Back in the waning days of Apartheid, Eugene Terre'blanche was the bearded white power face of the militant right wing in South Africa. With a name whose Huguenot origin translates as "White Earth", how could he not be?
I remember watching images of him and his boer commando riding in on their horses prior to the so called "Battle of Ventersdorp" in 1991. They were beefy men in bush hats and khaki camouflage, emblazoned at the shoulder with the three armed emblem of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB), a blunt knock off of its near relative the swastika.
Terre'blanche and the AWB remained militant during the years since South African independence. In 2001 he was convicted of attempted murder of a black security guard and served three years in prison. After his release, he revived the AWB and announced plans to apply to the UN to form a breakaway Afrikaner republic.
A violent man, a fascist anachronism in the New South Africa, he met a violent end last Saturday, reportedly at the hands of two of his black farm workers in a dispute over wages. A predictable death, perhaps, but a martyrdom that South Africa does not need.
Racial tensions were already elevated after the leader of the ANC youth league publicly sang an old resistance song with the lyrics "Dubula amabhunu baya raypha", which in Zulu means "Shoot the boers, they are rapists.", although South Africa's Human Rights Commission has ruled the song hate speech. Concerns about the country's high crime rate are already a challenge in advance of the World Cup which South Africa will host in a few months time. And President Jacob Zuma , who has appealed for calm, himself lacks credibility. He sang the ANC song "Bring me my machine gun" to supporters during his trial for rape in 2005. The court found him not guilty, declaring it was consensual sex, and the woman involved was subsequently granted asylum in the Netherlands. Mandela, he is decidedly not.
A CNN story puts it this way:
For many here, the atmosphere now smacks of those scary, dark days before South Africans voted for a new democratic South Africa in 1994 -- when the white man and the black man were so suspicious of each other that many thought this country's transition to democracy would be violent and bloody.
But South Africans were led out of the twisted spectre of racial hatred by Nelson Mandela -- whose leadership and calm management prevented a potentially explosive conflict.
Mandela is now an old man, who cannot be expected to quell another rising tide of hatred and it is now left to a new generation of South African leaders to heed the lessons which he taught them 16 years ago.
But the bonds of nationhood that Mandela strived to build are still fragile and many in South Africa fear that Terreblanche could be even more divisive in death than he was in life -- and tear apart a nation still struggling to let go of the past.
I sincerely hope not. But I would look for some gesture from Mandela in the coming days, particularly if things do not settle down. Old habits die hard, for good or ill.