Orania still holds some surprises

The single-lane bridge across the Orange River, built of iron and concrete, tells the story of men at work during years gone by.

In those halcyon days, when technology had not reached today’s dizzy heights, it was the hands of tough men that built the massive bridge.

My mind tries to travel back to the days when men in overalls pushed wheelbarrows along the banks of the Orange River to construct the infrastructure on which we still depend to this day.

The road from Gauteng to the Northern Cape is bordered by large tracts of land and the odd flock of grazing sheep. Eventually, I arrive at my destination, Orania.

I am not even going to try my hand at explaining the politics surrounding the town, for it is a story told and retold over a long time.

In the town, several white men with calloused hands and faces burnt brownish-red by the sun were at work, building residential units.

At the end of the day’s work, these men walk some distance to their living quarters for a shower, rest and dreams about family and friends in faraway cities and towns who they left behind when they migrated to Orania.

At a door, a man dressed only in shorts offers to take me to Seun Viljoen, with whom I have an appointment.

Raindrops roll down the man’s huge back.

Viljoen, a thin man with long, greying hair and missing front teeth, sits on a single bed covered with a grey blanket. On the table across from the bed is a slice of half-eaten bread.

He suggests we move to the recreation centre, where we find other men playing pool and who steal hidden glances at us.

Viljoen politely asks me, if I don’t mind, to conduct the interview in Afrikaans, to which I agree.

He initially arrived in Orania looking for work and a place to sleep, but was told there was work but no accommodation.

My hart het in my skoene geval [my heart fell into my shoes],” Viljoen says with stars in his eyes – although the deeper meaning of it cannot be translated into any other language.

He moved on to the old Orania railway station where he joined some other men, to occupy an abandoned house owned by Transnet.

Finally he had found a job and a room in Orania.

Viljoen’s neighbour, Nick de Klerk, comes across as streetwise and boasts that he was from “Jozi”.

He tells me he would not be in this “kak plek [shit place]” if he was skilled and could find a better job.

He wants to show me the picture of his “cherry” back in Jo’burg.

De Klerk browses his cellphone photo album and – voila! – the face of a petite black woman appears on the screen.

Johnny Masilela is a journalist and author

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