Voting in the shadow on ET’s AWB

Saturday Star

Craig Dodds and Adrian de Kock visited the town that lived in terror of AWB leader Eugene Terre’Blanche.


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2014/03/30, Ventersdorp, 20 YEARS OF DEMOCRACY FEATURE - An old South African flag at Okkie Yssel (Owner of the Tough Toys, who manufactures metal toys including farming trucks and tractors), Ventersdorp, home town of former AWB strongman Eugene Terre'Blanche, who was murdered on his farm in 2010. Reporter: Craig Dodds / Picture: Adrian de Kock2014/03/30, Ventersdorp, 20 YEARS OF DEMOCRACY FEATURE - Children from Tshing Township play with an old truck tyre - Ventersdorp, home town of former AWB strongman Eugene Terre'Blanche, who was murdered on his farm in 2010. Reporter: Craig Dodds / Picture: Adrian de Kock

Banks of pink and white cosmos line the approach to Ventersdorp and butterflies float on the breeze.

Cattle graze on fields painted vivid green by recent rains.

It’s a lazy Saturday in the small farming town, west of Johannesburg, where Terre’ Blanche spewed fear and racial loathing.

On this balmy afternoon it’s hard to reconcile the tranquil scene with his malevolent spirit, or the bombings and street battle that raged here during the birth pangs of democracy.

The Rubicon restaurant on Van Riebeeck Street proudly translates its name – “new beginning” – on the sign outside.

A rugby game on TV lends subliminal drama to the ebb and flow of bar-room chatter. Each arrival draws interested glances and familiar faces receive a special welcome.

One black family keeps to itself in a corner. But they, too, are drawn into the small-town bonhomie when a white mother and daughter stop at their table to chat.

Ventersdorp is no post-racial nirvana, however.

Terms like “die swartes” (the blacks), “houtkoppe” (wooden heads) and, inevitably, “k*****”, slip from lubricated tongues as the evening wears on. Yet many white people we speak to deny they are racists without us posing the question.

In the township of Tshing, black residents testify to changed relations since Terre’ Blanche’s reign of terror was ended.

They recall the “Battle of Ventersdorp” on August 9, 1991, when rightwingers clashed with police outside a hall where then-state president FW de Klerk – considered a traitor for moving to end apartheid – was due to speak.

Three AWB supporters and a passer-by were killed and scores injured.

Terre’Blanche would later serve time in jail for assaulting a petrol station attendant and the attempted murder of a black security guard.

He was murdered by one of his farmworkers in 2010.

Benjamin Mdhluli bends over a tub of washing, rubbing clothes on a wooden board as Brenda Fassie’s Vulindlela is played on the radio.

“They were fighting to protect the apartheid system, but we didn’t see it as something that wouldn’t end. Now things are better at least,” he says.

“The white people in the town are better now. But sometimes on weekends there are some who get drunk and bother people. They come from the bar and we can’t even go to the bank if the farmers are at the bar. They come out and attack people at the bank. They ask, ‘What are the k****** doing in town?’ But they aren’t many.”

Monica Kanaomana and her friend, Bertha Moabi, say while some whites are “good”, the rightwingers are “scary and rude”. They give them a wide berth. “But the others are fine, there’s no apartheid here,” says Kanaomana.

Douglas and Lena Wright witnessed the AWB’s antics at close quarters. They were getting into bed one evening when a bomb planted outside the National Party offices blew open their front door and shattered windows in their house and the church opposite.

On the night of the AWB’s showdown with the police, they watched events unfold.

The rightwingers shot at police, summoning return fire.

“While we were standing on the stoep one of them came running in, bending low,” Douglas, 94, recalls.

“My wife said, ‘What are you doing here?’ and he said: ‘They’re shooting with live ammunition, you must get inside’.”

“He said ‘go in the house and lie flat’,” says Lena.

“I said, ‘Mister, get off my property and close my gate’.”

The couple had known Terre’Blanche since he went to school with their children, and he would greet them.

But Lena says he had a persona that stirred fear. When the AWB marched in town, no black people could be found on the street.

“He had that manner of being nasty to them, they were very scared of him. I was also scared of him at one stage, but then I thought, rubbish, he’s a child, I know him,” she says.

Okkie Yssel remembers taking the bus to school with Terre’Blanche. He says while “old Gene” was born and raised in Ventersdorp, the bulk of his supporters who took part in the fighting were from out of town.

“They were people Gene wound up, you know, like these little toys… he wound people up a lot here.”

The locals “weren’t interested in that stuff and we also weren’t involved, most of us”.

Yssel’s farm, Ratzegaai, is one of the biggest in the area but he has largely given up farming. In sheds below the homestead, rows of retired tractors lurk like metal beasts from Jurassic times.

“I’m a collector,” Yssel beams, before ushering us into his private sanctuary – the “museum”. It is a warehouse of memories, ranging from a magnum bottle of his mother’s famous mampoer – she was crowned provincial champion – to cuttings from local newspapers recalling the town’s tumultuous past.

He hums wistfully as he plays on an antique gramophone the single Aandtjie die Rooi Bruin Hen, featuring the Piet Pompies orkes.

For 12 years now he has turned his energy to manufacturing toy replicas of farm implements and vehicles.

A member of the Ventersdorp kommando for 30 years, he has consigned the trappings of his former self to a glass cabinet in the museum, where his uniform hangs next to a poster of dead white presidents and the old South African flag.

“As you can see, there’s my political situation,” says Yssel, gesturing to the cabinet.

He is not afraid to say who he is, he says, though he calls himself an anti-politician.

“I’m well known in this town... My relations with the blacks are not too bad.”

Then he adds: “Although I’m a strict guy, ask them. There’s three things I don’t like: a man mustn’t come to work drunk, he mustn’t steal my stuff, and he mustn’t lie to me.”

There is steel in his voice as he finishes: “I try to keep it like that.”

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