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Viva Verwoerd?

Nick Broomfield’s South African documentaries:
“The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife”and “His Big White Self”,
Metronome DVD (Region 2) ©2006 – 

It was the endtimes of a fatuous delusion—the casting of a dream and the narrowing of a nightmare; the sluicing of whites-only beaches and blacks-only townships, and the opening of arms caches on Transvaal sugarcane farms; it was a time of ANC pub bombs, and meetings of obscure Afrikaner insurgents in restaurant basements to chart the overthrow of F.W. de Klerk, and germ attacks on expensive hotels, It was a time when women wore the Black Sash and police informants wore the Necklace; when mobs who could still hear the echoes of Sharpsville paced the streets of Durban; when the Boer extended cordiality to the black with one hand, and lobbed grenades into the township schoolhouse with the other; when many Soweto children believed that if they touched white skin they would melt; when Piet Rudolph’s sudden and mysterious conciliation sharpened the flint of paranoia for the striking of the swart gevaar; when de Klerk’s elite began to sing the swan song of Apartheid, and when changes in rhetoric permeated even the propaganda of the day, which buoyed from onslaught to amnesty; and the whole mealy myth of separate native culture began to suffocate under the cloven hoof of its own bloated ideological apparatus. Against these contradictory social cleavages—the tearing asunder and the forcing together, documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield arrived in South Africa and shot the first of his two documentaries on the subject of its struggle.

But South Africa writ large we do not see. We do not see bright blue sea and red soil of the Cape, or Alan Paton’s Natal, or the karoo of Thomas Hardy. We see only colorless camps and dorps and uniforms of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging through the eyes of its Leader’s mercurial driver, JP Meyer, the driver’s wife, Anita, and occasionally through the eyes of the Leader himself: Eugène Terre’Blanche[1], former bodyguard to H.F. Verwoerd[2], the architect of Apartheid. This triadic perspective was not intentional, nor was it predictable; it was simply the result of Terre’Blanche’s noisy contempt for journalists who did not allow him to run the show.

The film opens with an AWB rally in Ventersdorp during which a supporter rises from his seat and proceeds to knock the camera to the floor. This was observed by JP, who offered to arrange for an interview with the Leader as an apology. Broomfield and crew arrive several times at AWB headquarters in Ventersdorp only to learn the Leader has just left, seemingly to find among Sycorax, Godot, Michael Rubbo’s Castro, and other literary figures who never actually appear. But the Leader does appear. And when finally the real meeting is imminent, Broomfield and crew deliberately linger in the café across the street from the window of the Leader’s office in full view for ten minutes, drinking tea [3]. When the interview commences, the Leader is so spitting mad at this gesture that he loses his composure, beautifully. Thus the documentary becomes a meta-documentary. It was with this film, in fact, that Broomfield codified his characteristic Les Nouvelles Egotistes filmmaking style, which had been born of necessity in Driving Me Crazy. This style, which Broomfield has been unable to shake, has also served influence to Michael Moore.

Broomfield makes no secret of his contempt for Terre’Blanche either in the film or in print. In an interview with Jason Wood he said, “I wanted to make something that would really puncture his balloon.” Annoying the Leader becomes a sub-thread of the film, which otherwise opens from its simple program of interviewing a thundering extremist into an incredulous ethnography of the lost generation of Afrikaners who all on some level knew the end was nigh. Serving as embodiments of this generation are JP and Anita, who live a life of suburban Euro-normalcy by day and high explosives funneling for Piet Rudolph and others by night. JP is an immanently likeable fellow even as he threatens racial violence—perhaps because you get the idea he doesn’t really mean it. There is something stand-up about his reluctance to stand up. Like many South Africans of the day, JP stood in a corner, his Bible in one hand, his pistol in the other, and toward him he sees the shadows of Communism, black militancy and white acquiescence approaching. “Through JP I really came to understand how fascism and its supporters came about in Nazi Germany,” says Broomfield. “It was people who had a lack of self-identity and a lack of sense of self who went for an extreme ideology at a time when they needed some kind of certainty.”

