From the archives: Apartheid Splits Afrikaner Parents, Activist Daughter
PAARL, South Africa -- Hennie and Evelynne Durr are parents not easily rattled. So they didn’t panic when the university letter arrived at their wine grape farm last May with police photographs of their daughter leading an illegal anti-apartheid march on campus.
Hennie Durr did as he felt any father would do: He called the school president to apologize and reminded daughter Leslee that rules are rules.
That, he figured, was that. But as it turned out that was only the beginning.
Leslee was expelled a few weeks later, then reinstated after a storm of protest, and then arrested by police during yet another protest march.
“Who can be proud of a criminal record?” her father remembers thinking. And it bothered him that the money he spent on his daughter’s education was indirectly promoting the struggle for a socialist state and black majority rule.
“I can’t support ideologies that want to destroy what I believe in,” he told her as he cut off her financial support.
Increasing numbers of families in South Africa’s ruling white Afrikaner society today--like many American families in the Vietnam War era--are being sorely tested by a political generation gap unlike any in the history of their civilization.
The radicalized younger generation of whites, who have helped to lead a dramatic leftward shift in white thinking in this country, tussles daily with the older generation over the dinner table in privileged homes like the Durrs’. And the parents, good and solid citizens who have worked hard to mold a secure future for their families, are torn between admiration for their children’s commitment to a cause and fear that the cause itself will destroy everything they hold dear.
Politics is more than a parlor game in these days of dramatic change in South Africa. It touches the future of every family, black and white, and is the prime topic of conversation among strangers as well as friends. But Afrikaner families have developed internal shields against the divisiveness of politics.
“Afrikaners have a strong sense of family,” said Andre Brink, the Afrikaner novelist who wrote “A Dry White Season.” “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 are a typically warm Afrikaner family rocked by political differences. Daughter Leslee, one of the country’s best-known campus activists, works for radical, overnight change in South Africa while her father fears that unbridled change and a black government would ride the country to ruin.
Hennie and Evelynne Durr say they have come to believe that, in the interests of peace, blacks must be given a say in national affairs. And they support President Frederik W. de Klerk, who promises to end apartheid but still protect whites from “black domination” and resist all attempts to install a socialist economy.
The Durrs’ 22-year-old daughter, however, supports the socialist ideals and guerrilla warfare of black liberation groups such as the outlawed African National Congress (ANC).
She has joined other whites in meeting the ANC at its exile headquarters and considers black nationalist Nelson R. Mandela, held in a prison only five miles from her family’s home, the leader of the country. She says De Klerk’s promises are “really just another layer of paint to buy time” for the white minority-led government.
Until this year, the Durrs led a quiet family life in their white Cape Dutch farmhouse in the lap of a gentle mountain range in the heart of South Africa’s vineyards.
Hennie Durr, whose German ancestors settled in this lush province in 1770, grows wine grapes, table grapes and peaches on a 400-acre farm that spills down from his front doorstep. He is a tall, quiet 52-year-old with wavy, sun-bleached gray hair and blue eyes. His wife, Evelynne, 47, runs an antique shop behind the house. Thirty mixed-race Colored farm workers live nearby in small homes hidden by thick shade trees.
Leslee, her 23-year-old sister Lynne, and brothers Hennie Jr., 20, and Johan, 18, grew up here amid the blooming pink and white chrysanthemums, spending vacations overseeing laborers in the hot packing shed, lounging around the swimming pool or diving for lobster in the Atlantic Ocean 40 miles away.
For years, the Durrs, like most whites, were isolated from the black majority, relying on news reports of bombings and township violence in newspapers that support the government and on state-run television.
“I knew there were some problems, but I always thought that the government would solve them,” Leslee remembers thinking as a high school senior. “We led a 100% white life. It was quite absurd. I never knew there was an African township of 100,000 people right outside of town.”
Leslee’s first visit to a black township came while at Stellenbosch University, her parents’ alma mater and for decades the citadel of white Afrikaner education. It was early 1986, during the height of township violence, and Leslee joined a program to tutor black adults seeking high school diplomas.
“I was shocked to see the discrepancies between black and white education,” she remembers. “These people just wanted to learn, but no one had bothered to teach them.”
Leslee soon was working with the Stellenbosch chapter of the radical National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), attending meetings at nights and on weekends, and she changed her major from psychology to political philosophy. She was attracted to the moral purity of the black liberation struggle and horrified by the scenes of injustice she saw in townships where few whites dared to go.
On regular Sunday visits home, Leslee brought word of repression and police-inspired violence that was rarely mentioned by the newspapers or television. And over family meals, speaking their native Afrikaans, Leslee began sparring with her disbelieving parents.
“We’ve had stand-up fights in this house over politics,” said Leslee’s mother, Evelynne.
Leslee’s father said he quickly learned it was “very difficult to argue with young people because they are so idealistic.” But he tried.
“They weren’t necessarily arguments, but discussions,” he says. “At least we could sit down and talk about it.”
Hennie “hates fighting,” his wife said. “He likes everything to be hunky-dory.”
At school, politics quickly became more important than academics for Leslee. She became head of NUSAS and pressured school administrators to desegregate campus dormitories, as other South African colleges have done.
NUSAS planned a demonstration for mid-May, but the school rector, Mike de Vries, wrote two letters to warn Leslee that it would violate the campus ban on protest marches. During a subsequent meeting with her, De Vries offered to push for open residences but insisted that any attempt at campus protest would be dealt with severely.
Leslee refused to back down. “You always say, ‘Wait, wait, wait,’ ” she remembers telling De Vries. “But we’ve lost faith in you.”
On May 18, NUSAS supporters marched 50 yards from the university library to the administration building. A few right-wing students pelted the demonstrators with eggs and water balloons.
