Skip to main content

Former President Nelson Mandela and Orania Movement founder Carel Boshoff, right, inspect a statue of Apartheid prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd, during a visit to Orania, in this file photo taken August 15, 1995. While the death of anti-apartheid leader Mandela triggered an outpouring of shared sorrow across South Africa's sometimes tense racial divide, eyes stayed dry in the white Afrikaner enclave in the heart of the country. But even in Orania, where a small community of Afrikaners has closed itself off, intent on preserving its culture and language at all cost, the global icon who preached a contrasting ideology of racial integration commands respect.JUDA NGWENYA/Reuters

Mention the name of Nelson Mandela in this small mining town, and many whites just grimace and stalk away angrily. "I'm unemployed," said one middle-aged man, brushing past a visitor on the sidewalk and refusing to talk. "He's done nothing for me."

Yet if you talk to others on the shabby streets of the largely Afrikaner town, you find people who are quietly grateful to Mr. Mandela. Some look back at their former racial beliefs and shake their heads, wondering how they could have supported the apartheid system and the long imprisonment of the man who became their first democratically elected president.

"The thing that we did was wrong," said Thys Redelinghuys, a 66-year-old retired mining engine driver, talking slowly and thoughtfully on a street corner on Monday. "And when he came out of prison – he made us all free."

While this week's memorial events for Mr. Mandela have provoked an outpouring of pride and emotion from most South Africans, some of apartheid's beneficiaries are still bitter at the loss of their social privileges and their guaranteed jobs. Both sides of this divide can be found in hardscrabble Afrikaner towns such as Fochville, about an hour's drive south of Johannesburg.

The Afrikaners, descendants of European settlers, were the political rulers of South Africa under apartheid. Today many feel marginalized and economically vulnerable, blaming their plight on Mr. Mandela's party and its affirmative action policies for blacks. These are the people who have little interest in the huge Mandela memorials at stadiums and government buildings across South Africa this week.

Mr. Redelinghuys says he felt a terrible sadness when he heard that Mr. Mandela had died last week. He prayed for the Mandela family at two services at his church in Fochville on Sunday. But he also understands the rage that many Afrikaners feel towards Mr. Mandela's ruling party. "If you're white, you don't get jobs," he said.

"We're all very angry about it. That's why all the young South Africans are all overseas, all over the world, Canada, the United States – everybody is going out, because there are no jobs."

Under apartheid, he said, most Afrikaners believed the propaganda claim that Mr. Mandela was a terrorist. "The apartheid system – they worked with your brain. People would say, 'They are black, you are white.' All of the whites believed it. The old people still believe in apartheid. They don't care if Mandela dies."

Among most Afrikaners, he said, the beliefs finally began to change in 1990 when Mr. Mandela emerged from 27 years in jail. He didn't resemble the "terrorist" that they feared. "There was something different in him. He made every one of us free."

After becoming president in 1994, Mr. Mandela worked tirelessly towards reconciliation with the Afrikaners, speaking their language and attending their rugby championships. He even made the ultimate gesture of reconciliation: he sat down for a friendly cup of tea with the widow of former prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid.

Yet a small minority of white South Africans cling to their prejudices. More than 20 per cent of whites still deny that apartheid oppressed the black majority, according to a survey by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

Among some whites, a myth has arisen: the death of Mr. Mandela would trigger a "night of the long knives" – a mass slaughter of whites as blacks took revenge. It's a myth that everyone in Fochville has heard, and is often spread on Facebook and other websites.

"A lot of South Africans are scared that there could be a mess when Mandela dies, that there will be a war, black against white," said Belinda Van Rhyn, a 45-year-old clerk at home security company in Fochville. "They're saying that our guys must watch out for the black guys. But I think it's nonsense. I don't believe that."

The past five days have been entirely peaceful, disproving the myth. And people like Ms. Van Rhyn say that Mr. Mandela has helped erase the colour barriers. She recalls how her son made friends with blacks at school and told her about his new friends without even mentioning their race. "From 1994, I don't think people see colour any more," she said. "Nelson Mandela put us together as a rainbow nation."