ET, AWB and Ventersdorp. If you didn’t know anything about those names before, you probably do by now.

Saturday, 3 April 2010, 22:50. Eyewitness News sends out a breaking news SMS report. “AWB leader Eugène Terre’Blanche has been murdered on his farm.” Facebook and Twitter light up with confusion, concern and debate and the Sunday newspapers splash his face across their front pages. 

 What is all the hype about? Who was Eugène Terre’Blanche? What is so significant about his death? What does AWB stand for? And where on earth is Ventersdorp?

As founder and leader of the Afrikaner Weerstandbeweging or Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB), Terre’Blanche was known as an Afrikaner nationalist and a proud Boer. He held onto the nationalist views of white supremacy, the ideology of the “volk” and fantasies of a white preservation long after apartheid ended and up until the day of his death. With his deep, husky voice, this remarkable orator could read an accounting textbook to a crowd and make it sound explosive with his undeniable charismatic talent. In comparison with FW de Klerk, last president of apartheid South Africa, Terre’Blanche was a political entertainer who stirred emotion at public gatherings with his far-right-wing views. This was often accompanied by dramatic gestures as well as dramatic silences over echoing microphones.  Where did it all begin for Terre’Blanche?

In a Heidelberg garage in 1973 Terre’Blanche and six others began brewing the AWB. Its “Three Sevens” emblem, with its striking resemblance to the Nazi Swastika, was constructed to reflect the seven Calvinistic founding members of the organisation and to contrast with the satanic meaning associated with “666”.

From there, Terre’Blanche led the AWB to both succeed and fail embarrassingly at stirring up South African politics. In 1979 they publically smeared Afrikaner academic, Prof. Floors van Jaarsveld, with tar and feathers after he suggested that there was no divine intervention on the side of the relatively small group of Boers against a Zulu army in the1838 Battle of Blood River. Blood was shed at the hand of the AWB in the early 1990s as they resisted a move toward a reformed and apartheid-free South Africa. This was marked by events such as their violent protest against De Klerk’s 1991 public gathering in Ventersdorp in the now North West Province. Later, in 1993, Terre’Blanche led his militaristic organisation in terrorising conciliatory talks between De Klerk and Nelson Mandela at the World Trade Centre in Kempton Park. Famous visuals show a beige, army-like armoured vehicle ramming the gates and doors of the building. He also threatened civil war if apartheid was abolished and the ANC was brought to power.

 The greatest of their terrorist attacks were those launched on blacks in the Bophuthatswana homeland and the bombing of public buildings just before the 1994 democratic elections. Terre’Blanche’s AWB suffered international humiliation as the media distributed visuals of three khaki-clad, bearded members shot dead by a Bophuthatswana policeman.

Although the Truth and Reconciliation Commission granted Terre’Blanche amnesty for his terrorist activities, he was sent to jail in 2001 for violently assaulting two black men on separate occasions. After his early release in 2004, he declared himself a nationalist, not a racist, and disappeared from the political scene. Four years later, a wounded AWB rose again with empty threats on the new government. This formed the backdrop of the complex political situation surrounding Terre’Blanche’s death today. 

In the Sunday Times of 11 April 2010, columnist Anton Ferreira described Terre’Blanche’s murder as “the most fitting way to bring down the curtain on a tragicomic life that was long on theatrics but short on substance.”

The question remains whether Terre’Blanche and the AWB had a positive or negative influence on South African politics.

UP ANC Youth League Chairperson, Mehlulu Nhlengethwa, says that he only found out about the AWB through recent events. He says, “I would want to believe that they are contributing positively to South African politics.”

Chairperson of the DA Youth for Gauteng North, Cilliers Brink, says that although the AWB has stirred up politics recently, he does not think that they have the “power to disrupt our constitutional order … I don’t think it has the potential to take us back to the 80s.”

 Is there a place for nationalism in democracy?

Nhlengethwa says that with social transformation, cultural groups should be integrated. Brink believes that freedom of choice should be respected when individuals form their identity. “If nationalism comes from an authoritarian source, where individuals have no choice, that’s bad.”

Even as a controversial right-wing supporter of segregation and prejudice, Terre’Blanche has undeniably caused a nation to reflect on the nature of democracy as it currently stands in South Africa. The death of one man has also questioned the nature of the futures of 48 million citizens. Perhaps in between all the drama he lived and died with, this is what should be emphasised in ET’s legacy.

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