De Vries wrote Leslee’s parents to complain about her stubbornness, and he included security police photos of her at the rally. The letter came as no shock to Leslee’s mother.
Even as a young child, Leslee was “terribly obstinate,” her mother said. “But also very brave. Fearless. She was not scared of anything.”
Two weeks later, Leslee was summoned to a late-night disciplinary hearing and expelled. The panel also banned NUSAS and a black students’ organization.
The news did not go down well at home, where the Durrs consider themselves “terribly law-abiding. We never even go over a white line,” Evelynne said. Hennie Durr didn’t say much. But he took a long walk in the vineyards.
“No parent can be happy when their daughter is expelled. That’s basic. It was in all the papers and it was an embarrassment. It’s a blot on your record,” Hennie Durr said. “You have to abide by the rules, right or wrong.”
The Durrs’ phone rang with the curses of anonymous callers and unsolicited advice from strangers about how the Durrs might rein in that rebellious daughter. Although the Durrs did not agree with Leslee’s politics, they were angered by the number of people who thought Leslee was a wild-eyed revolutionary trying to plant bombs in shopping centers. They knew better.
“Strangely enough, one learns to accept” the calls and the embarrassed silence of friends, Leslee’s mother said. “But it’s time-consuming and a helluva nuisance.”
At one point, Evelynne recalls, she kidded her daughter, “Your life is so exciting and we have to face all the flak.”
Leslee’s expulsion triggered a wildcat strike by university cooks, maids and other staff, and student protests spread to other universities. Furious parents were on the phone to Hennie Durr, complaining that their children couldn’t study while making their own beds and meals.
“I sympathize, but I don’t know what I can do about it,” he told them.
Under pressure, De Vries rescinded his orders and promised to retry Leslee in a hearing he never got around to scheduling.
Leslee became a target for right-wing students. Rocks and bottles crashed through the windows of the house she shares with four other women near campus. And Leslee awoke one morning to find a sign across the street with an arrow pointing at her front door. It read: “Leslee Durr’s House.”
Leslee’s curly brown hair and her Citroen car were soon recognized across the 14,000-student campus and even in the townships.
“You have to leave immediately,” she said a police officer once told her before a rally in a mixed-race township near Stellenbosch.
“Why?” she demanded.
“Wherever you go there is trouble,” he answered.
Then on Sept. 5, the day before South Africa’s general elections, she joined students and faculty members in a protest march to the center of Stellenbosch, less than a mile from campus. Police used dogs and batons to break up the crowd, and 28 people, including Leslee and her sister Lynne, were arrested and detained for several hours.
She called home later that night to ask about her father’s mood.
“You better not come home for a month,” Leslee’s mother told her.
“Hennie never loses his temper,” Evelynne Durr said. “But he thought, ‘This is it. They’ve gone too far.’ I mean, getting arrested in the streets. . . .”
Leslee’s father decided that, beginning next semester, he’d cut off the $2,000 a year he was giving Leslee to supplement her student loan.
“I’ll be getting a job this year,” Leslee said.
The government dismissed charges against hundreds of protesters arrested nationwide in September, but it brought the Stellenbosch 28 to court. After a weeklong trial, they were fined the equivalent of $20 each.
“I must admit, we both admire Leslee’s guts,” her mother said. “And come hell or high water, we’re her parents.”
The Durr family came together again over the holidays, bantering about politics over meals of venison and fresh seafood and avoiding loud debates.
Leslee was studying for exams, and new college graduate Lynne was looking for a job. Hennie Jr. had just finished his military service and was ready to enter Stellenbosch, where he has already been warned by friends that initiation rites will be difficult for “Leslee Durr’s brother.”
Johan, the youngest, will soon begin his mandatory one-year stint in the army, where being Leslee’s brother may prevent him from getting a security clearance. Hennie Jr. remembers taking plenty of razzing from his army buddies for trying to defend his radical sister.
Both brothers say Leslee has changed them.
“She doesn’t know this, but I agree with her quite a lot,” Hennie Jr. said. “Although I still think she’s a bit too radical.”
Leslee said her father has warned her not to discuss unions with the farm workers and he forbids her to talk to Johan about the army.
“ ‘Your little brother is going in and there’s nothing you can do about it,’ ” she said her father has told her. And she has agreed. “The more I influence him, the more difficult it’s going to be for him in the army.”
Leslee’s father really is not sure how far to the left his daughter stands, and he keeps the family peace by not asking too many questions. He said he figures she’ll mellow in a year or two when she enters the real world.
“My parents still think I’ll get over it, get a nice job, a big car, marry a nice man . . . ,” Leslee said. “But in South Africa, just living is a political statement, being white is a political statement.” She wants to work for an anti-apartheid organization after graduation.
“My parents are very moral people, very nice people,” she said. “But we disagree on the fundamentals, the very basics.”
She hates to be called liberal, for instance, which she said is a “swear word for people who know there have to be changes in the country but want to drag it out as long as possible.”
Her parents probably fit that category.
Hennie Durr said he realizes the country “has to get away from the color issue. People should be judged on their ability.” But among Afrikaner farmers, he said, “what has happened on the rest of the continent is in the back of most guys’ minds all the time.”
“I suppose we’ve been spoiled,” said Evelynne Durr, sipping tea on her veranda. “And it upsets me to think we’ve lived a good life and our kids are not going to be that well off anymore.”
Leslee wrestles with that Afrikaner heritage, sometimes feeling guilty for the comfortable life style in which she was reared. But moving into a township is not the answer, she said.
“It will only increase white fears if they see their children swept away by the revolution,” she said. “They need to know that you can be a normal person and still be part of the liberation struggle.”
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