The headlines have been sneaking their way, ever more alarmingly, into our consciousness. The most recent - "White extremists set off bombs in Soweto" - came only last week, but the trend had been developing for months - "Ten charged with plot against Pretoria", "Afrikaner arms cache seized", and so on.

In isolation, each might be shrugged off as part of the background noise of global strife.

Together, they raise a question that the world never imagined would have to be asked again: is the ghost of apartheid stirring? Will a resurgent white right attempt bloodily to turn back the clock?

The answer is amazing, somewhat disturbing, and more than faintly farcical. There has indeed been a white plot afoot which, while limited to the borders of South Africa, was ambitious to an extent worthy of a Bin Laden.

The ideal for which the plotters have been striving is so plainly evil that it makes the old apartheid dream of total racial separation seem modest by comparison. According to information obtained by the police, they drew their inspiration from the Ku Klux Klan and September 11.

While the danger is not yet over the plot appears to have been foiled. On Monday the police caught one of the alleged ringleaders, a former army officer called Tom Vorster, who had been on the run for six months and is believed by police to have been in contact in recent years with white supremacist groups in the United States.

Having made two other arrests late last week, the police believe they have caught all the conspiracy's main leaders.

A farmer, an ex-policeman and a former university lecturer, Dr Johan "Lets" Pretorius, all of them right-wing Afrikaners, were the first to be arrested, back in April. The alleged plotters seem to have struck back within a month when a man believed to have been a traitor in their midst, a suspected police informer, was found dead at a shooting range with nine bullets in his body.

But the counter-terrorist unit in charge of the investigation, named Operation Zealot, has since notched up success after success, unearthing a cache of bombs on a farm, seizing a truck loaded with thousands of automatic rifles and launching a manhunt that has led so far to the arrest of 18 suspects, three of them serving members of the South African National Defence Force.

Vorster appeared in court on Tuesday on charges of terrorism, high treason and sabotage. All 18 are due to face trial in Pretoria in May, and police say that they are expecting to make more arrests shortly.

The prosecution has indicated that much of its case will rest on more than 200 pages of documents found among the suspects, all members of an outfit calling itself Boeremag, or "boer force".

The documents are reported to reveal that the plotters had been inspired by the attacks in the United States on September 11 to identify heavily-populated targets, so achieving what in the old apartheid security establishment they used to call "high terror value".

The objectives of the plot were to overthrow the government of South Africa, set up a white junta and drive the black population into the sea. The means to an end that had eluded successive apartheid governments were the following: recruit a rebel army; assassinate white "traitors" and black cabinet ministers; free jailed Boer heroes; cut off power supplies; and seize control of - among other things - airports, radio stations, gold mines and abattoirs.

But the Boer counter-revolution rested above all on a radical new concept in the history of coups d'etat, a strategy code-named "Push and Suck".

It may all be academic now. Thanks to Operation Zealot, 10 of the alleged plotters have been charged - exactly as Nelson Mandela was nearly half a century ago - with high treason. But examination of the fantasies that appear to have driven the Boeremag reveals at least three interesting things: how mad the dregs of the apartheid far right are; how stable South Africa has become since the historic elections of 1994; and how right Marx was when he made that crack about history repeating itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

Push and Suck was the guts of the conspiracy. It was the means by which a rebel army whose numbers would swell to 4 500 (about 0,01 percent of South Africa's total population) would set about the task of ethnically cleansing 40 million black people (90 percent of the population).

The final solution contemplated was not, however, genocide. It never was in South Africa. What was on the agenda was mass incarceration. And mass forced removals. Which is what Push and Suck was all about.

The master stroke of a plot "planned down to the finest detail", in the words of the prosecutor in last month's trial (a man with the proud Boer name of Louis Wiese), would have been to expel black South Africans not out of "white areas", as in the old days, but out of South Africa altogether.

First, all black people would be forced out of what used to be called the Northern Cape, the Free State and the Transvaal towards the coastal provinces of KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape and the Western Cape.

This would be done by a combination of force and inducement. They would be pushed out by straight military means, but also sucked out - and here is where the "Boeremag Ten" appeared to have believed the genius of the strategy to lie - by placing large amounts of food along the roads leading out of the centre of the country.

The key, of course, lay in letting it be known to the black masses that if they would only be so kind as to abandon their ancestral homes and join the great exodus to the sea, their reward would be unlimited quantities of free grub. Which helps to explain the plotters' resolve to seize abattoirs as well as radio stations, but serves also to reveal that the group belonged to a species of white South African (a happily endangered species, as it turns out) so unevolved as to persist in the belief that black people are not fully qualified members of the human race, but animals to be hunted as one would wild game.

