he and his friends are successful farmers who are prepared to invest up to $1 million each to buy and develop up to 5,000 acres each of uncleared bush in Serenje district, about 240 miles northeast of Lusaka, the capital. As they await government licenses, they will camp by the road, grill sausages and dream of vast fields of tobacco and corn.

“The rain is good, and the land is good,” Kruger said. He added, “My priority is myself and my family. But I think we can play a role in developing Africa. We have the experience, and we have the know-how.”

Surprisingly perhaps, the leaders of Zambia and most other sub-Saharan countries apparently agree. One reason is that Mandela has urged them to accept the white farmers as a kind of foreign aid from his cash-strapped government. Invitations reportedly have followed from as far afield as Gabon, Gambia, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Malawi, Tanzania and Uganda.

“We believe they will come and contribute to economic growth,” Zambia’s president, Frederick Chiluba, said recently in Johannesburg, South Africa.

“South African farmers have skills and capabilities,” agreed Mozambique’s president, Joaquim Chissano. He said he hopes white farmers will provide jobs and increase cross-border trade.

So far, no one is promising free land in the so-called promised lands. And war-devastated countries like Angola and Mozambique present special problems. Millions of land mines litter the landscape, for example, the deadly legacy of former, apartheid-era wars.

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“This is a worrying factor,” conceded Constand Viljoen, a right-wing politician and retired general who heads South Africa’s Freedom Front, a political party that represents conservative Afrikaners.

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Viljoen is leading the drive for what he calls “agricultural pioneers” to fan out across the lush, central belt of Africa to aid in development. He predicts a “few hundred thousand” Afrikaners eventually may join the trek.

“It is our contribution toward stability in the region,” he said. “We are Africans, and we believe in Africa.”

Still, history is awkward. As chief of South Africa’s defense forces in the 1980s, Viljoen led the Afrikaner-dominated military in brutal wars and terrorist campaigns against apartheid’s enemies in Mozambique, Angola and other neighboring states.

Viljoen denies that reactionary whites want to build a separate white homeland in chaotic countries such as Zaire, where government control has all but vanished. “They need not fear that the Afrikaner will bring unacceptable ideas,” he said.

Not everyone is convinced. “Those South Africans who do not want to live under black majority rule are now in search of new territories to apply their racist way of living,” Jean Kalenga, spokesman for a tiny pro-democracy group in Zaire, told a recent news conference in Cape Town, South Africa.

To be sure, more efficient farming is desperately needed. Although most of southern Africa is fertile, a three-year drought has caused massive food shortages in the region. Cereal harvests have fallen 35% compared to last year, and corn production is down 42%, according to the United Nations.

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The United Nations has urgently appealed to donor nations for more than half a million tons of emergency food aid for southern Africa this year. But it warned that the appeal “covers only the minimum survival needs of the region.”

How much the Afrikaner farmers can help is an open question. Here in Zambia, a landlocked nation slightly larger than Texas and with much the same arid climate and landscape, skepticism runs high.

“Look, it’s not a magic formula,” cautioned Willem Swanepoel, counselor at South Africa’s High Commission in Lusaka. “Our farmers are not that efficient. At home, they were coddled a long time by the government. They were supported both financially and technically.”

He said hundreds of Afrikaners, terrified of a racial blood bath at home, “descended like locusts” in the tense months before South Africa’s first democratic elections in April, 1994. Most have since gone back, he said.

“I think a lot of them came up the road, took one look and said, ‘No way. I’m not a bloody pioneer anymore,’ ” Swanepoel added with a laugh. “I don’t know what they expected.”

What they found was a desperately poor country with few roads, schools, doctors or telephones. Most available land is controlled by tribal chiefs, and the traditional land tenure system makes buying property a long and complex process. Interest rates are higher than 60%, so borrowing money from banks to buy seed or equipment is nearly impossible.

Most black farmers here eke out a living on tiny parched plots of corn and cassava. Many are wary of the new whites.

“They will buy up all the good land and in 10 or 20 years, our children will have no land,” worried John Dani Zulu, 62, tending neat rows of cabbages and onions outside Lusaka. “There are so few indigenous Zambians with enough money to buy land.”

White farmers, who still control most of the colonial-era commercial farms that flank the country’s north-south rail line, are even more critical.

“These whites want to come and recolonize Africa,” complained Charles Harvey, a Zambian who runs a 30,000-acre commercial farm started by his grandfather in Chisamba after World War I.

Harvey described most of the Afrikaners as “economic refugees” and “fly-by-night farmers” rather than agricultural experts. “A lot of them were failures in South Africa, and they’d be failures anywhere,” he said.

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Harvey, 40, opened his home to the early arrivals, letting them sleep in spare rooms and feeding them free meals. When scores turned to hundreds, and some abused his hospitality, he opened a 16-room hotel and small restaurant. He doesn’t mind that it’s now mostly empty.

“I won’t help them anymore,” he said bitterly.

Then there were the scams. One Afrikaner con man reportedly sold lots on the Zambezi River to fellow farmers. Some signed contracts and then left without paying, or were suspected of bribing local officials. The government is trying to evict at least three who are illegally farming on protected land beside a national park.

“These guys are trying to screw the system,” complained Simon Burgess, a Zambian businessman who works with the national land use planning council, which must approve all new deeds.

Farther north, in Mkushi, where 18 Afrikaners have settled, one new farmer shocked his new neighbors when he hung a black laborer upside down in a tree for stealing a bag of corn, according to a local member of Parliament.

For all that, Afrikaners Gerrit and Berenice Bronkhurst are making a go of it. They moved to Chisamba in November, 1993, with their two children, three dogs and a truck full of furniture, leaving his father to run a 250-acre tobacco farm outside Pretoria, South Africa’s administrative capital.

“We packed our car,” Bronkhurst recalled. “We had one guy’s name. Then we just drove up.”

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They were lucky. They found an aged white farmer who wanted to emigrate. He agreed to let them take over his run-down 5,000-acre cattle and sheep ranch for a few years and see if they could make any money. So far, they haven’t.

“It’s very different from what we’re used to,” Bronkhurst, 33, explained. “The land preparation is totally different.”

So are the dangers. Poachers killed eight of their cows, and hyenas have taken four more. And the dusty fields, marked by towering termite mounds and thick thorn bushes, are filled with deadly snakes, including cobras, puff adders and black mambas.

Giant soldier ants, able to strip an animal to its bones, are constantly underfoot. “You don’t see these down south anymore,” Bronkhurst said calmly, pointing to a stream of the poisonous black insects so thick that they rustled noisily as they passed.

The farm is largely dilapidated, littered with rusting equipment and broken buildings. They have no telephone and use a smoky generator for electricity. They build a fire out back for hot water, and the nearest shops are more than an hour’s drive away.

“It’s a tough life,” said Berenice Bronkhurst, 26. “It’s a hard life. You make a lot of sacrifices to live here.”

At first, their neighbors didn’t help. “It took us a full year before people started trusting us,” she said. “You’d go to a farm and they’d see you’re South African and close the door. They didn’t want to even talk.”

Attitudes changed when word spread that the Bronkhurst’s 3-year-old son, Jan-Hendrik, had been diagnosed as having leukemia. Their neighbors quickly passed the hat and raised nearly $2,000 to help with medical bills.

The boy is doing well now, and so are the Bronkhursts. They will plant their first crop of corn and soybeans this year, and hope to earn money by raising chickens for the local market. Best of all, they say, the isolation and hardship have brought them closer as a family.

“We’ve learned a lot,” Bronkhurst said, smiling warmly at his wife. “So I think we’ll survive.”


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