The deadly march of the chosen ones

They plotted to assassinate Mandela and set up a Boer republic that would expel all blacks from Sout

The convoy set off at dawn on a mission from God. Fifteen vehicles loaded with guns and bombs and right-wing nationalists drove south from their farms in the empty north to inflict righteous retribution on Johannesburg and Pretoria, ancient white citadels besmirched by Nelson Mandela and his unholy scheme to transform South Africa into a multiracial democracy. Sodom and Gomorrah were now the right-wingers' names for South Africa's two great cities. And like those Old Testament emblems of vice and corruption, they would have to be made to suffer for their sins.

It wasn't just the Bible that set the example. An Afrikaner visionary, a nationalist hero known as Nicolaas "the Seer" Van Rensburg, had prophesied a hundred years ago that the blacks would one day take over his land, but he urged his people, when the day came, not to abandon hope. Soon all would change back to the way it was. There would be "a night of terror", "a night of the long knives"; a great black leader would be killed. Blacks and whites would go to war and the whites would emerge triumphant, once and for all driving the blacks out of their ancestral lands, towards central Africa, where they rightfully belonged. Van Rensburg, an Afrikaner Nostradamus reputed by his followers to have a direct line to God, envisioned "a bucket of blood falling over the north" - meaning the northern half of South Africa, the part the Boers claim as their exclusive birthright since the Great Trek, the historic land-grab of the 1830s.

The Boers trekking south on the convoy of death, with nearly 900 kilogrammes of explosives, imagined themselves to be the instruments of Van Rensburg's prophecy. They, the Boeremag (Boer Force), were the chosen ones and this was the divine plan that had been revealed to them: they would place bombs at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, ancient seat of white power where President Thabo Mbeki now rules; at the tall office block that is headquarters of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in Johannesburg; at military bases, airports, radio stations and bus termini packed with black people at rush hour - about 20 densely populated targets in all. Then they would assassinate Mandela, the crime of all crimes that would turn blacks against whites and guarantee the prophesied bloodbath. Amid the mayhem, the Boers would seize power, restore the ancient Boer Republic and expel the entire black population, finally succeeding where for 50 years successive apartheid governments had failed.

But early in the morning of 13 September 2002, word reached the convoy, as it sped south, that a large deployment of police - black and white officers working together - was waiting at Pretoria. The Boers scrambled and hurried off in all directions back to their farms, hiding their weaponry where they could. Arrests followed. One group of diehards, led by Johan Pretorius and his three sons, resolved to carry on the good fight. They had gone to a mountain top to make a vow to God that they would enforce his will and there was no going back from that. A series of bomb attacks in Soweto, one on a mosque, one which culminated in the death of a black woman bystander, have been attributed by police to the Pretorius family and accomplices. All have been arrested.

In all, 22 coup plotters are facing a trial that will begin on 26 January. They have all been charged with high treason, terrorism and sabotage - the very same charges Mandela faced in 1963-64, and at the very same court on Church Square, Pretoria (with the very same giant statue of Paul Kruger, the first president of the Boer Republic, looming outside) where Mandela, his best friend, Walter Sisulu, and five others were sentenced to life in prison.

This first attempt at counter-revolution in the nearly ten years since Mandela was elected president never stood the remotest chance of success (though, as one police source told me, they might have killed Mandela had he not changed a planned trip by car to one for a trip by helicopter at the last moment, thus avoiding the road where there was a bomb waiting for him). The sheer madness of the enterprise in a way served to reinforce rather than diminish the perception that South Africa is actually more stable today than at any point since the arrival of the first white settlers from Holland in 1652. South Africa has had its problems since majority rule, notably a rise in crime and shattering statistics on Aids. But in terms of the great strategic objective that Mandela set himself - reconciling blacks and whites in what used to be the most cruelly divided nation on earth - the success has been almost miraculous.