The millions upon millions of black refugees from the three big central regions having been duly displaced to the coast, part two of the operation would involve closing off the new borders, except for whites fleeing inland, and forcing the economic collapse of the coastal provinces. At which point the new military junta would launch a series of punishing attacks.

The upshot of the inevitable victory would be the unconditional demand that every last black man, woman and child go north with their belongings into Africa.

Once South Africa was entirely lily-white, once the Boeremag had pulled off the miracle that had eluded the old National Party during the 40 years of apartheid, plans would be set in motion to disband the junta and recreate a new, whites-only political dispensation.

Before getting there, however, before putting Push and Suck into practice, the coup plot required the implementation of three preliminary phases.

Phase one involved recruiting and intelligence-gathering. The plotters, at least three of whom are army officers, initially sought to enlist members and obtain secrets from the South African National Defence Force. It was also considered vital to obtain information on how to take over the workings of the SABC and close down parliament.

Phase two was unleashing "chaos" on South Africa. This would involve carrying out misleading decoy actions of the type favoured by the South African security forces during the apartheid era to create mayhem in the black communities.

One plan was to stage a spectacular attack on a white target - an unspecified action codenamed Lima One - which would be blamed on Muslims or Jews.

Another was for a death squad unit composed of 50 individuals to carry out assassinations and blame them on black people. (Among the apparent targets were former premier FW de Klerk, the perceived father of all Boer sell-outs, and right-wing leaders such as General Constand Viljoen, who participated in the 1994 elections.)

There were also plans afoot to stage jailbreaks for Eugene de Kock and for Clive Derby-Lewis and Janusz Walus.

The third phase would have been the coup d'etat itself, the essential part of which would be "taking out" the entire cabinet and selected MPs.

The airports and the abattoirs having been seized, power stations would be blown up and a 10-day blackout would be imposed. Military installations would be seized, the government in Pretoria (those among them who remained alive) would be left with no choice but to surrender and a revolutionary army, bounteously provisioned, would set forth boldly to push, suck and conquer.

As a number of the former ANC revolutionaries who now run the government of South Africa have pointed out, however, it would be a mistake to underestimate the capacity these people had to inflict cruel suffering. As Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi said upon the discovery last month of a clandestine home-made munitions dump on a farm in the northern Limpopo province, the intention of the plotters had been to carry out massive terrorist actions against civilians.

Selebi, himself branded a terrorist in the apartheid era, revealed that the captured arsenal included 16 metal cylinders, each weighing about 18kg, that would have provided casings for bombs that could have killed scores of people if detonated in a busy shopping centre.

Along with the cylinders, police found 22 buckets of ammonium nitrate powder (the raw materials for the bombs), as well as alarm clocks converted into bomb timers, hand-grenades, and eight boxes containing a variety of ammunition.

What drives these people? Why would a group of well-fed farmers, well-paid army officers and, in at least one case, a doctor go to the hare-brained extreme of wishing to slaughter innocent people in the furtherance of a manifestly impossible cause? What do they have inside their heads?

The answer is this: a combustible mix of ancient myths and terrors and present fears - fears that are understandable because they are based on tangible day-to-day dangers.

The best-known incident in Afrikaner history, and one which has coloured their thinking on relations with their black compatriots ever since, concerns the fate that befell the leader of the Great Trek of 1836, Piet Retief.

Lured by the Zulu king, Dingaan, into the royal kraal for peace talks, Retief and 70 of his trekkers were foully betrayed.

Dingaan's "impis" - Zulu regiments - slaughtered Retief's party and then fell on nearby trekker encampments, massacring men, women and children.

The lesson has been taught to Afrikaner schoolchildren of succeeding generations ever since, entrenching the cliche in the Boer mind: "Never trust a black man."

Add to that a heavy component of unacknowledged guilt, and it is not hard to see why the prevailing nightmare of white South Africans for a very long time, at least since the Great Trek, has been of a black hand reaching up from under the bed in the middle of the night with savage intent.

An Afrikaner farmer's wife deep in the Karoo offered me a more complex variation on that theme one day eight years ago, just before the elections that would bring Nelson Mandela to power, when she described a dream she had when she was nine years old.

"I was up a tree," the woman said, "and I looked down and saw a black man. He was wearing a green military uniform and he had a rifle. I was frightened. I knew he was looking for me. But he couldn't see me because I was hiding behind leaves. Then suddenly his face was right up against mine. But God saved me. He made me invisible to the black man. And then in the dream God told me that one day the black people would want to kill all the whites in South Africa - but we would be saved because he would make them all blind."

