Chris Mahlangu, a farmhand, received a life sentence on Wednesday in the killing of Eugène Terre’Blanche, a white supremacist.
By LYDIA POLGREEN
August 22, 2012
JOHANNESBURG — When a leading white supremacist was found bludgeoned to death in his bed on his farm outside Johannesburg in April 2010, the Rainbow Nation shuddered.
The death of Eugène Terre’Blanche, the leader of the militant white separatist group known as the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, seemed an ominous sign that the era of racial harmony that began in 1994 with the end of apartheid and the beginning of nonracial democracy was in peril.
But when a farmhand was sentenced on Wednesday to life in prison for murdering Mr. Terre’Blanche, his death seemed a symbol of a problem that may be more intractable than racial disharmony: the stubborn economic inequality of post-apartheid South Africa and the violent rage that it engenders.
Race, concluded a court in Ventersdorp, 80 miles west of here, had nothing to do with the killing. Chris Mahlangu, a young black man who worked on Mr. Terre’Blanche’s farm, killed him in a dispute over wages.
Mr. Terre’Blanche, a barrel-chested man with a bushy beard and a penchant for Nazi-style salutes, had led the flagrantly racist separatist group, more commonly known by its Afrikaans initials, A.W.B., for decades. He was famous for his dramatic flair: he liked to arrive at rallies astride a stallion, and his organization’s emblem looked more than a little like a swastika. But his militant group generated more light than heat.
Its attempt to take over the black homeland of Bophuthatswana just before the elections in 1994 that brought Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress to power ended in humiliating defeat. Three members of the A.W.B. were shot and killed in front of television cameras by a black police officer.
Mr. Terre’Blanche was later sentenced to six years in prison for assaulting a black worker, and in the years before his death he had sunken into relative obscurity, as has much of the racist right wing in South Africa.
His killing, which took place just months before South Africa hosted the World Cup soccer tournament, raised fears that long-dormant racial tensions would be reignited. It came as the firebrand leader of the African National Congress Youth League, Julius Malema, was reviving the anti-apartheid struggle anthem “Shoot the Boer.” Boer is an Afrikaans word meaning farmer.
But those fears amounted to little. The government rushed to investigate the case thoroughly, eager to dispel any notion that it took lightly the killing of one of its citizens, even one opposed to majority rule. Right-wing threats to avenge his killing failed to produce the promised violence.
Since then Mr. Malema has also met his comeuppance: he was expelled from the African National Congress this year for sowing divisions within the party. He has struggled since then to revive his political fortunes.
Mr. Mahlangu claimed that he had killed Mr. Terre’Blanche in self-defense when the two got into a tussle over wages. But the court rejected that defense. A teenager who had broken into Mr. Terre’Blanche’s house with Mr. Mahlangu was convicted on a burglary charge.
Tension and violence over deepening inequality and the slow pace of economic redistribution have weighed heavily on South Africa. Last week, the police opened fire on thousands of machete-wielding miners engaged in a wildcat strike who had demanded that their wages be tripled. Thirty-four of them were killed. The miners had hacked to death two police officers and two security guards in the days before the police shooting. A report by the World Bank released last month said that inequality and joblessness posed a serious threat to South Africa’s stability.
A version of this article appeared in print on August 23, 2012, on page A11 of the New York edition with the headline: A Murder Sentence Underlines South African Inequality.