The Town That Racism Built
If you're a certain way inclined, Orania is probably a nice place to live.
There's a big motif in Afrikaner history about them being Israelites. It's not just in the stony-faced Calvinism of their Dutch Reformed Church. Ever since the Great Trek, when ancestors on ox wagons rode into the hinterlands in search of a life free of British control, the cry of "Let My People Go" has been a Boer mantra. In recognition of the Afrikaner pilgrimage, in the 1930s, the government built the massive Voortrekker Monument--a stuffily sacrosanct temple to this pseudo-Jewiness. Fifty years after the Voortrekkers, the Anglo-Boer War--a David & Goliath act, complete with its own British-made concentration camps--only served to emphasize the parallel (and heighten the persecution complex). In this light, the high noon of Apartheid could be read as one more Afrikaans attempt to secure self-determination--to wish away the simple fact that, in the long term, history is demography.
Well, demography is now history. They fought. They lost. The end. Afrikaans--once the dominant language of state--is now a crab in the bucket with South Africa's ten other official languages. No longer the brahmins of the civil service, police, and army, Afrikaners now have to compete for jobs with the very people along whose backs they used to glide, handicapped further by a commonly held belief among the non-Afrikaner population that Afrikaners are a bunch of fucking dicks.
But in the early 90s, even as the walls were coming down on the old ways, a small cabal of true believers were gathering up the laws and scrolls, putting bubble-wrap around the Ark of the Covenant, and making plans to trek once more. This time, though, the plan would work. No doubts. No fuckups. This time they'd thought of everything.
They would start again. In their new world there would be no need for the migrant-labor systems that had brought their downfall. Instead of having to deal with the tensions of a society that was economically integrated but socially segregated, Afrikaners would just go ahead and do all the hard stuff themselves. They would simply cut the Black Man out of the loop altogether. Selfwerksaamheid--literally "working together for ourselves"--would be the watchword of the new order. Their new home would be a place where Afrikaners could be free to pursue their own cultural traditions, where they could speak Afrikaans to themselves all day if they so chose, and where there would be ice cream for dinner every night.
But if they were to establish this society of their own--the Volkstaat--first, they would need a place of their own. That's where Orania comes in.
If South Africa were a dartboard, Orania would be the bullseye. About 750 miles from Cape Town, and about the same again from Durban and Johannesburg, it sits on the other side of three hours of dirt track from Colesburg--the nearest town on the road between Jo'burg and Cape Town. In 1990, it was a ghost town, built by the Department of Water Affairs to house the workers building a 60-mile-long irrigation channel nearby. It seemed unsellable--even at the modest asking price of R2.9million (about $550,000 US). But it was bought, lock 'n' stock, by a former chairman of the Afrikaner equivalent of the Freemasons, the Broederbond. He liked it, he decreed, and he would be living there shortly too. And, potentially, bringing along a few of his close friends--about 50,000 or so to start with, he hoped.
This man was Carel Boshoff III. He was pretty optimistic. It's nearly 20 years later when Vice breezes into town one arid Wednesday in January, and Orania's population is still stalled somewhere around the 700 mark, albeit 700 entirely white, entirely Afrikaans, staunchly religious, upstanding Burghers. The town is effectively private property, and black people are forbidden from settling here (though Boshoff and his descendants contest the absolutism of this point in all manner of wiley, legalistic ways). Orania is a monument to a lost dream: the dream of little white children and little white children, playing together in perfect harmony. "Imagine living in a place where you don't have to look over your shoulder as you walk the streets," goes the coded enticement in the promotional videos they play you at the tourist information depot (translation: "No b.l.a.c.k.s. to cause crime here").
In addition to its own flag, and radio station, since 2004, the putative Volkstaat has had its own currency--the Ora, pegged at 1:1 with the Rand. You use the money in your day-to-day business around the town, and the Rands you've exchanged them for are put into an annual high-interest bank account: a scheme that's presently putting an extra R100,000 a year into the municipality's coffers. The Ora notes all feature a little boy rolling up his sleeves, the emblem of the town. The figure comes from a saying of Dr Verwoerd, the Prime Minister widely known as the "Architect of Apartheid".
Verwoerd said that if Afrikaners wanted self-determination, then they'd better roll up their sleeves and do it themselves. The boy who modelled the original image, Ben De Klerk, has since taken the motto to heart. A few years back, now a grown-up doctor, he rolled up his sleeves and left Orania. He lives in Canada.
The R369--the main road that bisects the place--belongs to the government. On either side, Oranians have erected booms, which can be closed if necessary to keep the outside world outside. Inside, they've erected a supermarket, a petrol station, a pecan-nut processing plant, a cafe, a bar, a cornershop, a pottery workshop, a farm equipment depot, an estate agent.
The latter seems to be doing brisk business. While overall population has only gone up by a hundred in the past decade, there's an unusually high turnover of homes. They range in price--the low-end opening its bidding at about R250,000 ($35K), extending all the way to R900,000 ($120) for newly released riverfront property.
"Orania is not for everyone," says Dr John Strydom, the town's PR director, "We do our best to discourage certain people from moving here. Why? Well some come here and think it is the answer to all their problems. But in fact, it can be quite a tough life. The wages are not very high here. You need a good income to live."
