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HEIDELBERG, South Africa — Thirty miles away, tens of thousands of South Africans and leaders from around the world were lauding the life of Nelson Mandela. But this town of 35,000 is on the edge of the platteland, the countryside, where flat land and farms eventually give way to the urban landscape of Johannesburg.
The language of Afrikaans, not English, dominates public life here, and the streets are named after former apartheid leaders such as D.F. Malan and the “architect of apartheid” himself, Hendrik Verwoerd. The one thoroughfare with stoplights, Voortrekker Road, is named after the Dutch-speaking settlers who rejected British rule in the mid-19th century and headed inland into South Africa. They later became known as the Afrikaners.
Here the reaction to the death of Mandela is not as unified as the one in the stadium, where crowds cheered U.S. President Barack Obama as he exhorted those listening, "We, too, must act on behalf of justice. We, too, must act on behalf of peace.''
Instead, local Nic Grobler pounded his table at a popular chain restaurant and demanded his bill, calling his waitress “ousie” — a demeaning word for a black woman.
“Mandela was a murderer, Mandela was a terrorist,” he said through a translator. “I'm not going to shed one tear for Mandela.”
Heidelberg is the birthplace of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, better known as the AWB, a far-right separatist group that opposed the country's transition into nonracial democracy. It is home to many Afrikaners who have rejected the “new South Africa” and the olive branch of reconciliation extended by Mandela.
Mandela is widely loved in the country he guided into democracy with his message of forgiveness and reconciliation. But among many Afrikaners — the white descendants of the Dutch and French Huguenots who settled in South Africa and dominated it during apartheid — his legacy is more fraught.
Shots and jokes
Grobler said he has avoided news broadcasts because he does not want to hear praise for Mandela.
“I've been listening to CDs in my car for the past three days because I don't want to put on the radio,” he said.
In the Heidelberg Club, a group of construction workers laughed, did shots of tequila and Worcestershire sauce, and drank brandy and Coca-Cola. Over at the stadium the rain was considered a blessing, but for these men it meant they were kept from their work site. At noon they were drunk, and several of them propositioned the first female customer in the bar.
When one man was asked what he thought Mandela did for Afrikaners, he turned to a friend and said: “He wants to know what Mandela did for us.”
His friend responded: “Us?”
“Fokol” (nothing), the friend replied.
Another construction worker, Pierre Pretorious, couldn't have had less regard for Mandela and was contemptuous of the outpouring of respect following his death.
“Mandela died in a car accident, that's how I understand it,” he joked.
“He was involved in bombs and all this stuff. He was a terrorist, but now he's the icon of the flippin' world.”
Pretorious expressed sadness only at one aspect of Mandela's passing: a belief that with his death, blacks will begin killing whites in South Africa.
“It's sad because now the white South Africans are afraid of black South Africans, Zimbabweans, Mozambicans, Nigerians ...”
Pretorious was expressing a long-held belief among some Afrikaners, particularly a fringe organization known as Suidlanders, of "Uhuru,'' or "the night of long knives,” when blacks will kill whites in South Africa following the death of Mandela.
'Hold his name high!'
This belief, however, is a minority one among the Afrikaner community — one that local Afrikaner businessman Flip Minnaar has only two words for: "It's crazy!''
“Where have these people been for the past 15 years?” he asked.
Minnaar had high praise for Mandela and — unusually for many Afrikaners interviewed — called the former president by his clan name, Madiba.
He said far-right Afrikaners were unsure of their place in the new South Africa.
“These people are afraid,” Minnaar said. “They are trying to live in another world. They shame a nation.”
He said that many Afrikaners in Heidelberg were listening to the memorial at home and that some had made repeated visits to the vigil outside the late president’s home in Johannesburg. In Minnaar's own office, the memorial was playing on the radio.
“I know of people, I'm talking about my people, white people, who are watching it in their homes,” he said.
Afrikaner life in Heidelberg is sharply divided between the haves and have-nots, with the poor and white neighborhood of Rensburg literally on the wrong side of the tracks, away from the rest of the town.
Inside a dark and dingy sports bar, a handful of locals drank cheap, strong quarts of beer.
Bartender Helene said life was better when Mandela was president, with more law and order and more services for black South Africans. She said he was loved because he was a good leader for “them.”
When asked if Mandela was also a good leader for Afrikaners, she paused and then answered with a thoughtful but firm “Yes.”
“When Mandela was president, the blacks and the whites were equal. They all stood together,” she said.
Behind the worn bar was a television playing Afrikaans music videos. Helene and a customer said they would have watched the memorial, but other patrons from the neighborhood wouldn't have liked it.
“Some say it's bad and don't want to look at it,” she said.
A few moments later, she followed a visitor out the door to remind him: “Madiba! Please hold his name up high!”