A cluster of rickety shacks and neat brick houses cling to the rolling hills of the Klipgat settlement, northwest of Pretoria.
There’s a throat-scratching smell of the nearby sewerage works in the air. Goat trails are etched on the koppies. Children rub their one bare foot against the other to warm them up. Sickly stray dogs follow the winter sun.
This scene is in sharp contrast to the beautiful valley of the Upper Karoo town of Orania, more than a thousand kilometres away. Here the townspeople, all white Afrikaners, make sure the dogs are taken for a walk and the children have their shoes tightly laced.
Orania’s stretch of mealie fields, pecan nut plantations, the periphery of the mighty Orange River, are home to James Kemp (33), a young Afrikaner. He is nearly half the age of Klipgat resident and retired unionist Malose Rampou (57) – a veteran follower of Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness (BC) doctrine.
Rampou, his left hand paralysed from a stroke, still enjoys a good laugh. He reads his newspapers, books or magazines in the shade of a naartjie tree – abundantly orange with fruit – in front of his house.
We had a good old chuckle, a few weeks ago under this tree, about his attempt at vote harvesting ahead of the country’s first democratic local government elections in 1995. Rampou had personally sponsored food parcels for 500 of the poorest of the poor in the area. But come the announcement of the election results, only 20 people had cast their votes for Rampou’s Azanian Peoples’ Organisation. “Ah, Madiba magic at work,” he laughs.
Rampou’s eyes light up when I show off my media accreditation lapel badge from Orania, designed with the image of a young man rolling up his shirtsleeve – “the Little Giant”, as the townsfolk affectionately call him. I was given the badge when I covered the Orania leg of Steve Hofmeyr’s Toeka tour, on a chilly night in March this year, for the Mail & Guardian.
Rampou turns my lapel badge in his working fingers: “You see, now. The Boerseun rolls up his shirtsleeve to bliksem us darkies.” This is followed by peals of laughter from both of us.
On a serious note, though, we agree the image of the rolled-up shirtsleeve is a fitting symbol of the remarkable work ethic of the Afrikaners of Orania and elsewhere.
During a separate interview, Kemp, the Orania Movement communications and marketing director, strokes his beard and elaborates: “On Orania’s town flag is the emblem of a young man rolling his sleeves – the Little Giant. He embodies the core foundations of Orania – own labour. A place where the worker and job provider live in an integrated community.”
Central to my visit to Rampou’s home village of Klipgat – and indeed subsequent engagements with Kemp – is an attempt to nudge the two men to provide similarities between the Orania Movement’s “intentional” Afrikaner community, and Steve Biko’s clarion call: “Black man, you are on your own.”
In actual fact, just like Rampou dared me beforehand to ask, Kemp had dangled his treasured copy of Biko’s I Write What I Like memoirs in my face during our interview in downtown Orania.
Rampou reads me lines from the chapter titled The Definition of Black Consciousness: “Black Consciousness takes cognisance of God’s plan in creating black people black. It seeks to infuse the black community with a newfound pride in themselves, their efforts, their value systems, their culture, their religion and their outlook on life.”
Malose Rampou follows the Black Consciousness ideology. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)
Let there be no doubt there is a twinkle in Rampou’s eyes. He pages through the book muttering “wait a minute”, until his finger presses on what he was looking for: “Its [racism] greatest ally to date has been the refusal by us to club together as blacks, because we are told to do so would be racialist.”
Have no doubt that, at the other end of the land, these lines also have a profound effect on the young Afrikaner Kemp, who comes across more of an urbane liberal than a leading member of a group of separatists. Or are they?
‘Africanists of a special kind’
Kemp explains that during a conversation with Carel Boshoff Jnr, the Orania Movement president, the latter observed that black people who felt strongly about their heritage and Afrikaners who felt as strongly about theirs should both be categorised as “Africanists of a special kind”.
“This, according to Boshoff Jnr, sounds better to the ear than former president Thabo Mbeki’s reference to Afrikaners as ‘colonialists of a special kind’,” says Kemp. He says this is so relevant given a period in which Afrikaners find themselves at risk of losing their cultural identity at the expense of cultural integration. Cultural integration, he says, is nothing but a pretence to some form of “English only” era of a culture that followed the Anglo-Boer War.
Boshoff’s “Africanists of a special kind” will realise that it is up to them to preserve their heritage, while still playing an important role in the broader South African nation.
Orania has a zero percent unemployment rate. (Paul Botes, M&G)
“In other words, they must find the balance between staying true to their identity without being isolated,” Kemp says. “In Orania we strive towards that same balance. We uphold our identity while building a close relationship with other communities.”
While Rampou concedes there were striking similarities with Orania’s “intentional” community, he argues Biko expressed these sentiments at a time of the oppression of black people by a white minority.
