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Right-wing terrorism stirs old fears in South Africa

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 5, 2003

SOWETO, South Africa -- After hearing the explosion, Josephina Monarang ran to a neighbor's house in Soweto late one night. To her horror, she saw a friend lying on the bed with her head smashed open.

Right-wing extremists had planted a bomb on a nearby rail line, and a piece of the steel track flew a quarter-mile into her neighbor's shack. The government has arrested 18 members of the white, right-wing Boermag terrorist group in connection with the Oct. 30 bombing.

"The Boermag makes me very angry," says Monarang.

On the same night, Boermag allegedly placed bombs at a taxi depot and mosque in Soweto. On Nov. 23, a bomb destroyed a building of the police air wing, and on Nov. 27 a bomb damaged a bridge in the southern part of the country. The government has charged Boermag members, including three active-duty army officers, with sabotage and treason.

Even five months after the bombings, South Africans differ on how great a threat such right-wing extremists pose to the country's stability and how much support they have.

"This is a small group that can do damage on the local level," according to Henri Boshoff, a military analyst at Pretoria's Institute for Security Studies. "They haven't got the capacity to pose a serious threat to the government."

The government disagrees.

"The threat could be huge," says Paul Setsetse, spokesman for the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Development. "They were targeting national infrastructure: dams, rail lines and bridges."

Setsetse says the right-wing extremists want to set off a race war by provoking blacks to riot against whites.

Professor Albert Venter, an expert on right-wing groups at Rand University, estimates that 5 percent to 6 percent of white South Africans sympathize with the political goals of the Boermag, which wants to create an all-white Afrikaner nation. But even those people oppose the group's violent tactics.

The Boermag mixes traditional white supremacist Afrikaner politics with Christian fundamentalism. Venter says Boermag believes "white Afrikaners are God's chosen people, and they are to bring forth the light of Christian civilization."

Venter says the extreme right wing is unlikely to develop significant support so long as the country's economy remains stable. He notes that violent nationalist movements in former Yugoslavia, for example, arose during hard economic times.

"While the right-wingers do appeal to the racism and nationalism of some white South Africans," says Venter, "the economic conditions are not conducive for a popular white upsurge against the government."

For years, right-wing extremism was synonymous with the apartheid government, whose security forces tortured and murdered opponents of the regime as well as ordinary citizens. So when the National Party government agreed to hold the country's first democratic elections in 1994, some political groups and whites in the security services rebelled.

Right-wing extremist activity reached its peak during this period. Militants from the AWB, the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, drove a truck into Johannesburg's World Trade Center in an unsuccessful effort to stop power-sharing negotiations.

A few months later the AWB invaded Bophuthatswana, a black homeland set up by South Africa, and lost several of its members in battle. The failure of the invasion undercut support for the right-wingers and the movement largely collapsed after AWB leaders were arrested and jailed.

A right-wing coalition received 425,000 votes nationally in the 1994 elections, but by 1999 the combined right-wing vote had fallen to 174,000.

The African National Congress government also took steps to politically undercut extremism by allowing for the creation of all-Afrikaner areas within South Africa. But Afrikaners themselves decided such areas weren't practical economically or politically. "The issue of an Afrikaner homeland is not part of reality politics," according to Kobus Mostert, executive director of the conservative Afrikanerbond, the Afrikaner League. "I give the ANC credit for this."

Mostert says the Boermag has not attracted significant support among Afrikaner conservatives, who are committed to participation in the political process. Bombings "are not the democratic way of handling matters if you don't get what you like," he said. "I see it as insanity."

Justice Ministry spokesman Setsetse agrees that the Boermag has virtually no popular support, but says a determined group with military skills can still cause serious damage through terrorist activity.

The Justice Ministry plans to bring the Boermag defendants to trial in May. It recently refurbished the courtroom in Pretoria where Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders were tried for treason in the 1950s and '60s. The government may use the same courtroom for the Boermag trial.

"That court was used to implement apartheid laws," said Setsetse. "Now it may be used again in defense of democracy."

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