Guess who’s coming to tea

“Render unto Caesar …” was the lesson for the day. And the whites of Orania were sticking to it determinedly when President Nelson Mandela came swooping out of the sky this week to ruffle their placid pool of racial exclusivity.

Orania is what an American would describe as a “hard scrabble, company town” — in which the townsfolk battle to scratch a living out of the flinty earth and where the individual is subordinate to the collective ethos.

It was to this town — set in the lonely vastness of the Upper Karoo, otherwise populated by little more than granite outcrops and “wag ‘n bietjie” thorns — that the latter-day bittereinders fled the prospect of majority rule four years ago. Planting a “strictly private” sign at the front entrance, hoisting the flag of the 19th-century Transvaal Boer Republic and erecting a statue of Hendrik Verwoerd on a nearby hill to watch over them, they retired to their dream of ethnic purity.

It was a dream which collided with reality last month, thanks to the town’s 94-year-old grande dame, Betsie Verwoerd. Politely declining to join the spouses of other heads of state for the recent lunch with Mandela, on grounds of infirmity and age, Mrs Verwoerd — faithful to the Boer tradition of hospitality — threw in a pro forma invitation of the “drop-in-for-tea-if- you’re-ever-in-the-area” variety. She apparently failed to appreciate she was dealing with a man who engineered a people’s freedom from a cup of tea.

The alacrity with which Mandela took up the invitation created confusion in Orania. A crisis meeting of the town council called a crisis meeting of the townspeople. In Voortrekker tradition they took their lead from the Bible, agreeing that they owed duty to duly constituted authority even if — the Lord’s ways being mysterious — it happened to be a black man.

The civic leaders duly gathered in their Sunday best to greet their president as he swooped down in a South African Airforce Puma helicopter at midday on Tuesday. Mrs Verwoerd was waiting for him on the steps of the nearby community hall, the very picture of apple-pie, with twinkling eyes, gleaming dentures and silver hair in a no-nonsense bun.

Her son-in-law, Professor Carel Boshoff, hovered in the background. With his long hair swept back, a neatly trimmed beard, burgundy cravat, blue suit and brown waistcoat, he had obviously dressed for the role of a Boer leader come to town, although the effect was more of a pool-hall proprietor fussing over a visit by the tax inspector.

After the obligatory cup and koeksisters in a side room they emerged to meet the press. Mandela adroitly parried questions about white exclusivity. “I did not have to ask for permission to come,” he said in mock innocence.

Then it was the turn of the diminutive Mrs Verwoerd, who unfolded a two-page hand-written speech she had been anxiously clutching. She became distressed as she tried to read without her glasses. Mandela, peering over her shoulder, began softly prompting her in Afrikaans, a half-smile playing along his mouth as he shepherded her through her text: “… I ask the president to consider the volkstaat with sympathy and also to dispose the fate of the Afrikaners with wisdom.” The ordeal over, she beamed her gratitude up at Caesar.

There followed a hurried tour of the town and its sights, including the likeness of Hendrik Verwoerd, who could only have been cast in stone to witness the day’s repudiation of all his works with such imperturbability. “You’ve made him very small,” blurted Mandela in surprise at the pygmy-like dimensions of the man who in the flesh had cast such a gigantic shadow over the lives of millions.

There is not much to see in hard-scrabble towns, and polite farewells were soon being exchanged on the helicopter pad. As the rotors of the Puma began their roaring I asked Professor Boshoff whether this meant blacks were now welcome in Orania.

He smiled the smile of a pool-hall proprietor who thinks he has just seen off the tax-man: “There are so many other towns for other people to live in,” he said.

Behind him the Puma lurched into the air. But one did not need the sight of it to know Caesar had gone.

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