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The Sentencing of a Killer and Odd Progress in South Africa

The Sentencing of a Killer and Odd Progress in South Africa

[Eugene Terre’Blanche against the backdrop of an AWB flag, From The Guardian via Google Images]

I hope you will all forgive my recent break from blogging. But I am back and plan to resume regular posting starting now.

Obviously a great deal has transpired across the continent in recent weeks. And nowhere has seen fissures split wider than in South Africa (a post on the ramifications of the mining strike will follow). One of the stories that caught my eye and that connects the country’s tortured past with its still sometimes troubled presence was the sentencing of the killer of Eugene Terre’Blanche.

Terre’Blanche was a fascinating but repulsive figure. The leader of the far-right paramilitary Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB — Afrikaner Resistance Movement), Terre’Blanche was unrepentant in his continued calls for white supremacy and Afrikaner nationalism. He was known for brutalizing the black farm workers he employed (and some he did not) and continued to call for an all-white state within South Africa if he could not claim the whole. Most of the time Terre’blanche was a clown, but it is easy to forget that he was a clown with a disturbing number of followers who fomented resistance to the CODESA meetings that resulted in the negotiated settlement that ended Apartheid and led to the election of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress.

Millions of South Africans wept no tears when Terre’blanche was killed at his home in 2010. Nonetheless, his killer, Chris Mahlangu, was convicted (along with a young accomplice) and last week was sentenced to life in prison, plus fifteen years. Mahlangu and Terre’Blanche were involved in a pay dispute. Judge John Horn decried the murder, rejected claims of extenuating circumstances, and handed down his sentence. Horn made clear that he did not find the murder to be racially motivated, but AWB members, many of whom had hung Mahlangu in effigy in somewhat alarming imagery given the context, nonetheless celebrated.

There are few easy moral lessons from the death of Terre’Blanche. He was a thug and a bully and a racist. He waved the AWB banner, evocative of the Nazi Swastika, and was a bittereinder who believed in white supremacy and celebrated Apartheid to the last. Except in certain AWB circles he will not be missed and his death was a tragedy in only the narrowest of senses.

Yet the sentencing of Mahlangu is also a good thing. Terre’Blanche was loathsome, but loathsomeness does not justify murder. In the New South Africa the black murderer of perhaps the country’s most notorious racial demagogue will spend the rest of his life in prison. And this qualifies as progress.



Derek Catsam

Derek Catsam is a Professor of history and Kathlyn Cosper Dunagan Professor in the Humanities at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. He is also Senior Research Associate at Rhodes University. Derek writes about race and politics in the United States and Africa, sports, and terrorism. He is currently working on books on bus boycotts in the United States and South Africa in the 1940s and 1950s and on the 1981 South African Springbok rugby team's tour to the US. He is the author of three books, dozens of scholarly articles and reviews, and has published widely on current affairs in African, American, and European publications. He has lived, worked, and travelled extensively throughout southern Africa. He writes about politics, sports, travel, pop culture, and just about anything else that comes to mind.

Areas of Focus:
Africa; Zimbabwe; South Africa; Apartheid