Though this swollen moment in South African history represents an important turning point, the fashioning of the Afrikaner identity is a complex and still contested issue whose central themes are the Great Trek of the 1830’s and the near mythical Battle of Blood River [4]. The objects of a further century of discrimination by the British, the Afrikaner moment of mastery came again in 1948, the year the National Party came to power and gave birth to Apartheid. Oom Paul’s peoples’ self confidence soared to impossible heights, in their pluck to conflate baaskap with natural law and their eventual quest for a nuclear weapon. Yet by the 1960s they had ventured into what Douglas Brown called “the cul-de-sac of their racial policy” and by the 1990s something had gone terribly wrong: nothing delivers an apologia to Spengler quite like the party scene in which we find the Ventersdorp upper crust dancing effetely to the strains of a bizarre cover band playing phonetically learned Bruce Springsteen songs.

In the years between The Leader and its sequel, His Big White Self, many things came to pass. The coffin of Apartheid was nailed and only the fumes of its corpse still reek in the platteland—this when the smell of gunsmoke from Johannesburg does not cover it up. The AWB, though it never succeeded in fomenting its promised race war, its supporters did commit several acts most desperate: in June 1993 it crashed an armored vehicle through the glass of the Kempton Park World Trade Center where the ANC and National Party were discussing the dissolution of Apartheid. In March 1994 they invaded Bophuthatswana and picked off a number of civilians before being picked off themselves. The Leader served three years in prison for assaulting a black petrol station worker and attempted murder of another man (crimes of which he staunchly has maintained he is innocent). JP and Anita were divorced and living separate lives, the former as an ambulance driver utterly disillusioned with both the black majority government and the AWB, and Anita as a nurse in a desegregated hospital. Broomfield, during the twelve years that separate his two South African documentaries, received numerous death threats from shadowy unknowns using suspiciously Afrikaner schwa-vowels (Broomfield for a time suspected it was JP). In spite of this, he returned to Ventersdorp in 2005 to see what had become of everyone.

He found an older and wearier though no less dramatic and driven Terre’Blanche, to whose home he gains access incognito. The Leader, twelve years and one prison term older, seems transformed from the figure he cut of Ezra Pound’s Mussolini into a post-Fiume Gabriele d’Annunzio. According to a fellow inmate he had gotten along very well in prison, in spite of being one of only three whites. It was reported he had been born again and that he even called on several black friends around town; a man still very much given to rhetoric, yet more subdued and more realistic; more invested in his poetry than in the ongoing AWB tragicomic opera.

It seems nearly ironic then that Terre’Blanche would be hacked to death in his farmhouse bedroom on April 3rd 2010, the day before Easter, by two black farm workers, allegedly over a wage dispute. Yet his killers left him with his pants pulled down to his knees—an oldtime anti-Boer move made much of in the press. Without him the AWB lurches on, fully defanged and slightly defiant, still maintaining an Afrikaans-language website which sells khaki paramilitary uniforms, bronze busts of the Leader, and a DVD of his funeral. According to the new Leader, Steyn van Ronge, the mission of the movement is now to implement a security plan to keep farmers safe. Indeed, there exists the very real danger of Mugabe-styled land appropriation and ethnic erasure. What will become of the Boers in the 21st century? No doubt their children will be educated in the way of their folk heroes, exogamy will remain verboten, and all the important elements of cultural durability will remain. Perhaps like the Mennonites of Belize, or the Greeks of the DR Congo, or the German farmers of Kyrgyzstan, they will endure culturally, but fade historically. But as to the famous words of Prime Minister Verwoerd, “We will see to it that we remain in power in this white South Africa”, it seems only fair to rejoin with the words of Stephen Biko, “It is better to die for an idea that will live than to live for an idea that will die”. In the end Terre’Blanche did neither.

[1] In fact his real name, not a nom du prophète.

[2] Evidently not a particularly successful one, as Prime Minister Verwoerd was assassinated on September 6th, 1966 in the lobby of the House of Assembly of South Africa by a parliamentary messenger named Dimitri Tsafendas; this following a nearly successful attempt six years before at the Union Exposition on the Witwatersrand.

[3] An added taunt, inasmuch as tea is a British institution, and is never taken by Afrikaners.

[4] In 1979 Terre’Blanche and several other AWB supporters tarred and feathered University of South Africa history Professor Floors Van Jaarsveld for daring to suggest there had been no divine intervention at Blood River.

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