Page last updated at 12:28 GMT, Sunday, 4 April 2010 13:28 UK

Demagogue who tried to turn back apartheid clock

Eugene Terreblanche in June 2004
As a published poet and former actor, Terreblanche was a gifted public speaker

By Peter Burdin
BBC News, Johannesburg

The white supremacist leader Eugene Terreblanche, who was murdered on Saturday, was a controversial figure in South African politics for many years.

In the years before Nelson Mandela won the country's first democratic elections in 1994, Terreblanche and his paramilitary AWB movement vowed to bring war in South Africa, rather than accept majority rule.

I remember reporting on an AWB rally at Union Buildings in Pretoria a year before the elections when Terreblanche told thousands of supporters: "If the ANC wants war, we shall give them war my friends."

And his threats took on an even more sinister tone when a few weeks later his black-shirted elite guard smashed an armoured vehicle into the World Trade Centre in Johannesburg, where the negotiations to forge a democratic South Africa were taking place.

Punching and slapping

That day we watched as Terreblanche's forces brought the talks to a standstill.

Friend of Terreblanche gather near Ventersdrop on 4 April 2010
Relatives, friends and followers paid their respects at Terreblanche's home

Hundreds of armed AWB members clad in their military fatigues forced their way into the building.

They strode into the negotiating chambers, before punching and slapping delegates.

Key negotiators had to hide in locked offices as Terreblanche and his men vowed that they would halt the talks by force if necessary.

The AWB - Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (Afrikaner Resistance Movement) - had already shown it had a propensity for violence.

In 1991, it fought gun battles with the police at Potchefstroom to show their opposition to the National Party's plans to start the negotiating process with the ANC.

Formidable speaker

And in Terreblanche, the AWB had found a leader who could appeal to right-wing Afrikaners' deepest fears and galvanise them into a fighting force which believed it could halt the end of the apartheid system and create a white Afrikaner homeland.

I watched Terreblanche speak on several occasions and there's no doubt that he was a formidable public speaker.

1941: Born on farm in Transvaal town of Ventersdorp
1973: Co-founds AWB to protect rights of Boers' descendants
1993: AWB vehicle smashes into World Trade Centre in Jo'burg during talks to end apartheid
1994: AWB invades tribal homeland of Bophuthatswana and is defeated; three AWB men die
1998: Accepts moral blame for 1994 bombings that killed 21
2001: Jailed for attempted murder of farm-worker
2004: Released from prison

With his rich bass voice and total command of the Afrikaans language he had the ability to whip up a crowd and inspire them to follow him.

A published poet and former actor, his use of language was a key element in his leadership of the right-wing movement.

He attempted to strike a romantic pose as a leader and would ride wearing full military regalia on a large white charger in front of his supporters.

At one such rally his horse reared up and threw him to the ground, bringing ridicule to his bravado as a military leader.

He was a showman, but commentators in South Africa were never quite sure how seriously to take him.

Amid the military pomp and the fiery speeches threatening war and the abyss there was always something of the buffoon about him, an element of the comic dictator straight out of central casting.

To those of us covering the South African transition to democracy at the time, the threat of a civil war seemed real enough.

But it was in the violent political rivalry between the ANC and Chief Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party where our real fears lay.

Invasion farce

The threats of Terreblanche to go to war always seemed a violent sideshow, the frightening sting in the tail of a moribund old order, rather than a genuine barrier to the ultimate arrival of democracy.


The contradiction between military leader and comic figure was highlighted just before the 1994 democratic elections in South Africa.

Terreblanche ordered his supporters into the old homeland of Bophuthatswana to help crush street protests.

It was billed as the first step towards carving out a territory to create a white Afrikaner homeland.

But it turned into a farce.

Far from entering the capital Mafikeng as a disciplined military force, Terreblanche's men arrived looking bewildered and confused in a succession of trucks and farm vehicles.

They didn't seem to have proper orders and just hung around waiting for direction.

It ended in tragedy when one of the vehicles crashed and three AWB fighters were cut off from their colleagues and shot dead as they lay on the ground pleading for help.

The AWB continued its campaign to disrupt the march to democracy.

During the 1994 elections three bombs went off in and around Johannesburg.

But Terreblanche's threats proved empty, as South Africans turned out in their millions to vote in their country's first democratic polls.

I recall one old black voter that day telling us: "We've waited 300 years for this day and no AWB bombs are going to stop us voting now."

In recent years Terreblanche had lived in relative obscurity, but in 2008 he attempted to revive the AWB movement.

To the end he was declaring to his supporters that white Afrikaners should create their own country.

Always the master of the grand political gesture, he said that was a fight he'd take to the International Court at The Hague.

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