This is in great part because of the extraordinary reluctance of the ANC to demand restitution for apartheid's crimes. While blacks now control government and many blacks are a lot better off than they were before, all whites who were well off before 1994 remain well off today. They have the added blessing of no longer having to endure the guilt of their privileged condition or being treated like pariahs by the rest of the world. And in the case of the Afrikaners, who make up slightly more than half of a white population of six million (out of 45 million in total), their greatest fears have failed to materialise. Their language, far from being banned, is officially recognised, used in the courts as in parliament; their Dutch Reformed Church has endured no persecution; their passion, rugby, has continued to flourish. No wonder that in South Africa's second all-race elections in 1999, at the end of the Mandela presidency, the Afrikaner separatist right-wing party, the Freedom Front, had its already small percentage of the vote in 1994 reduced by half.

"The remarkable thing about these Boeremag guys is that they did what they did, having so much to lose," said one source who has studied each case closely. "They are well-educated men with good jobs in many cases. They make you think of the Saudis with degrees who attacked the World Trade Center. One was a computer scientist, one a university lecturer, another an affluent businessman. There were doctors, engineers, former army colonels, one serving major. It's astonishing. These guys weren't suffering in any real way in the new South Africa."

So what drove them to such extremes? I have talked to several people involved in hunting them down and prosecuting them but cannot quote their names until the trial is over.

"One thing you must bear in mind," said one source, "is that even though, yes, the material circumstances of these people's lives have been fine, they do feel emasculated, in the sense that they used to have total power in this country. Having to share that power does represent for them a loss."

But there is another, simpler psychological explanation. "What we have found," said another source,"is that these are men steeped in the Boer history of military heroism. Yet either they did not fight in the wars of Southern Africa when they were young, or, if they are still young now, they thirst for some of the martial glory of their ancestors. People, in other words, with romantic notions of war and a need to prove their manliness."

"The Seer" Van Rensburg, various sources close to the case agreed, was another major factor. His prophecies, laced with much Old Testament allusion, helped to raise these men's impulses to the stature of a cause, imbued them with what they chose to interpret as the religious and ideological justification for murder. "They would read books on Van Rensburg," explained a source who has tracked their movements closely. "They would gather together and hear lectures and watch videos about him. They would also obtain reading matter on all sorts of conspiracy theorists outside South Africa, people arguing that the world is run by a Jewish cabal, or some sinister group within Nato - that sort of thing. And then they talked and talked about this stuff. There's not much else to do out on the farms up in the north. And then people get big ideas and they get enthusiastic and hatch plans, and then peer pressure comes in: if you don't join, if you are not prepared to participate in God's holy crusade, then you are excluded, you are not a true Boer, you are not fully a man."

I drove up north - along the same road that the convoy had used to travel south - to see for myself the mental world these people inhabited; to try and find out what it was that had moved them to acts of such criminal madness. My destination was Potgietersrus, some 80 miles north of Pretoria, to meet Minnie Pretorius, whose entire family - her husband and her three grown-up sons - is now in jail.

The main road into town is called Thabo Mbeki Drive. But I crossed Hendrik Verwoerd Avenue (after the prime minister usually described as the architect of apartheid), a name that the ten-year-old black city council has not changed. If it hoped, in this way, to reassure the likes of the Pretorius family, it has failed.

"I grew up in a farm. I understand black people," says Minnie Pretorius, repeating something I had heard with tedious predictability from right-wing Afrikaners during the six years I lived in South Africa between 1989 and 1995. "English-speaking white South Africans don't know black culture the way we do. I'll give you an example: when men and women arrive at a door in white culture, it is ladies first; with blacks, it's the opposite. And as my husband always says, we have anticipation, the blacks do not. They do not budget, they do not plan. When they need to drink, they drink; when they need to eat, they eat. That's it. The truth is they are as different from us as our colours are different."

For Minnie Pretorius, who has a degree in maths and psychology from the University of Pretoria, all blacks are primitive. That is her starting point, her basic idea. She plunders further ideas from a whole range of charlatans including not only Van Rensburg but David Icke as well. She talked about the former BBC sports presenter-turned-prophet at length, and with great admiration, during the two hours that we spent together in the medical consulting rooms where her husband and first son used to work. She had studied Icke's videos, she said, and read his books. So had her absent family members. There they had learnt that the world was controlled by a small group known as "The Illuminati". Minnie takes a list out of a drawer and begins to read. "Here we are. This is what David Icke teaches us. These are the people who are creating what they call the one-world order. The Illuminati, this elite group running the world, includes the Freemasons, the Bilderberg Group, the Council on Foreign Relations, Jihad . . ." Jihad? "Yes, that's the Israeli mafia, isn't it? I think that's right."