That's the flipside to doing it all yourself, of course: you need to do it all yourself. Someone has to do the whole manual labor bit, and it's difficult to entice outsiders to move to a planned community in the perineum of nowhere if they're only going to get a job, say, cutting lawns. The Oranians have been canny in coming up with fixes for this, though. On the far side of the town lies the dormitory district of Elim. In the olden days, Elim was the "colored" accommodation quarter of the public works water canal. These days, the town's masters have developed a scheme to bring in down-n-out Afrikaners in need of rehab, charging them R450 a month to live in these slightly run-down barracks, dry out, and dose up on Christian re-education.
Then, they put them to work: harvesting the town's pecan-nut groves, building houses, cleaning houses. Anything, really. There are always jobs for able hands in this sort of pioneer town, especially as a third of Orania's population are pensioners--nest-egg divested souls, too old-fashioned to engage with the topsy-turvy New SA, old enough to have earned the right to see out their days in the comforting climes of an Old South Africa Disneyland.
For others, it's respite care. "Some of these people have been very badly affected by crime," John intones as he guides us down the road to Orania's newly built spa resort. "They get hijacked, or robbed, and they can't cope with the outside world anymore. So they move here for two or three years. They get over their fears, then they move back to the cities."
His theory seems to check out. In the tourist information office, the June Whitfield-alike behind the desk whispers vividly of how she was hijacked in her driveway back in Johannesburg. As we tour the Verwoerd museum (prize possession: the chair in which the Great Leader was assassinated in 1960, still stained with his blood), we come across an 82-year-old farmer from Vryburg, all knee-socks, clipped moustache, and straight-backed country manners. He's selling up to move here, after his wife was pistol-whipped in front of him by the son of one of his laborers. Verwoerd, he declares, was basically a very good guy. But probably a bit too soft on the Blacks. "Gee hulle n vinger dan vat hulle die heule arm," he whistles through his false teeth ("Give them a finger, they take the whole arm").
Carel Boshoff IV is the son of the town's founder, the new CEO of the limited-corporation that runs Orania's affairs, de facto mayor, its intellectual leader, chair of the local Freedom Front Plus, and a grandson of Dr Verwoerd. Around midday, he vrooms over to the central cafe in a red Lancia. A spindly intellectual behind thin wire-frame glasses, Boshoff IV is softly spoken, genial, and likeable as he puts us through patter that he's clearly rehearsed many times to many more forthright and clued-up hacks, sliding in regular references to the Ancient Greek ideal of the city-state, and drawing further parallels with Israel. He went to Ethiopia recently, to research the African Union's laws on separatist movements. On the flight back, the black stewardess wouldn't serve him.
"I regularly get asked by black journalists whether they can move into the town," he purrs, "and I always say 'yes'. A lot of them then ask me if I'm serious... I say, 'Yes--I'm exactly as serious as you are.' You would not enjoy moving to a town where you couldn't engage with your own culture. The thing is, anyone moving in must be approved by the governing body. And we ask them two questions. Firstly: can you support yourself? Because there aren't many safety nets in our society. And secondly, are you committed to upholding the goal of this society: Afrikaner self-determination. So if you are English-speaking, or black, but totally committed to this goal, then you would qualify."
Others warn us not to take his proclamations as the only line on what Orania stands for. "They're very factional here. To outsiders, they like to project this idea of a united front, but the fact is, they still haven't worked out what this should all be, and so there are a lot of very strong-willed--very idealistic--people pulling in very different directions. Why do you think there are seven different churches in a town this size? Everyone's always breaking off into their little groups."
On the far side of town, the municipal swimming pool sploshes with the happy footfalls of little white kids who leave their bikes in unguarded heaps by its entrance. At the top of its carpark stands Orania's most satirized cultural artifact--the Koeksister Monument. At first glance it seems like your typically worthy civic abstract art. In fact, its three interlocking strands represent fried dough doused in syrup – koeksisters being a traditional Afrikaans sweetbread. Like most nascent cultures, Afrikanerdom has had to hunt about a bit for its symbology.
Directly above it, tracing a line up the hill, there's a semi-circle of busts just beneath the town's flag. "Unwanted gifts," murmurs John. "They come from government buildings--they're busts of former State Presidents and Prime Ministers, whom it's no longer politically correct to acknowledge. So they give them to us and we find a use for them."
There's the smooth dome of DF Malan: the first Apartheid Prime Minister, and the man who set the trend of Nationalist leaders being bald, tubby men with glasses. JG Strijdom, second, equally enthusiastic Apartheid Prime Minister who died in office, and HF Verwoerd, who was Old SA's JFK--a lion of segregation, cut down in his prime just after winning a second term, in 1966.
In 1995, Nelson Mandela made a visit here, to take reconciliatory tea with the widow of the man who sent him to jail for 27 years, 93-year-old Betsie Verwoerd, Boshoff's grandmother. For years, her gradually shrinking form was one of the sights to look out for around the town. She took her last cup of tea in 2000. Now, her grave occupies a place of pride in the town's cemetery. Next to it, a spare marker for her husband's bones, presently interred in Pretoria. Though, as yet, a re-burial may or may not happen "The older generation are still arguing about it," Boshoff IV complains. Her home is now the Verwoerd Museum, the front half of the living quarters preserved as it was on the day she died.
