/ 1 November 2005

Orania, white and blue

It must be the only South African town still presided over by a statue of Hendrik Verwoerd, out-and-out believer in white supremacy and the architect of apartheid. Eleven years after South Africa’s first all-race elections, Orania seems, more than ever, to be lost in a time warp.

The eerie feeling of stepping back into a bygone age pervaded last week’s conference on Afrikaners’ right to selfstandigheid (independence), which was staged in Orania’s community hall — next to Verwoerd’s heroic bronze. It was accentuated by the fact that most of the delegates from the Northern Cape town are in or past their middle years.

Among the intellectuals who attended — including academic and businessman Jakes Gerwel, former opposition leader Van Zyl Slabbert and former Unisa principal Marinus Wiechers — there was little enthusiasm for territorial separation. Some of the hundred-odd delegates called for solutions to Afrikaner selfbeskikking (self-determination) in ways other than through a volkstaat. Suggestions included a “cyber-government”.

The sapping of Afrikaner identity, culture and language in the new dispensation, and the sad reality that Afrikaners have not embraced their rights to independence under the Constitution, were tossed around in inconclusive debate. A resolution calling for legislation to be prepared for Parliament, making the self-determination of different South African communities possible, was adopted.

Orania’s population of 600 does not suggest South Africa’s 2,5million Afrikaners are lining up to demand their own state. The dorpie stands in semi-desert terrain, 160km outside Kimberley, and is not renowned as one of the country’s economic hubs. Where will the jobs come from?

Built on private land, it is ruled by residents. Forty Afrikaner families bought the dilapidated town for R1,5-million in December 1990 and have since added more land to extend the borders of their Utopia.

The independence fantasies of Oranians find strange outlets and festivals to celebrate Afrikaner holidays. The local kerk (church) bazaar issues its own currency, the “Ora”.

“We are for Afrikaners; people who speak Afrikaans and who want to preserve the Afrikaner culture,” resident John Strydom told the Mail & Guardian last year. “If you want to live here, you are welcome, as long as you subscribe to Afrikaner culture.”

Carel Boshoff, Orania’s 77-year-old founding father, admitted at the conference that he had envisaged 60 000 residents after 15 years. Boshoff and his followers once dreamed of a volkstaat stretching to Namaqualand and the West Coast, but the patriarch has pretty much accepted that this will not happen in his lifetime.

Other Orania pioneers do not take such a long view. Sam de Klerk told delegates that time was running out for Orania’s ageing population.

The problem is Afrikaner pragmatism. Boshoff’s grandson, Carel Boshoff IV, commented that, instead of striving for an independent volk that would contribute to a better country, today’s Afrikaners had decided to seek a place in the sun in a greater South Africa. In the new South Africa, he lamented, Afrikaner identity had undergone a transformation. “What was once a resolute community that demanded respect has now developed into a loose bundle of individuals that totter between nostalgia and opportunism,” he observed.

But Boshoff conceded that Afrikaners could not be expected to embrace the ideology of selfbeskikking if its advocates did not adequately analyse South Africa’s structural power shifts and political developments.

Wiechers told the conference that Afrikaners should look to cyberspace as geographical independence looked more and more unlikely. “For such a virtual government, all interested parties and bodies could draw up a constitution,” he said. “Membership and appurtenances could be recruited on a voluntary basis, ‘voter registration’ undertaken, party politics organised, elections held, virtual government bodies such as Parliament and executive organs elected, budgets calculated and taxes imposed.” Wiechers also argued that Afrikaner unity would never be achieved, and that Afrikaners “had to accept each other in all our variety”.

One of the few coloured people at the conference, Gerwel was concerned about the dangers of racism in any separatist enterprise. He said there had to be space for cultures to develop independently, but without racism or creating divisions in the country. Not only Afrikaners had the right to self-determination. Gerwel added that it would be difficult for Afrikaners to create a territorial volkstaat, but that they might achieve autonomy in other ways, such as through community-driven development.

Asked whether the African National Congress was sympathetic to the volkstaat cause, Gerwel said the ruling party “was apprehensive about ‘bantustanising’ South Africa again, because of what happened under apartheid”. One of apartheid’s fatal contradictions was whites’ desire for political control while retaining access to black muscle power. At least Orania cannot be accused of such hypocrisy, it is “Boer or bust”, with no black labour allowed. Here whites do the dirty work themselves, whether cleaning toilets or building a house.

“Afrikaners have forgotten to do certain jobs because they think it is beneath them,” the elder Boshoff told delegates. “They sit in front of the TV while others do the jobs they don’t want to do. In Orania, we believe in self-employment. We do not have the right to enslave anyone else.”

Just how far Orania is from its dream of a far-flung, populous Afrikaner state is highlighted by the modesty of its current political programme — and the fact that it has had to petition the ANC government to achieve it. It wants its own independent municipality, instead of falling under a larger district council. And it is waiting for a Cabinet ruling on the issue.

It boasts that it is that it is one of the Northern Cape’s few solvent towns. “Our residents pay their bills,” proudly proclaims Prinsloo Potgieter, Orania’s elected mayor. “We are truly self-sustaining.”