Laager lovers tough it out

Mary Braid visits Orania, where Afrikaners have trekked into the desert to pursue the dream of an all-white homeland

It Is the briefest of audiences with the fragile mascot of the cause. Watched by two minders, tiny, sparrow-weight Betsy Verwoerd, 96, hobbles on spindly legs to sit beneath the huge portrait of her late husband Hendrik, former prime minister and the architect of apartheid.

Mrs Verwoerd's voice, like her body is now weak, but stubborn Afrikaner resolve survives. "Do you know about the Voortrekkers?" she whispers, her still-penetrating blue eyes glittering.

She fishes out a photograph, almost a decade old, showing her in Voortrekker traditional dress and bonnet, driving an oxen-drawn wagon down Cape Town's main street. Tannie (auntie) Betsy was leading the 150th anniversary celebrations of the exodus of the original Voortrekkers (front trekkers) from the Cape Colony to escape British rule.

"We are trying to do it (the Great Trek) again," she says, with a huge smile. "I am so glad to be here. The Afrikaner needs a place of his own where he can feel at home."

Betsy Verwoerd is speaking from a prefab in the middle of the desert. Once she was Queen of Pretoria. Today she is First Lady of Orania, a settlement for right-wing Afrikaners who have responded to the new South Africa by "trekking" to this isolated, arid spot, 900km from Cape Town, in the sparsely populated Northern Cape.

It is six years since a right-wing foundation bought the 3,000 hectare Orania from the Water Board and declared the decaying town, long abandoned by water workers, an Afrikaner Volkstaat; the nucleus from which a self- governing state stretching all the way to the Atlantic might grow. Today the town's prefabs are renovated and new houses have been built, along with two schools - now educating 100 pupils - a hospital, a museum and a small shopping mall. The Volkstaaters have irrigated the scrub with water from the nearby Orange river and acres of farm land now surround the town. In its first year Orania had a population of 90; that has since increased six fold.

Even those who ridicule the trekkers sneakingly admire their bloody-minded determination. The Volkstaaters have abandoned BMWs, tennis courts and swimming pools to found the promised land in this dusty, outback wilderness. Esther le Roux, an official with the right-wing Freedom Front party, who moved here with her teacher husband and four children, says the material loss is worthwhile. "After apartheid we are scum and we must teach our children a positive image," she says.

So in Orania, Big-Brother street signs instruct the population to speak and think in Afrikaans, be proud to be an Afrikaner and work for themselves. Believing the Afrikaner's downfall began when he started employing blacks, Orania's Calvinists have learned to survive without black maids and nannies. In the all-white town, which blacks may visit but not stay in, all manual labour is done by whites.

The new self-reliance must warm the heart of Tannie Betsy who, decades ago, before her transformation into a sweet old lady, warned Afrikaner women to reclaim their children from black nannies whom she said secreted an odour offensive to whites.

Since her husband's assassination 31 years ago, Mrs Verwoerd's political journey has been ever rightwards. When she threw in her lot with Orania - followed by a host of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren - it was a political coup. Today her dead husband dominates the town. Across from Betsy's home, photographs of the former prime minister adorn the home of Annamaria Boshoff, Mrs Verwoerd's private secretary for more than 40 years who has made her house a shrine to the old days of Afrikaner power. In Orania's only guest house the smiling Verwoerds, in 1960s sartorial splendour, look down from giant photographs on sleeping guests. And on the hill overlooking Orania it is a statue of Verwoerd, moved here for sanctuary after being toppled by liberated blacks, that looks down on the town. Orania's children are taught to revere apartheid's creator. Mrs le Roux's son Piet, 13, wipes bird droppings from Verwoerd's head with what one hopes is precocious irony. "Even the birds love him," he says.

Anna and her husband Carl Boshoff, an Afrikaner intellectual, and Annamaria's sister, are at the forefront of the Volkstaat campaign. Anna Boshoff peddles Verwoerd's old theories on ethnic separation. Father, she says, was before his time. Cultural identity she says is not enough for freedom, insisting Afrikaners must have land to guarantee self-determination. Early trekkers, hellbent on shooting the first black to come over the hill, have left and been replaced by intellectuals, full of hi-tech plans. But there are 2.6 million Afrikaners in South Africa; only 600 have so far responded to Orania's call.

"As my mother says, things are progressing," says a tight-lipped Mrs Boshoff. But other right-wingers have lost faith that the South African government will permit a fully independent Volkstaat, despite continuing negotiations with the ANC and Nelson Mandela's controversial "reconciliation" visit to Orania in 1995 to take tea with Betsy Verwoerd. The government, they say, is stringing Orania along until the Volkstaat dream dies. But Mrs Boshoff believes the ANC will comply for fear of an Afrikaner backlash. "Afrikaners are not the meekest people in the world," she says.

Lida Strydom, 35, and her husband John, 42, moved from Natal with their three children last year to Orania. Mr Strydom has left medicine to start an earth-moving equipment company. The family live in a tiny caravan while Mr Strydom builds a home. Their income has dropped dramatically but the Strydoms say they love their new life. Yet they are bitter that so few have followed them. "Everywhere else is so negative," says Mrs Strydom.

No one seems to worry they may harm their children by isolating them from reality. Piet le Roux has never had a black friend and his family "moved before the coloureds came to school". Orania's adults are once again circling the wagons in classic Voortrekker defence against the blacks.

Inside the laager they will teach their children the old songs and dances and, they say, keep their culture alive. Racism apart, there is something sad in their sense of beleaguerment. Every year Orania makes a 30km pilgrimage to the site of a concentration camp set up by the British during the Boer War, where 230 Afrikaners, including 187 children, died. More than 24,000 Afrikaners - mainly women and children - died in such camps.

Verwoerd's daughter Anna recounts how a relative recently visited an immigrant Afrikaner family in New Zealand whose children had said they wanted to come back to their homeland. Mrs Boshoff plans to have the Volkstaat ready for when they - and thousands more - return.

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