Verwoerd was stabbed by a parliamentary messenger called Dmitri Tsafendas, who had been under the mistaken impression that a tapeworm residing in his guts was ordering him to kill the Prime Minister. Shanked twice in the neck at the despatch box, he bled to death on the floor of Parliament. As with all tragic martyrs, a web of conspiracy has developed around an absence of evidence. "If you ask 98% of South Africans, they will tell you that there was something suspicious about the whole thing," John essays. He notes that Verwoerd was "a beloved leader. Not just in this country, but all over the world."
By night, we wander the tranquil, unlit streets as the irrigation systems whirr across lawns (like the Israelis, they've made the desert grow via first-rate civil engineering projects). We happen upon a teenage party. They're barbecuing. We're gatecrashing.
There's an exquisite awkwardness as we bumble hopelessly up the patio, but, ultimately, they put on their best face, and we ours, and everything is awesome. They're good kids. Most have come from bigger towns. Average stay here is about eight years. Two are John's daughters. They certainly want to interact with black people, they say--it's one of the reasons they're looking forward to going to university. Others too. Everyone declares that they'll be returning here after their studies, to build up the dream, but many won't make it back. Like most teen idealists, they'll lapse into jobs in the big cities, make new friends, get over it--however passionately they feel that living on a Native Reserve of their own is effective. "Afrikaans culture is disappearing," a ruddy-cheeked center-parted 20-year-old bemoans. "It used to be on the TV you'd get lots of Afrikaans programmes. Now, there are virtually none. Not even street signs are in Afrikaans anymore."
"I'll kill my kids if they try and come back," laments the local bar-owner, topping up another rum and coke. "There's nothing for them here. This is a good place to raise kids, but they must go out into the world and make a life for themselves."
Outside, under the porch's blue shade-netting, screening the worst excesses of the still-smouldering evening sun, we meet Geoff, smoking a fag and crossing his spindly, tanned legs effeminately. "No photos, please," he grins. Geoff is a racist. "Anyone who moves here, then tells you they aren't a racist is a liar. I am a racist." At first, this sort of honesty is refreshing, until he starts spewing on about "kaffirs", and telling an anecdote about how easily he bribed a black traffic cop. Now 70, he's ex-police. In the Good Old Days, he was in the townships, quelling riots. You can imagine him as a retired version of the black-thumping Verkramp in Tom Sharpe's Riotous Assembly--gleefully sadistic, hypocritical-yet-candid. As he drones on through his pet theories, the bar owner turns up the Lil' Wayne on the stereo to drown him out. "Don't take him seriously," he murmurs as Geoff departs. "Please. He's not representative of everyone here." The bar owner's uncle, he says, is John Hinckley Jr--the man who shot Reagan. "I'm only a Boer because my dad wasn't around," he notes. "No photos, please."
Round the back of the bar, we meet the local carwash lady. "I love it here," she declares, before launching into a lengthy, convoluted story about how she's on the run from Nigerian gangsters after uncovering a credit card scam while working as a security guard in Durban. "We all got our reasons..." Is it a racial place? "No comment," she gurns, good-naturedly.
"Well I just think that people tend to want to live with their own kind. It's perfectly natural, isn't it?" asserts Mrs Jooste. As the widow of Dr. Chris Jooste, another of Orania's intellectual founders, and a former head of the South African Bureau For Racial Affairs, she should have it all figured out by now, but she's curt in her answers, as though addressing a stupid and lazy child. Over her shoulder we're being supervised by the hawkish editor of the local paper. Afterwards, she comes up to us and says a lot of sentences starting with, "What I think Mevrou Jooste was trying to say there was actually..."
If you're a certain way inclined, Orania is probably a nice place to live. It's very neighborly. It's also one of the dullest, most achingly pointless shitsacks in Christendom. These things are not unrelated. Like the German National Socialist's ideal of folk culture, the plain fact is that Orania's view of Afrikaner culture and history is irredeemably twee. It's a gauche marzipan-coated slab of super-sanitized artifice, like if everyone in Britain decided to go back to maypoles and eel pie.
Will they make it? It's unlikely. They've already been outflanked. With the rise and rise of gated housing developments in the cities, the Volkstaat is effectively being built elsewhere, on more palatable terms, in little neighborhoods gradually conjoining into an archipelago of safeness and whiteness--not unlike the crazy-paving patchwork of land parcels that was the former Homeland of Bophuthatswana. But then again, the Boshoffs, as they will constantly remind you, are looking long-term. Israeli-style long-term. A hundred, a hundred and fifty years. You can see that in the way they've arranged the smattering of graves in the local cemetery. Only one small wedge exists so far, but they've been centrally planned to eventually fan out into a massive, graceful circle, in keeping with the cradle-to-grave ideal society of their dreams. A lot more people will have to die here before then. Best of luck with that.
- Vice Blog