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Orania, a South African country without colour
Nature is wild in the Karoo, and the austral summer has triggered record-breaking temperatures in South Africa’s central-western region. A few cactus plants and dry twigs dot the scorched horizon. The region is experiencing one of its worst droughts yet.
We created an environment where our culture is majoritarian and can prosper
At the end of a straight road running through the wilderness lies mirage: an oasis resounding with the sweet chirps of birds, vast wheat fields and geometrically aligned homes with perfectly trimmed, lush turfs.
“Welkom in Orania“, reads an untranslated signboard planted at the entrance of the town. The signboard portends an Afrikaans-speaking community with descendants of colonists of Dutch extraction.
The small white-only town defiantly sits in the centre of Nelson Mandela’s rainbow nation. All 4,000 hectares of Orania land is owned by Vluytjeskraal Aandeleblok, a private company. The company hand picks its residents with care. Since its creation in the early 1990s, Orania has forged and seemingly maintained its image as a white-only, enclave.
A look at Carel Boshoff IV’s (the town’s leader) pedigree unveils a cogent history. That he is the grandson of Hendrik Verwoerd, former South African Prime Minister (1958-1966) and mastermind of apartheid, surprises but only a few. But Carel Boshoff can’t just be defined by virtue of his family tree.
Sporting a pair of brow-line eye-wear and a well-manicured goatee, the middle-aged man cultivates his intellectual appearance. Boshoff holds a humanities degree from the University of Pretoria.
Sitting under the cool, tree-shaded patio of Orania’s main hotel and ready to hold his own for hours on end, he isn’t the type to shy away from lengthy debates.
His mien is calm and controlled as he argues that the selection criteria for potential residents of the town is not determined by their racial characteristics but rather their cultural affiliation.
Residents should be of the Christian faith, be self-sufficient and should speak, or be ready to learn to speak, Afrikaans, he declares. Orania counts a German family among its inhabitants.
South Africa has a large Afrikaans-speaking black and coloured population that associate themselves with the Afrikaans culture. And yet, there is not a single Afrikaans-speaking black or coloured person in sight.
“We don’t do DNA testing,” he says, defensively. “We just haven’t had such demands […]. We created an environment where our culture is majoritarian and can prosper”, but we do not “oppress people”, he quips.
Orania was initially meant to be a mustard-seed project, the nucleus of a much bigger plan to create an independent Volkstaat (a people’s State) that spreads from the Karoo plains to the Atlantic ocean.
The town’s flag bears colours remnicent of South Africa’s apartheid-era flag, featuring a blond child rolling up its sleeves. It also has its own currency, the Ora. The enclave does not have an armed force, and depends on its isolation for protection.
“This is an unconcentrated area and any malicious activity would be extremely visible”, Boshoff explains.
Life in Orania is quiet, and monotonous. The same Afrikaans traditional songs are played on a loop by the local radio station. Pupils study Afrikaans in one of the town’s two schools, and on Sundays the town’s population gathers in churches.
In lack of the cheap, black labour that enriched some of the region’s large-scale farmers, Orania’s main source of revenue comes from its ultra mechanised and computerised farms. Its pecan nuts are exported the world over.
Quality of life in Orania, while higher than the national average, is lower than that of South Africa’s white population. While economic success is important, what comes first is the sense of community belonging.
“Over here, you see, people are really interested in their neighbours’ life”, one of the town’s residents chips in. But the law in Orania is for better, not for worse. Those caught flouting it (crime, excess of alcohol or drug use) risk banishment.
The demure and affable Oranians don’t miss an opportunity to flash a greeting smile to visitors. Interviewing a resident, however, is another story altogether. Interview requests are filtered by the town’s public relations officer, James Kemp, a tall, jovial blond.
Kemp does not tolerate racist comments around journalists. He recommends an interview with 22 year-old Joost Strysdom, a stickler for scripted discourse. What Kemp does not say is that Strysdom’s father is the town’s former spokesman.
Retha and Ludwig are also model residents. After raising their two children, the couple decided to move to Orania to build an ecologically friendly house in 2009. Security, however, was their main reason for the move, they say. That same reason had sent them packing to the Netherlands a decade earlier.
“But our roots are here,” Retha explains. “Something was preventing us from integrating fully over there”.
Although interested in both left and right wing political ideologies, Ludwig did not once reconsider his decision to move into the much talked-about only-white town.
“This image is hurting us. It attracts the wrong kind of people,” he says.
Nostalgia reigns in this Afrikaner stronghold. During the last general elections, in 2014, the Vryheidsfront Plus party which is seeking self-determination for Afrikaners won three-quarters of the vote, against one percent of the total national vote.
In spite of this, Boshoff is very critical of apartheid. “Minority rule can’t be defended. For example, here, we don’t exploit black maids by underpaying them, contrary to what the city-dwelling white liberals who criticise us do,” he says.
But the relations between Orania and the former regime is more ambiguous than he would admit. Verwoerd had also thought about a “white development” plan for the area. He launched the initial works on the Orange dam that, today, supplies the otherwise desert Orania land with fresh water all year round.
It is also not by chance that Verwoerd’s widow, Betsie, chose to spend her last years in Orania where she was buried.
The busts of a number of South Africa’s former apartheid leaders including Verwoerd, D.F. Malan, J.-G. Strijdom, J.B. Vorster… sit on a hill overlooking the town. Boshoff struggles to justify the existence of the site, the Koppie, but in his final analysis he admits that “it is part of our heritage and we don’t want to give in”.
A politically tolerated enclave
Despite the fact that the objectives of Orania openly threaten South Africa’s territorial integrity, the ruling ANC has never interfered with their plans. Both Nelson Mandela and his successor, Jacob Zuma have visited the enclave.
Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader, Julius Malema who dreams of redistributing white controlled lands has also been there, although his visit was intended to provoke the seperatists.
Malema’s declarations did not surprise Boshoff. “It is a logical follow-up,” he says. “Otherwise the ANC’s success would be empty. But we bought our lands and we will plead to ensure they are not seized”.
The truth is the founding members of Orania never believed in a peaceful co-existence. The acquisition of lands began in 1990 as apartheid heaved its dying breath.
Twenty five years on, promotional brochures for the isolated village claim Orania guarantees a safe future for Afrikaners. With a little over 1,000 residents, Orania is far from the bustling dream city counting tens of thousands of Afrikaners.
“Whatever our efforts and successes, these initial projections would always give the impression that we have failed”, Boshoff says with a hint of regret.
Two events, according to Boshoff, may have caused the unexpected outcome: “the fact that South Africa was integrated the global economy allowed a lot of Afrikaners to emigrate, and the transition after apartheid was unexpectedly smooth”.
Paradoxically, what Orania’s demographic failure demonstrates is that most of South Africa’s white citizens have maintained an enviable social standing since the fall of apartheid.