“Can the same be said of the Afrikaner of Orania, though? As I have said before, the answer lies within the broader Afrikaner community themselves as to, among others, how badly they feel about affirmative action, Black Consciousness and so forth,” says Rampou.
In his own world view, against the backdrop of mealie fields and pecan nut plantations, Kemp believes he has the answer: “There is another African who called upon fellow Africans to celebrate their heritage and be proud of it. His name was Steve Biko. In contrast to leaders who followed a more multiracial approach – like Nelson Mandela – Biko focused on Black Consciousness.
“What is interesting is that Biko often criticised black people who sought advice and help from white liberal activists, or ‘leftists’, as he would put it. On at least two separate occasions during the 1970s, he referred to the ‘arrogance of the liberal ideology’. Biko felt strongly about the fact that black people should not wait on white saviours and rather take responsibility for their own future: ‘Black man, you are on your own’!”
But then, according to Kemp, even against the backdrop of the similarities, there were faultlines too, in comparisons between Biko and the Orania model.
Rich and poor live side by side in Orania. (Paul Botes, M&G)
“Biko focused on race instead of culture. [In the same breath] certainly there are comparisons between the Orania community and Biko’s ideology. One could even argue that Biko might have been pleased with the Orania model.
“However, when comparing the two, it is important to acknowledge that Biko was not fond of Europeans. In the year 1977, he referred to the year 1652 [when Dutch bureaucrat Jan van Riebeeck arrived in Africa] as that ‘unfortunate date’. Another example is that during the BPC-Saso [Black People’s Convention-South African Students’ Organisation] trial, when asked by the defence counsel about the BC ideology, Biko referred to an Indian in Durban and his suffering. Some might see this as some form of nonracialism, but it could also mean that Biko was critical of white liberals and viewed [only] those with a darker skin as being black.”
Kemp adds: “In Orania the focus is on culture and heritage. A person who identifies with BC will have a harder time blending in. However, we have to remember Biko lived in a time when differentiation or classification was based on account of one’s skin colour and not the culture you identify with.”
The choice of Rampou as a torchbearer of the Black Consciousness Movement was not accidental, for this is a man who is surprisingly conversant with not only Biko’s doctrine and teachings, but also Dr Hendrik Verwoerd’s disputed apartheid master plan and the workings of the Afrikaner clandestine kingmakers, the Broederbond, too. Rampou reminded me that Verwoerd was Orania’s town pioneer, Professor Carel Boshoff Snr’s father-in-law.
“The black ruling elite has a fighting chance to step back and learn how the political masters of the Broederbond strategically deployed Afrikaner men within the corridors of power,” says Rampou.
I had shared my own envy with Rampou about how Orania was growing into a self-sufficient town.
According to Kemp, the “intentional” community model works like a well-oiled tractor engine. “Orania is a place where the worker and job provider live in an integrated community,” he said. “In Orania it is not uncommon to have a housekeeper live in the same street as the person she works for. They attend the same church, go to the same social or cultural gatherings, run into each other in the same restaurant and their children go to the same school and become buddies. When a person of a wealthier background makes a contribution towards the school, it benefits the gardener too, whose children go to the same school.”
Carel Boshoff Jnr. (Paul Botes, M&G)
Would Rampou like to comment on the Afrikaner men and women of Orania doing things for themselves?
“Call it White Consciousness, if you like. When a people roll up their shirtsleeves and work, that should leave us darkies green with envy. And it all dates back to the shrewd strategist called Dr Verwoerd right through the Broederbond … [the now defunct] Volkskas Bank … the maize silos … You have to give it to these smart Afrikaners,” Rampou observes.
The man leans closer to me: “What about us black people? The black ruling elite has for some weird reasons inculcated a dependency culture into the minds of our people. Look, my own father worked for a pittance at the old ZAS [Zuid-Afrikaanse Spoorwee – the railways]. The man saved enough money to build a big enough house for our extended family. My father never threw his name into a housing waiting list. He was a man of pride, work ethic and dignity.”
Once again I nudge Rampou to speak about Orania’s “intentional” community as opposed to Biko’s clarion call that “black man you are on your own”. Rampou narrows his eyes, his mind racing back to the turbulent 1970s, when Biko, Abram Tiro and many others broke away from the predominantly white National Union of South African Students to found the militant, exclusively black South African Students Organisation.
Orania residents pride themselves on their independence. (Paul Botes, M&G)
A herd of goats files past, drawing Rampou’s attention.
“The goats in Klipgat graze together without a herdsman. Why, because like the Afrikaner of Orania, these goats have focus. They know when to graze, when to file down to the valley for water and when to file back to the log enclosure to chew cud.”
The difference between present-day Orania and Biko is that the Black Consciousness firebrand and his comrades closed ranks at a time when black people were subjected to political oppression by a white minority.
“But still, can you blame the Afrikaner, who is also approaching international institutions like the United Nations about what they perceive to be the unconstitutionality of affirmative action and black economic empowerment [BEE]?”
