Apartheid's last stand

Far out in South Africa's Karoo desert lies the village of Orania, home to a pioneering Afrikaner community with a radical agenda: the establishment of a new, whites-only homeland. Can they be serious? Ludger Schadomsky went to find out

Wednesday 10 December 2003 01:00

In South Africa's rainbow democracy, the village of Orania is an uncomfortable anachronism. At the local guest house, breakfast is served not by a black maid, but by a white mustachioed giant in safari shorts. And if someone's swimming-pool needs a coat of fresh paint, the owners buckle down and do the job themselves.

In South Africa's rainbow democracy, the village of Orania is an uncomfortable anachronism. At the local guest house, breakfast is served not by a black maid, but by a white mustachioed giant in safari shorts. And if someone's swimming-pool needs a coat of fresh paint, the owners buckle down and do the job themselves.

Orania, named after the nearby Orange river, doesn't have any black servants. But it wasn't the spirit of racial equality that moved its inhabitants to erect this little township in the middle of the Karoo desert, halfway between Cape Town and Johannesburg. Visitors are welcomed by a sign over the entrance in Afrikaans, proclaiming "Orania - Afrikanertuiste", which means "Afrikaner homeland".

In the early stages of the new South Africa, following the country's "miracle" transition from white minority to black rule, Orania was an embarrassment to white South Africa. But after almost 10 years that have seen an appalling rise in crime, it would seem that its appeal has broadened.

Renus Steyn, the owner of the "Herberg" guest house, doesn't understand what all the fuss is about. "We just want to live in peace," he says. But that's what many find so disagreeable. Of South Africa's six million white inhabitants, Afrikaners - or Boers, as the descendants of the Cape's first Dutch and French settlers are known - constitute 60 per cent. Why should they regard themselves as a dying breed? Why do they believe that they need to retreat to a reservation in order to survive?

"To escape the crime in South Africa," answers Pieter Grobbelaar. This weekend, he's driven the 700km here from Cape Town, where he owns a beautiful house beside the sea. He has come to check on the house that he and his wife Eleanor, who is also Orania's tourism manager, are building here in the Afrikaner homeland. "In Cape Town, I sleep with a gun under my pillow, as do 90 per cent of South Africans today," Pieter tells me. (Presumably, he's referring to white South Africans; most black people are still too poor to own a gun.) "I am sick of it, and I don't want to be paying high insurance premiums for the rest of my life," Pieter grunts.

When I lived in South Africa in the mid-1990s, on every London-bound British Airways plane I would meet an average of 10 white families leaving the nascent rainbow nation for good. The parents were usually doctors, lawyers, or highly skilled workers. "For the children's sake," was their standard reasoning. These were English-speaking South Africans clutching British or Australian passports. But disaffected Afrikaners have nowhere to go. Some farmers emigrated to neighbouring Mozambique, or even further afield, to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Most of them returned, disillusioned. Back home, they found themselves the target of angry black mobs chanting "Kill the Boers!".

Since apartheid officially ended in 1992, 1,500 white farmers have been murdered. "We cannot stem the tide," says Jasper Jooste, a former director of the Institute of Racial Affairs, and one of the chief ideologists behind Orania. "But we are determined to preserve our own language and culture."

In Orania, Afrikaans is the only language spoken. Children do learn English at school, but the standard is low. When I greet a resident in front of the local shop in English, he laughs and says, "You must be the only English-speaker in town!" And the 13-year-old daughter of Orania's easy-going PR manager finds it difficult to ask me in English for a ride in my car.

Their isolationist policies have earned the Oranians the reputation of being old-fashioned racists. They've had plenty of negative press, with headlines such as "Boers on the trek again" - a reference to the Great Trek of 1836 when the early Afrikaners, or "Voortrekkers", packed their Bibles, hitched their donkeys to their wagons, and fled the British-controlled Cape for the interior. Journalists are fond of bringing black people along in an attempt to provoke a scene. Nowadays, John Strydom, the village PR manager, impresses upon journalists that "fair reporting" is a condition of their visit.

It's not that blacks are banned altogether. Local farmers are allowed to buy goods at the "winkel", or grocery shop, but that's about as far as it goes. "In theory, they are allowed to come and live with us," says 76-year-old Carel Boshoff, the colony's founder. How that would work out in practice, though, is something that no one has put to the test. When the black mayor of a neighbouring town recently came to visit, he was chased around the village by a farmer driving a tractor.

The well-spoken Boshoff is the son-in-law of the late Hendrik Verwoerd, prime minister of South Africa from 1958-66, who is known as the "architect of apartheid", father of the infamous Group Areas Act and Separate Amenities Act, and champion of the Bantu education system. So, inevitably, there are comparisons with apartheid. But Carel Boshoff ("the Fourth"), son of Carel Senior, and the local representative of the conservative "Freedom Front" (FF), is adamant that apartheid is a thing of the past. "We have nothing to do with that any more," he insists.