Blind to the injustices, presumably, that white had perpetrated on black ever since the appalling retribution exacted on Dingaan after the death of Retief: the killing of 3 000 Zulu warriors on the banks of Blood River at a cost, thanks to the technological superiority of the rifle over the spear, of three trekkers lightly wounded.

That guilt, combined with a dread sense that black South Africans must be seeking revenge, explains why, in 1990, three months after Mandela's release from prison, the rumour spread around the white neighbourhoods of Pretoria that 10 April 1990 had been declared by the ANC to be "Kill a White Day".

That the rumour, so utterly implausible to anyone with any serious understanding of Mandela or the ANC, was widely believed reveals how deep the ancient terrors ran then.

They still do. The Boeremag might perhaps have restrained their revolutionary urges, might have quietly snuffed out their ancient terrors, had it not been for the fact that, in the wide open spaces inhabited by the more conservative, less worldly, less politically sophisticated members of the Afrikaner tribe, it has been "kill a white day" every three or four days since the world celebrated the triumph of democracy and the ascent to power of Mandela in May 1994.

This has nothing to do with Mandela, but everything to do with the raw, primitive form of apartheid that prevailed for decades in dry, dusty places like Limpopo province.

The shocking statistic is this: since 1994 more than 600 white farmers have been murdered in South Africa, compared to 25 in Zimbabwe. And they have been murdered by their black neighbours.

One of the 10 alleged plotters who has been charged with high treason, Lieutenant-Colonel Jacques Olivier, has revealed in court that he was at a meeting on rural safety last year where an angry man cried out: "For each attack in which a farmer or his family is murdered, a taxi should be attacked."

It is easy to condemn such vengeful, racist sentiments but, as a liberal-minded journalist who lives in a fortified "gated community" in Johannesburg said to me the other day, it is not fun to live out there on the farms if you are white.

Not fun at all. With apologies to the victims of New York and Bali, the threat al-Qaeda poses to the citizens of the western world is metaphysically remote compared to the clear and present menace South Africa's white farmers live under every day.

Which is why they are all heavily armed, and have created paramilitary vigilante groups that keep in permanent radio contact.

Who can blame them? These far-flung regions of South Africa have not succumbed to the Mandela magic. The ancient grievances remain. A sharp edge remains in relations between black and white. The accumulated fears and hatreds have not gone; and, from the point of view of the black people of the countryside, few of whom have seen any change in the appalling material circumstances of their lives, it is not difficult to see why.

The underlying absurdity of the Boeremag conspiracy to drive all the blacks into the sea derives from their incapacity to see that their sad little world is an anachronism; that things have changed in the big cities.

Which helps to explain why, outside the more sensationalist recesses of the Afrikaner press, most South Africans seem relatively relaxed about the arrest of the Boeremag plotters.

This is in contrast to the time, 40 years ago, when another 10 "terrorists" - Mandela and nine others - were brought before a judge in Pretoria, in what became known as the Rivonia Trial.

Then, even though Mandela's plans were neither as ambitious nor as life-threatening as those of the Boeremag, the story attracted massive attention, in South Africa and around the world.

That was because everybody knew that Mandela's revolution had justice and history on its side.

The failure of the ANC's armed wing to effect change then, in the early Sixties, was a tragedy.

The failure of the Boer plotters today is farce.

Most South Africans see them as malevolent clowns. Albert Venter, a politics professor from Johannesburg's Rand Afrikaans University, said last week: "I think most people in South Africa, be they white or black, realise this is a lunatic fringe."

This also helps to reveal the extraordinary political success - unmatched by any other society in transition anywhere on the globe - of what turned out in the end to be Mandela's peaceful, negotiated revolution. A string of right-wing bomb attacks that killed 30 black people just before the 1994 elections failed to stop the newly enfranchised from turning up massively to vote.

The explosions in Soweto last week were the twitchings of an amputated limb. While certainly a concern as a police matter, in terms of the potential they hold for further loss of life they will barely register as a pin-prick on the body politic. Because South Africa has demonstrated once again that, for all the challenges that lie ahead in overcoming poverty, crime and Aids, the nation's one great, indisputable triumph has been the cementing of its political foundations. In the eight years since the most celebrated political prisoner in history became president of all South Africa, black and white, the country has enjoyed - and continues to enjoy - a measure of stability not seen since the arrival of the first white settlers in 1652. - The Independent