By Peroshni Govender

VENTERSDORP, South Africa (Reuters) - The trial of two blacks accused of hacking to death South African white supremacist leader Eugene Terre'blanche in a wage dispute at his farm opened Monday, exposing racial divisions in Africa's largest economy.

Chris Mahlangu, a gardener at Terre'blanche's farm, and a 16-year-old minor not identified for legal reasons were charged with the April 2010 murder that highlighted continuing racial tensions 17 years after the end of the apartheid system that Terre'blanche had fought to preserve.

The pair pleaded not guilty to charges including housebreaking, robbery and bludgeoning Terre'blanche to death with an axe.

The case has served as a reminder of bitter divisions in the country now dubbed the "Rainbow Nation" and ruled by the African National Congress, the party that helped end apartheid.

Norman Arendse, the attorney for the minor facing murder charges, said there were "appalling conditions on the farm" that was not fit for human habitation.

He told the court his client did not participate in the killing but did call police after finding Terre'blanche's body.

He said it was difficult to get witnesses to testify on the dismal conditions on farms.

"The main reason appears to be naked fear and intimidation. Fear that they will loose the little they earn, fear that they will lose the roof over their head and the food they receive for working on the farms," Arendse said.

Prosecutor George Baloyi told the court the two accused found Terre'blanche asleep on his bed and then beat him with a steel pipe.

"The DNA found on Eugene Terre'blanche's clothes matched the DNA found on the accused's clothes," he told the court.

Many in the country still scarred by its brutal apartheid past were worried that the murder of Terre'blanche -- who led the hardline supremacist Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB) -- could have sparked racial violence.

But police said the motive for the crime was likely unpaid wages rather than anything political and the case has not led to any major fallout.

A handful of AWB supporters gathered outside the courthouse in Ventersdorp Monday morning, a farming community about 125 km (80 miles) west of Johannesburg. They flew the AWB and former Transvaal flag -- symbols of the apartheid regime.

"We are here to support the Terre'blanche family and see that justice is done. We don't want special treatment, the person who killed our leader should get a trial," said AWB member Johan Potgieter.

"There is a place for the AWB. The whites are getting threatened in our own country, we are getting murdered on our farms," he said.

Terre'blanche was a prominent figure during the dying years of apartheid but then lived in relative obscurity, particularly since his release in 2004 after serving a prison sentence for beating a black man nearly to death.

The AWB is seen as a fringe group with little influence, but many still say that remnants of the white-minority apartheid state linger in the country, where about half of the black majority live in poverty.

A local black resident, who only wanted to be identified as Sello, said: "The ANC may be in government but in Ventersdorp, the whites are still in charge."

(Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Giles Elgood)




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