Posted on April 26, 2010

All White, and a Bit Green, in the Far Country

Andrew Donaldson, Times Live (South Africa), April 25, 2010

The decision to move, about 15 years ago, surprised relatives and friends in KwaZulu-Natal. But the Strydom family have had no regrets about their relocation to Orania.

“When we came here, it was like a fresh breeze,” Lida Strydom said. “But, you know, whenever we go back to South Africa, we are shocked by what we hear. It’s all so negative. All the crime, the murders. We didn’t want the children to grow up in such an environment. Here children can play in the street in complete safety.”

As if to emphasise the point, across the road, outside the office where Strydom edits Voorgrond, the newsletter of the Orania Movement, two boys were shooting at each other with toy pistols. One wore a Spiderman mask, the other a British constable’s helmet–the only sign of visible policing in the town.

That Strydom should have spoken of Orania–located at approximately the geographical centre of South Africa, 160km south of Kimberley–as if it lay beyond the country’s borders was surprising. After two days, however, and having grown accustomed to the place, what was instead striking was Orania’s distinctive un-South African “otherness”.

The town appeared untouched by the decay and dereliction commonplace in the country’s inner cities and other platteland dorps. It was free, too, of armed response patrols, security guards, razor wire and electrified fences. True, cynics may point out that it was also free of black people–but as a conservative, white, Christian Afrikaner enclave, it was free of many other South African communities as well.

The symbols of the old South Africa are easily found. On a small koppie overlooking the town, there’s a monument featuring busts of, among others, Paul Kruger, DF Malan and, not surprisingly, Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of grand apartheid.

But the monument’s centrepiece is a statue of a small boy rolling up his sleeves, preparing to do manual labour. The boy is symbolic of Orania’s selfwerksaamheid, or policy of “self reliance” that ensures all jobs in the town, from management to manual labour, are done only by Afrikaners.

Easier said than done. As Strydom put it, “Afrikaners are not used to doing manual labour, and that was something we had to adapt to. South Africans cannot understand that.”

Many South Africans don’t get Orania either, and regarded the establishment of the town, or volkstaat, as an exercise doomed to failure, another trek into the wilderness of a repressive past.

But first-time visitors are surprised at the developments thrown up by what can only be described as a 21st-century pioneering spirit. Self-sufficiency has resulted in energy conservation. Some houses are off the grid, producing all their own electricity requirements.

The town is now in its 20th year, and much has happened since December 1990, when Professor Carel Boshoff, a former Afrikaner Broederbond chairman and Verwoerd’s son-in-law–together with about 40 families–moved into the dilapidated 430ha construction camp they bought from the Department of Water Affairs after it was abandoned by the engineers and builders of the Vanderkloof Dam on the Gariep River.

Today Orania is home to about 1700 inhabitants, and covers about 3000ha, most of it agricultural land. There are two schools, Die Volkskool Orania and the Christelike Volks-Onderwys Skool Orania.

In April 2004, Orania launched its own monetary system, the “ora”, which is pegged to the rand. It is, according to Frans de Klerk, the chief executive of the Orania Movement, a system of shopping vouchers designed to keep capital circulating in the community.

Ora artwork reflects an Afrikaner culture that may these days be regarded as quaint: the 10 ora note features Racheltjie de Beer, the 12-year-old girl who sacrificed herself to save her brother’s life; the 20 ora note features Trompie, a mischievous fictional schoolboy not unlike Richmal Crompton’s Just William character; the 50 ora note has a Voortrekker girl reading her Bible; and the 100 ora is adorned with the town’s symbol, the small boy rolling up his sleeves.

Orania’s tourism industry has also grown rapidly. A four-star river spa and boutique hotel was completed last year, when the town’s first registered tour operator was also launched.

On the outskirts of town, at the museum, part-time curator Dup du Preez complained that those many visitors who took Orania Toere’s cross-town safari were seldom shown the museum with its remarkable collection of 19th-century rifles and muskets, and Boer War artefacts.

“There is a lot to see in the town, but we’re always last on the list of attractions,” he complained. “By the time they get here, the people are so tired they sommer just stay on the bus.”

Next door to the museum is the town’s radio station. “It’s not very professional,” one resident said. “They still have a bit to learn.” (On air, a presenter was telling her listeners of her frustrating experiences with municipal officials in Bloemfontein.)

Across town, on the far edge of Orania, is a huddle of small prefabs and hostels known as Kleingeluk, and it is here that poorer residents are housed. Because it is often these residents who perform the town’s manual labour, there have been reports of a form of “whites only” apartheid in the town.

Many of Kleingeluk’s residents arrived in the town as indigents, looking for hand-outs. There were none. There was only work. Carel Boshoff IV–known as “Carel Vier” (Four)–explained that some of the young men came from extremely troubled backgrounds, and had been living rough or were former convicts.

Boshoff IV is the Northern Cape Freedom Front Plus leader and president of the Orania Movement. In our interview–on the day Eugene Terre Blanche was buried–he was at pains to stress that the AWB leader and his followers’ notion of a volkstaat was fundamentally at odds with the Orania concept, and nothing more than a longing for old-fashioned apartheid, or wit baasskap (white paramountcy).

His father expressed the same opinion. “(Terre Blanche) chose a path of confrontation, of conflict,” he said. “We wanted another way.”

They are still looking for that way. “You’ve heard of the Balfour declaration?” he asked.

This was a formal declaration of policy in 1917, by the then British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour, which favoured the establishment in Palestine of “a national home for the Jewish people”.

“That declaration was instrumental in legitimising the establishment of Israel in 1948,” Boshoff said, handing over a computer print-out. “This is our version of the Balfour declaration.”

It was a statement, made on June 4, 1998, by the then minister of provincial affairs and constitutional development, Valli Moosa: “The pursuit on the part of the Freedom Front and other Afrikaners to strive towards the development of a particular region in the country (‘the North West Corridor’) as a home for culture and language within the framework of the constitution and the Bill of Rights is in government’s view indeed a legitimate pursuit.”

On the reverse was a map of the “particular region” that Boshoff, if not Moosa, had in mind. From Orania, it stretched all the way to the Atlantic in the west, and included the towns of Prieska, Britstown, Carnarvon, Williston and Calvinia.

That may never happen, of course. But the pecan nut cookies Boshoff served his guests–made from the produce of Orania’s massive new plantation–were excellent. Of that there was little doubt.