Responsibility for the past
The answer, or so I think, lies with Kemp. In the year 1991, when Orania was bought with the idea of creating an Afrikaner settlement, the founders of the community had already realised that South Africa would enter an era in which minorities would have to take responsibility for their own past (heritage and history), their present (economic and cultural) and their future.
“Therein lies the first thing Orania has in common with the philosophy of Biko,” says Kemp. “The fact that you can’t rely on a government in a country where you don’t have political power, whether be it a minority or majority without it. You have to ensure that you and your children have economic opportunities, regardless of legislation prohibiting it, enjoy the freedom to celebrate your heritage, regardless of cultural intolerance marginalising it, and will have a future, regardless of ideologies endangering it.”
On Orania’s Monument Hill, the Little Giant stands tall surrounded by former Boer leaders. He symbolise hard work. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)
Back in Kilpgat, Rampou points out that, as a black person hoping to benefit from affirmative action and BEE, one had to get into the skin of a working-class white Afrikaner to understand the frustration and deep meaning of it all. In the same breath, he laments that BEE has only benefited a few politically connected individuals and charges that affirmative action was just a subtle tool for cadre deployment. “Therefore, it is not like all black people benefit from these programmes.”
Rampou returns to another nerve centre of the interview: what value could blacks – both as a nation and government – draw from the 0% unemployment model of Orania: “The ruling elite have no choice but to take notice … You say the Orania Movement is providing intellectual and other back-up to the [Xhoza] Chief Siphiwo Mdledle’s [Mnyameni] tribesmen. What if this model is embraced, say, by the Freedom Front Plus or the Solidarity union? What now? Are we going to see the black political leadership crisscrossing the country to tell people to reject the developmental skills of the Afrikaner?”
Rampou reminds me here that as a unionist he is very much aware that a percentage of largely white union Solidarity’s membership is black.
Skills of the Afrikaner
Rampou suggests it is not too late for the black elite to source the skills of the Afrikaner, dating back to how and why the Broederbond was created.
“It’s like when the Afrikaner of Orania take a step forward, we take two steps backward.”
Rampou says black people had to set up a structure similar to the Broederbond and from time to time invite knowledgeable people like Orania Movement leader Carel Boshoff Jnr to make presentations about the Afrikaner’s rallying cry of self-sufficiency.
Orania residents are building a self-sufficient town. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)
Asked whether the upwards of 1 800 Afrikaners – along with this writer who was the only black face – who arrived from across South Africa to attend Hofmeyr’s controversial Toeka tour were all a bunch of racists, Rampou closes both eyes.
“No, no, no. The Afrikaner has always been very effective in closing ranks around one of their own. You see, Hofmeyr was under severe criticism for making certain statements. Among others, crucial sponsors dumped him.
“And then those who went to his shows in droves did not attend because they agreed with his sentiments, but rather to support a Boerseun under attack left, right and centre.”
By my own admission I, the black journalist among white men and women, found Hofmeyr’s audience genuinely friendly and welcoming.
Kemp pages through his copy of I Write What I Like, and then sends a clarion call to the Afrikaner of Orania to take note of what he calls Biko’s main objective, which was the battle against the “internal state of alienation”. This, Kemp explains, refers to a culture of low self-esteem, a form of lesser self-worth caused by one’s ethnic background. “Biko viewed this to be the main obstruction on the road to freedom and realised that the black community would have to regain its pride in order to gain prosperity. This also refers to today’s Afrikaners.”
He warns there is a “selective” part of the Afrikaners’ history being portrayed in schools, newspapers, history books and TV. Kemp says, if these were being consumed as the main source of information, it is easy to forget the Afrikaner also contributed to South Africa as a country.
And to those who continue to dare the Afrikaner, “this is what you get for apartheid”, Kemp again warns it is not only Afrikaner history that is being systematically excluded. “I am sure Biko would be extremely upset about schools conveying the message that history only consisted of apartheid and the industrial revolution, to the exclusion of the very rich history of the Xhosa, Zulu, Ndebele and Pedi.”
Kemp argues that, had circumstances been different, the broader community of nations may have seen that Biko celebrated Africa’s cultural diversity “instead of focusing on one aspect [race]”.
“We may have even seen a Biko leading his community and liaising with Orania, on equal footing, as the Mnyameni community of Xhosa Chief Siphiwo Mdledle does,” says Kemp, neatly placing his treasured copy of I Write What I Like back on a private bookshelf in his bedroom.
In closing Kemp reasons that Biko’s 1970s phrase, “Black man, you are on your own”, still has echoes decades later.
“Today, 40 years later, in a culturally diverse South Africa, with minorities being marginalised, we might argue that Biko’s words were prophetic to suit our current circumstances: Afrikaner, you are on your own!”
This is an edited excerpt from a book Johnny Masilela is researching on the Upper Karoo town of Orania.