Ripples of the Eugene Terre’Blanche killing
Last Saturday, news broke that Eugene Terre’blanche, leader of the far right-wing Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB), was killed on his farm in Ventersdorp by two young workers following a dispute over pay.
Terre’blanche was well-known for his support of the apartheid system and his vehement opposition to democratic transition, his party’s “swastika-like symbols and neo-Nazi anthems”, and his convictions on charges of violent assault and attempted murder.
Terre’blanche’s killing has provoked an emotional response from around the country – from the small minority who remain loyal to the AWB even after sixteen years of democracy, and those who are once again reminded of his racist and divisive ideology and South Africa’s apartheid past.
Tempers have reportedly flared in Ventersdorp, and particularly outside the court where both accused appeared yesterday. Some conflict was reported between AWB loyalists – who immediately vowed revenge for Terre’blanche’s killing (though this statement has since been retracted) – and Ventersdorp community members, who have voiced concerns over the poor treatment of farm workers and pledged support for both accused.
These scenes of conflict have been replayed widely in both the local and international media, and fuelled speculation over possible links to ANC Youth League president Julius Malema’s recent resurrection of controversial anti-apartheid song lyrics (“shoot the boer”), and possible security concerns ahead of the Soccer World Cup.
Most of all, this conflict has raised questions about the health of South African democracy and race relations sixteen years on. To me, what a sobering irony that Terre’blanche was killed not for his hate politics of the past, but over some of the most deeply divisive issues in the “new” democratic South Africa – economic inequality, indecent work, and a lack of transformation. And this by one accused who, at only fifteen years old, is a “born-free” without any political experience of apartheid, but arguably, living and working in conditions that have changed very little.
Several international media reports have included statistics from the IJR’s 2009 SA Reconciliation Barometer survey, including data related to a lack of substantive change in levels of contact between different historically-defined race groups since 1994. Certainly, it is true that levels of contact have remained relatively static over nine rounds of the Reconciliation Barometer to date.
However, survey findings also show – and this speaks to the heart of the Terre’blanche’s killing – that levels of contact between races are lowest amongst poor South Africans, and that a majority of citizens view socioeconomic class as the biggest social divide in the country, not race. Moreover, while many South Africans still find it difficult to understand the “ways and customs” of those they perceive to be different than themselves, many would like social contact and integration to increase, and are in fact interested in learning more about other groups.
Further, only about one-third of South Africans believe government has done enough in prosecuting perpetrators of apartheid crimes, and the Reconciliation Barometer has detected a decline in recent years in percentages of South Africans who feel they want to forget about the past, and forgive those who hurt them under apartheid.
These important findings – now played out in the streets of Ventersdorp and broadcast on television screens around the world – show that the work of the reconciliatory project in South Africa is not yet over.