Minnie is a trim, small, not unattractive, perfectly agreeable woman who looks as affluent as she is. Not only is her husband a respected doctor, her eldest son a doctor, too, her next son an engineer and a third son just three weeks away from qualifying as a minister of the church when he was arrested - not only all that, but the family owns several farms. Far from frumpy, as one might have expected, Minnie in appearance is a thoroughly modern 60-year-old. She wears a grey woollen skirt and tight matching jacket, a light green blouse, shoes with heels and brightly coloured straps, glasses that go dark in the sun. Her dyed red hair is stiffly permed. On the table of the clean, smart office where we sit are two computers; on the walls there are posters warning of the dangers of smoking.

The one reservation she has about Icke, she says, is that he is not a religious man. That has not prevented Minnie from superimposing his worldly ideas on her own fundamentalist Christian views. "In the Bible, you have the Tower of Babel, which as God says is a vision of the way the world is not meant to be. God says people must live among their own. In this respect, as my husband would say, the Devil is Synthesis, God is Antithesis. The Devil seeks to force people together, God divides them. This is the plan of God for mankind, as I see it. I mean, look at the Japanese - they are good at making computers. Look at the Bushmen of the Kalahari - they are good at killing impalas. God did not mean the Japanese and the Bushmen to live together."

Put that way, probably not, I agree. Encouraged, she continues. Smiling a little now. (She smiles often, even a little coyly at times, but her eyes reflect sadness, strain, lack of sleep.) "That's right, you see. That is why the world is not right to cry out against apartheid. It means separate development; it means each going his own way. The Zulus here, the Boers there. That way we can all live in harmony."

The present regrettable state of affairs in South Africa is the work of the Antichrist, Minnie believes. Which is to say not Thabo Mbeki or the ANC (who are only incompetent blacks, after all) but those planetary puppet-masters imposing a one-world government on mankind. So what's to be done if these people are so all-powerful? "I see earthquakes. I see wars. I see famine. I see my people in jail. All these things must come because the Antichrist must come. The problem is we do not know how long it will last, or whether maybe this is the End of Times. As a Christian, the one thing I can tell you is that you must not fear, you must never abandon hope."

It is remarkable to hear these words come out of the mouth of a woman who in Europe would look like anyone's idea of a rather smartly dressed, borderline racy, moneyed aunt. Presumably, one would have experienced a similar sense of dislocation listening to her doctor husband ("a very, very clever man", as Minnie says). Or her son the engineer, who allegedly built the bombs that went off in Soweto; or her son the doctor, who allegedly placed them; or her son the aspirant priest, who provided the moral support.

Does she not feel lonesome, and terribly sad? "Yes, at times," she says, a tear filling each eye, though she never comes close to a sob, to breaking down and crying. She is far too controlled for that, too much the mother of her Boer warrior sons. "At such moments of weakness, what I do is think of eternity. I must behave as God wants me to. I know that my husband and sons are very strong. They are in hell, yes, in cement blocks, but their spirits are free. I feel free. They know as I do that we cannot choose. That if we choose for this world, there is no hope for eternity."

It is difficult to say goodbye to Minnie Pretorius without feeling sadness. Her family has been obliterated. For all practical purposes, and with her apparent encouragement, they have committed suicide. But Minnie cannot think like that. She must retain her heavenly vision, she must cling tight to the madness that drove her men to do what they did. The price of sanity for Minnie Pretorius, of suddenly seeing things the way they really are, would be complete breakdown and despair.

The appalling thing is how many seemingly sane people like her and her husband and sons - not just in South Africa, but all over the world - take the delusions they believe in to their logical extremes, causing so much suffering to so many people seeking, such as that unlucky woman blown to bits in Soweto, to lead uncomplicated, earthly lives.

John Carlin, a former foreign correspondent for the Independent, now writes for the Observer and El PaIs