Constand Viljoen: On the Afrikaner Right the Divergent Political Paths of Twin Afrikaner Brothers Reveal the Forces Pulling at South Africa as the End of White Rule Approaches

By John Battersby, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 28, 1993 | Go to article overview

Constand Viljoen: On the Afrikaner Right the Divergent Political Paths of Twin Afrikaner Brothers Reveal the Forces Pulling at South Africa as the End of White Rule Approaches


John Battersby, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


GEN. Constand Viljoen, the retired defense chief who left his cattle ranch six months ago to mobilize Dutch-descended Afrikaners fearful of majority rule, is seen by his growing band of followers as more than a political leader.

General Viljoen (pronounced `VIL-yoon') stepped into a dangerous political vacuum in May following the sudden death in April of Conservative Party leader Andries Treurnicht. Mr. Treurnicht's death had left an already fragmented Afrikaner people in deeper confusion.

The assassination two weeks earlier of populist black leader Chris Hani unleashed a wave of black anger that prompted a spontaneous mobilization of right-wing power - in disarray since March 1992, when reformists defeated the right in a whites-only national referendum.

This past spring, a committee of former South African Defense Force generals formed the Afrikaner Volksfront (Afrikaner People's Front, AVF) and persuaded Viljoen to be its leader.

Since he hesitantly accepted the leadership of AVF, an umbrella organization uniting a plethora of white right-wing groups - Viljoen has emerged as a moral authority in Afrikaner politics.

He has quickly sidelined more radical conservative leaders. According to some recent public opinion polls, the Volksfront now commands more support among Afrikaners than President Frederik de Klerk's ruling National Party.

"The phenomenal growth of the Volksfront under Viljoen has very serious implications for De Klerk," says Wim Booyse, a political risk analyst who specializes in right-wing groups. "It has greatly increased the pressure on him to accommodate the right-wing."

Viljoen's supporters see him in the mold of the Boer generals of old who committed themselves to fight to the finish against the British in the Boer War of 1899 to 1902, a struggle that ended with the Boers' surrender.

His calloused and soil-engrained hands testify to his love of the earth and add credence to the image he cultivates of a reluctant politician.

Some of Viljoen's adversaries are beginning to see him more in the role of South African statesman Jan Smuts who, although an Afrikaner, identified with a broader South Africanism and was one of the founders of the League of Nations.

General Smuts, who died in 1950 - two years after the National Party came to power - was disliked by militant Afrikaner nationalists.

"Smuts was a wonderful man, but he was more interested in the world than in his own people," says Viljoen, a soft-spoken man with silver-gray hair, steel-blue eyes, and a disarming humility. "I am more oriented toward my own people than toward the world."

Ironically, Viljoen grew up in a strongly pro-Smuts household.

According to his twin brother Abraham (See accompanying story), their father, Andries Viljoen, turned his back on politics when Smuts struck a compromise with the more conservative National Party leader, Gen. J.B.M. Herzog, in 1934 to form the South African Party.

It was only when Smuts and Herzog broke over the war issue in 1939 that Andries Viljoen's interest in politics was revived. (Herzog wanted to remain neutral in World War II.)

Constand Viljoen's profile has skyrocketed recently as a result of the news that he had a clandestine meeting with African national Congress President Nelson Mandela in mid-August and subsequently led a right-wing delegation in a series of secret talks with the ANC about the Afrikaner demand for a volkstaat (people's state), or homeland for Afrikaners.

The theme of the talks was to find a formula under which right-wing parties could take part in the country's first democratic ballot on April 27, 1994, in exchange for a guarantee that Afrikaners will get a separate territory after the election.

A backlash against the talks within the ranks of his group forced Viljoen temporarily to suspend the contact and join a broader coalition of white right-wing parties and conservative black leaders known as the Freedom Alliance (FA).

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