However, it's not so easy for the Afrikaners to shake their image of diehard white-supremacists. In Orania, one of their goals is to nurture their "taal", or language. Indeed, language is the ultimate rallying cry for the Afrikaners: they lament what they perceive as the onslaught of English, a language (and a people) that they have despised ever since the war of 1899-1902. Mention the affirmative-action language policy of the state-owned South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) to any Afrikaner, and they'll start tearing their hair out. However, Afrikaans is indelibly associated with apartheid, when the white government wanted to impose it on all black schools, prompting the bloody Soweto uprisings of June 1976.

The young Oranian Franz de Klerk is right when he says that his town, and the Afrikaners in general, have a serious image problem. Franz is a former economics student who was one of the first settlers. His dream is that Orania will one day have its own currency. The rand would be replaced by coupons; that way, money could be kept in the village. He also has optimistic visions of joint development projects with local black communities, but finding an interested partner could prove a problem. Orania is not popular with its black neighbours. "They're racists," comments one, and points to the Verwoerd memorial that the Oranians have erected on a hill above the village. "I didn't know he was so small," remarked Nelson Mandela, unable to resist a wry dig at Verwoerd, who was assassinated in 1966, when he paid a surprise visit to Orania. Not long after his election, the country's first black president came here to drink tea with Verwoerd's widow, Betsie.

Betsie Verwoerd died three years ago at the age of 98, and is buried in the local cemetery. On a lazy Sunday afternoon at the communal picnic site down by the river, with children playing nearby and shouting in the harsh gutturals of Afrikaans, her daughter Anna recalls Mandela's visit to the family house. "It was a very friendly encounter," she says. "They just talked liked two old people talk - about growing old, that kind of thing."

The visit to the white homeland was one of the inimitable gestures with which Mandela sought to reconcile the fledgling country. Now, though, it's the Oranians who must show their willingness to be reconciled. If they and their children want a future here, they have to convince their neighbours - and the country's black government - that they want to be a part of the new South Africa. For a start, they could think about replacing the flag of the Transvaal, the old Boer republic, that flutters above the village post office, with the colourful banner of the rainbow nation. And they'd be well-advised not to opt out of elections as they did last time around, when they ignored the ballot box brought by government agents. Such a move may well be interpreted by the government as saying, "We don't want to be involved". The "dorp", or village, is campaigning to be granted the status of a municipality, and President Thabo Mbeki has sent envoys to Orania, but there's no way he is going to allow a breakaway white homeland to shatter the image of a rainbow nation at work.

The people here frequently liken themselves to the Jews - a pretty far-fetched claim, particularly given that so far, barely 600 Afrikaners have found their way to Orania's "promised land". The former president F W de Klerk has opted for a beach apartment outside Cape Town instead, and leading Afrikaner intellectuals such as Hermann Giliomee have made it abundantly clear that they want nothing to do with the "homeland". Six hundred is not enough, concedes the ideologist Jasper Jooste. He reckons that it will take at least 5,000 people to make the idea work. Where are they going to come from, I ask Carel Boshoff. "Our people haven't quite realised the implications of the new South Africa," he says. "It will take them some time, but they will eventually understand."

At the moment, though, the main South African banks won't open a branch in the village; the cars in Orania are all at least 10 years old; and, looking around at its elderly inhabitants, one visitor jokes that the place is on its way to becoming an old people's home. Another bemoans the lack of black skills in the handicraft sector. "My God, you should see the stuff that they produce at the carpenter's. A bit of expertise there certainly wouldn't go amiss."

At the end of my visit, John Strydom asks what I think of Orania. Hmmm. To be honest, I'd expected worse. "Whites only" signs everywhere, and so on. Nor have I spotted any of the white terrorists who are rumoured to be hiding out here. (In May 2003, 22 Afrikaner extremists went on trial in Pretoria accused of plotting a bombing campaign to assassinate Mandela and overthrow the ANC government.) I'm impressed with the way the Oranians have turned this barren piece of earth, which they only bought in 1991, into a flourishing oasis. The subterranean irrigation systems are the best for miles around. The people here are genuinely warm and welcoming (to me at least); and it's a rare privilege in South Africa to be able to leave your door wide open without worrying about crime.

But my main impression is that Orania is an idea with no future. On the Sunday I visited, the congregation in Orania's little church joined in an enthusiastic rendition of the traditional hymn "Wachet auf!" ("Wake up!") of 1599. An appropriate choice, it seems. The Oranians would be better off learning to accept the new South Africa, with all its problems and contradictions, instead of trekking back into internal exile.

Additional reporting by Charlotte Collins

©Ludger Schadomsky and Charlotte Collins

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