Thursday, September 13, 2012

Smaller than Life

There seems to be some confusion about the meaning of “larger than life”.  The free dictionary suggests: "Very impressive or imposing: 'This is a person of surpassing integrity; a man of the utmost sincerity; somewhat larger than life' (Joyce Carol Oates)", while English Forums give Winston Churchill as an example, noting his diminutive size.  On the other hand the McGraw-Hill dictionary of American phrases and verbs offers: "[someone] having an aura of greatness, perhaps not supported by the real person".  And that’s pretty much the opposite.  Let’s go with the majority and the Winston Churchill model, and use "smaller than life" for the McGraw Hill situation.

So this post is about someone much smaller than life, whose racist philosophies and impassioned speeches did much damage in South Africa, and could have sparked chaos if things had gone differently.  He was murdered on his farm in 2010, setting off a wave of protest amid justified concern about white farmers being murdered by gangs with little police action.  But the facts turned out to be different, and when recently his murderers were sentenced, the last untainted vestiges of his aura disappeared. 
ET with the AWB banner.
Any similarity to a swastika is purely coincidental, of course.
Eugène Terre'Blanche was born in 1941.  Curiously, his name means White Land in French, and he was a staunch supporter of that philosophy all his life.  He was scathing of what he called the left wing policies of the National Party (the ruling party of the Apartheid era) and, after a brief flirtation with formal party politics, he founded the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (Afrikaner Resistance Movement) or AWB.  I imagine that it is difficult for people outside South Africa to visualize something to the right of the government of that day, but it was there all right.
When FW De Klerk negotiated with Nelson Mandela, Terre'Blanche called it a complete surrender to Communism and threatened a full scale rebellion.  A public meeting addressed by De Klerk in Terre'Blanche’s home town turned into a riot and a number of people were killed.  Terre'Blanche in larger than life guise claimed that only his personal intervention between incensed Afrikaaners and the police had saved the day, and that De Klerk had deliberately provoked the riot for political gain.  There is no evidence of anything of the sort.
Later Terre'Blanche led his loyal followers to “save” Bophuthatswana from being taken over by the rampant African National Congress of Nelson Mandela.  (Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of that country; very few people outside South Africa had, it was recognized by no other country, and it no longer exists.)  Once more this led to a riot in which people were killed - mainly AWB members shot by the local police - and any initial enthusiasm that the Bophuthatswana authorities had for being “rescued” by the AWB quickly disappeared.
 In fact, Terre'Blanche was something of a buffoon.  Leading his men into battle as in the old Afrikaaner commandoes, he fell off his horse.  His personal life was celebrated by paparazzi.  His views and behaviours were often so odd that he was dismissively referred to as ET (as in 'call home').  But he was dangerous when faced with opposition weaker than himself.  He was convicted in 2001 for assault and attempted murder when he beat up a black gas station attendant and a security guard.  He was sentenced to six years while his followers howled about how he’d been framed.  He claimed to have found God during his time in prison, modified his most extreme views, and was released after three years.  After that he retired to relative obscurity on his farm. There, in April 2010, he was set upon and beaten and hacked to death.  There was a huge outcry that this was part of an orchestrated scenario to drive white farmers off their land a la Zimbabwe.
In fact, two of his own farm workers were arrested and convicted.  The claim was that a wage dispute led to the fight.  However, at their trial, the two black men claimed abominable treatment including sexual attacks by Terre'Blanche, and at sentencing one of the men put forward being HIV positive as a result of these rapes as an extenuating circumstance.  Of course, no one will ever be able to determine if this was true or not, and it cut little weight with the judge.
So here was a man much smaller than life.  Quoted in the press, followed like a celebrity, a leader feared by the right and the left, yet in the end nothing more than a schoolyard bully.  Why even bother to write about him?  Because it seems to me that many smaller than lifers are abroad these days and projecting tall shadows.  Take a look around.

Michael - Thursday


  1. The great writer James McClure wrote a fascinating stand-alone thriller, Rogue Eagle (1976), which had a group of White South Africans, who formed a gang based in Lesotho, try and overthrow the right-wing apartheid National Party government because it was not right enough.

  2. When I read about people like Terre'Blanche and the fact that he had followers, it makes me wonder if the earth isn't an insane asylum for another planet. I must be terribly naive, but I just can't imagine the inner working of mind like his is anything remotely approaching that of a normal person. It had to have come out of a jar labeled"abnormal."

  3. I'm so glad you wrote this, Stan. As you well know, racist parties are coming at democracies everywhere these days, creating situations no reasonable thinking person would contemplate as conceivable political action in this day and age. But unless people who care stand firm at unmasking them for what they are, the horrors could happen again...and again.

  4. Thanks for the comments everyone. The problem with "abnormal" is that it is often in the eye of the beholder. Even after the Bophuthatswana disaster - with AWB members shot and killed - Terreblanche was still regarded as a hero by most followers. And, yes, Jeff, you are right. I was thinking of Greece (as well as other places) at the end there...

  5. Great post - only tangentially related Stan, but I've just read Peter Oborne's book on Basil D'Oliveira and the whole affair. I can heartily recommend it if you've not read it.