Where the White things are: Visiting a town of Afrikaner separatists

To the vast majority of South Africans, Hendrik Verwoerd is hardly a martyr. As the apartheid government’s Minister of Bantu Education, Dr. Verwoerd in 1953 took over and dismantled the church school system that had educated men like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, stating that the benefits of European education were utterly wasted on non-whites.

A few years later, as prime minister, Verwoerd spearheaded the drive to relegate most black South Africans to quasi-independent homelands, where they could live happily and peacefully with their own kind. The homelands system allowed the ruling National Party to deny all rights to, and responsibility for, their country’s non-white majority.

Then, on September 6, 1966, at the apex of his political career, Hendrik Verwoerd was cut down, stabbed to death in Parliament by Demetrio Tsafendas, a parliamentary page of mixed racial descent.

Verwoerd epitomized the twisted idealism of the apartheid system and the past that South Africa now struggles to put behind itself. Needless to say, public statues of Verwoerd didn’t last long in the New South Africa.

But on a scrub-covered hillock not too far from the geographical center of South Africa, a newly erected statue stands, gazing over a small collection of houses ringed by irrigated farmland. The plaque below the half-scale statue reads, in part, “In die Hartland van die Afrikaner.” And thus, the half-sized brazen image of Hendrik Verwoerd presides over the town of Orania like a dour midget king.

I hadn’t planned to visit Orania when I arrived in South Africa last September—mostly because I’d never heard of the tiny desert town, and also because I’ve never really gone out of my way to hang out with white supremacists. But after a few weeks of visiting the more touristed parts of the Rainbow Nation, and countless conversations about the problems and challenges of contemporary South African society—the Crime Question, the Race Question, the Immigrant Question, the Proper Cookout Etiquette Question—a visit to the embryonic Afrikaner volkstaat seemed like just the thing to round out the picture. Besides, what better place to observe the one hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War (October 11, 1999) than among people who still seemed to be fighting it?

Thus it was that I and my traveling companion, a college friend with his own wry notions of subverting ethnotourism, struck out through the desert in a rented automobile, two pale-skinned spies heading into the Heart of Whiteness.

The town of Orania was built in the early 1960s by the South African government to provide housing for workers constructing a system of canals branching from the nearby Orange River. When the work was completed, Orania was abandoned until 1991, when a consortium of concerned Afrikaners bought the entire town, houses, streets, and all. The group was led by Carel Boshoff, a professor of New Testament studies and a staunch advocate of the concept of volkstaat—the establishment of a separate Afrikaner homeland where his people could work and live free of the inherent problems of multiethnic society.

Boshoff’s vision draws heavily on that of his father-in-law, none other than Hendrik Verwoerd—with a few notable modifications. Apartheid failed, Boshoff and his ilk reason, not so much because the idea of different races living separately is flawed, but because the Afrikaners—yes—made a few mistakes, namely taking over the most desirable land in the region and enlisting the labor of others to build the nation. To establish a proper volkstaat, the Afrikaners needed to do all the work for themselves, on land that nobody wanted.

As we rocketed through the Karoo, off to see the white volk in our white Volkswagen, it became clear that in a country renowned for the beauty of its land, even the undesirable plots are pretty good looking. Orania’s surroundings are a bit like the wilds of New Mexico, but with the odd termite mound. By the time we turned off the highway and drove past the “Strictly Private” sign, my throat had begun to tighten. In my weeks of travel in South Africa, I’d walked through gritty urban areas and squalid townships, but never before had I felt this afraid. The town itself is neat if a bit dusty: low-slung ranch-style houses, wide lawns, and the occasional shade tree. The curbed streets were for the most part empty, though occasionally a pickup truck would cruise slowly by; the driver would invariably wave.

Everybody waves in Orania—people watering their yards; workers driving out to the farms or across the road to the high-tech dairy; ten-year-olds with buzz cuts and bicycles. It’s the sort of communal spirit, of downright neighborliness that is supposed to lend small towns their charm. But as they waved and we waved back (lest we blow our cover), I kept wondering if by waving back, by returning friendliness in kind, I wasn’t somehow also agreeing with what people were doing, saying not just, “Hi” but, “High time we had us a volkstaat!

By the time we’d located the town’s sole guest house, I was all but ready to head straight for the nearest multiracial city. What was I doing in this amiable village of the damned? Still, we checked in for the night and signed up for the next morning’s official Orania City Tour.

The hotel, run by one Frans de Klerk, embodies Orania’s cute, plain, and creepy aura. As an instrumental version of the Beatles’ “Yesterday” murmured softly in the background, I perused the art on the walls of the hotel’s hallway—a painting of the Afrikaner pioneers’ slaughter of hundreds of Zulu warriors at the Battle of Blood River, framed political cartoons from the days when the waning National Party government was debating the volkstaat concept, and a small bas-relief of the fathers of the apartheid system, including old Verwoerd himself.

The next morning dawned cool, windy, and bright. Our tour guide, Roelien de Klerk, greeted us at the hotel and ushered us into her waiting sport-utility vehicle. Roelien, we learned, shows lots people around Orania—everyone from Afrikaners who are considering joining the community to skeptical journalists from the Soweto press. So she was adept at putting things in the best possible way. She likened Orania’s story to that of the formation of modern-day Israel—a few idealistic pioneers working to create a nation for their larger community. After all, the Jews too were a volk without a staat. At the statue of Dr. Verwoerd, she lowered her voice a bit and told us that the statue was mainly for the benefit of Verwoerd’s widow, Betsy, who lived in Orania. “Actually, I think he made some mistakes,” Roelien said, “but I don’t say that too loudly around here.”

We spent the rest of the morning visiting Orania’s farms and industries: water pumping stations, groves of pecan trees, fields of organic grape vines, and what is, the Oranians claim, the most technologically advanced dairy in Africa. There, in a control room that only had the faintest odor of manure, the controllers showed us how they use technology borrowed from Saudi Arabia’s best dairies to track each cow’s milk production, calving, food intake. The specter of the gleaming cowshed in the desert caused me to let down my well-placed guard: I couldn’t help but admit to myself that all this technology, and the hard work behind it, was pretty cool.

As our tour continued, Roelien stressed the level of innovation that Orania strives for, and attains. “Since we use only Afrikaner labor, and that labor is expensive, we have to find better ways to do everything.” These better ways include growing only high-profit crops like organic tomatoes, pecan nuts, and table grapes, and requiring new residents to bring their own work with them (we visited several handicrafts shops, selling everything from leather shoes to silver Celtic crosses).

Since the volkstaat plan includes growing Orania from its current 600 residents into a nation of 100,000 inhabitants in a region stretching from Orania to the Atlantic Ocean, the development of efficient, quick-assembly housing is one of the community’s prime concerns. Our tour took us to a prototype “straw bale house,” which is pretty much what it sounds like: fast to assemble, but highly flammable and definitely accompanied by unsavory Three Little Pigs connotations.

Orania is an easy target: a straw man of a town, trying to revive a failed system of government and an anachronistic way of life, a town of straw houses ripe for the huffing and puffing of the enlightened rest of the world, myself included. Indeed, when I told other white South Africans that I’d been to Orania, the most common comments were, “Those people are crazy,” and, “We aren’t all like them.” Orania was little more than an off-color joke, something to laugh about and then shake your head with smug sadness.

But the main difference between the Oranians and many white South Africans is that the Oranians admit that they’re separatists. Skyrocketing robbery, assault, rape, and murder rates, along with radical shifts in government structures, have left white South Africa disoriented and afraid. So when the problems, and the difficult and ambiguous work of genuine reconciliation, become too much to bear, everyone has to find a way to cope. For most white South Africans, this involves stringing razor wire around your home and relegating your communal life to high-security shopping malls or, if you have the means, joining your friends and relatives who have already moved to Canada or Australia. The Oranians have simply found a more innovative way to hide.

But Orania is more than just the ultimate gated community. For one thing, a lot of what the Oranians are doing is actually vaguely inspiring. Perhaps it’s just my own white American affinity for pioneers and visionaries, but there’s something heartwarming about watching the Oranians proudly show you what they’re building themselves—from the vast farms to the irrigation system to the solitary warehouse where a carpenter cheerfully crafts cabinets and coffins. These are some of the least apathetic people I’ve ever met. They see problems with the world and are willing to put in a lot of personal effort to find workable solutions, to start small but to create something good and lasting. In that sense, Orania has a lot in common with the sorts of communities I hope to be part of throughout my life. Except for the association with a legacy of organized evil, it’s actually quite attractive.

Our tour ended at the Orania museum, a hodge-podge collection of Afrikanerdom: assorted farm equipment, children’s toys, rusted-out rifles, and in one corner, the H.F. Verwoerd collection, including the clothes the Prime Minister was wearing when he was stabbed to death. Little numbered paper arrows pinned to the suit jacket mark the spots where the knife went in. Seeing my interest in the exhibit, the museum’s curator smiled warmly and said, “He was the last great leader this country had.”

I asked most of the Oranians I met what they thought their town would turn into in 100 years. Most spoke of their hope for an enlarged volkstaat, recognized by the world as an independent nation and a center of Afrikaner culture.

The curator had a slightly different vision: “Orania will still be a small town, but I think we’re gonna get the country back.”

Originally published in re:generation quarterly, Spring 2000.

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