Orania held its own election this week, buoyed by a vision of growth and prosperity

Flying the flag: Residents of Orania can, theoretically, vote for the Thembelihle council as well as in their own election, but this is discouraged. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

Flying the flag: Residents of Orania can, theoretically, vote for the Thembelihle council as well as in their own election, but this is discouraged. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

Orania isn’t worried.

The truce that makes it uniquely self-governed and that saw it hold its own, independent elections on Wednesday has stood for nearly 16 years now, and it will take more than pre-election bombast to tear it down.

Also, going after Orania just wouldn’t be all that profitable.

“There is not all that much in Orania to plunder,” said Orania Movement leader Carel Boshoff this week about his Afrikaner enclave in the Northern Cape. “In terms of pub- lic spending, our budget isn’t that big. The secret is in how we apply it.”

While the rest of the country voted for local governments on Wednesday, Orania ran parallel elections for a representative council.
In many respects that election resembled those at 22 612 points elsewhere in the country: Orania’s voting station opened at 7am and closed at 7pm, with voters being checked off against a strictly managed voters’ roll.

But the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and national government played no role in this election. And as far as the town is concerned, it never will.

Orania falls within the boundaries of the Thembelihle Local Municipality, which until Wednesday was governed by a creaky coalition involving an independent candidate, the Democratic Alliance and the Congress of the People. As part of its election campaign, the Economic Freedom Fighters in the area promised to re-examine the status of the strictly Afrikaans-speaking white community — with the implication that its autonomy would no longer be tolerated.

But this week the residents of Orania were sanguine and unconcerned, universally dismissing such talk as mere rhetoric of the kind the enclave has often attracted in the past 25 years.

“It’s not like we lie awake at night worrying about it,” Boshoff said.

Politics aside, if Orania’s plans come to fruition it will transform itself from dorpie (small town) to city over the coming years — and will present the kind of potential rates revenue base that will leave any municipality salivating.

“The Afrikaner needs a city,” the official pitch for the plan goes. “Our language needs a city. Our culture needs a city. A nation needs a city.”

With Orania having little more than 1 000 inhabitants at present (a far cry from the 60 000 the town was supposed to have had a decade ago by initial projections), building a city seems ambitious. But after 20 years of existence, Bloemfontein too had just 1 000 residents, proponents say.

“Our ancestors did it; we are going to do it again,” promises a slick promotional video for the initiative.

If the city is built and the people do come, the government of Thembelihle will have to break through two layers of protection to get to their rates.

Though it is to all appearances a town, Orania is structured via a share-block scheme that keeps it entirely private property. Utilities such as Eskom and Telkom provide services to that property, which manages the split and revenue collection of the end users.

Thembelihle provides no services to Orania consumers — not sewerage, not roads, not rubbish collection. So reaching through the private landowner to the inhabitants to bill them would be difficult.

Orania’s second line of defence is even more formidable: a long-standing, court-sanctioned ceasefire treaty with the government that grants it de facto independence.

In late 2000 Orania was granted an indefinite reprieve from the system of local government then implemented elsewhere, replacing a transitional post-1994 scheme with the one that is currently in place.

In terms of a settlement to a challenge brought by Orania, its representative council retains its functions and powers until a new agreement is struck. That gives it the only transitional representative council still extant, and makes it formally a holdover from the elaborate arrangements of the democratic transition.

It also leaves the town in legal limbo. But in all the time since that truce was struck, neither the government nor Orania has seen fit to seek to change the arrangement in any way.

“We accept that politics is dynamic and that things do not stay unchanged,” said Boshoff, “but we have no plans to look for change.”

If the government were to seek to overturn the status quo, it would have to deal with language guaranteeing the right to self-determination and cultural protection that was inserted into the Constitution specif- ically to placate Afrikaner fears.

If it ever comes to a fight, the conduct of the inhabitants of Orania could come to be at issue, and that has led to another layer of complexity. Each resident of Orania could plausibly vote for the council of Thembelihle as well as in their own elections, but this could look fishy to a court. Residents are gently discouraged from exercising their broader franchise.

And that puts the town in a weird relationship with the only remaining party that even has self-determination on its radar.

“Orania has the right to make its own decisions and we support those,” said Philip van Staden, a leader of the Freedom Front Plus on Wednesday, as he waited for (real) election results to start coming in. “But you need to work in the mainstream.”

Thanks to voter secrecy and the sensitivity of the matter, nobody knows how many votes Orania’s independence costs the FF+, but it is the only party Orania residents would plausibly vote for.

But while the FF+ is all about minority rights, its idea of self-determination is not geographic.

“If you don’t take part in this pro- cess,” said Van Staden, pointing to the boards where vote tallies will later appear, “then you have no voice. You can’t go to the government and say: ‘This is how many people support our policies; this is why you should listen to us,’ and effect change.”

The FF+ does not encourage withdrawing from society, he said, because not everyone could (or would want to) move to the Afrikaner enclave, and making a positive contribution throughout the country is important.

Yet, as other South Africans voted for one ward councillor and also cast a proportional representation vote for their local government, the inhabitants of Orania — and a few nonresident supporters — elected a council of their own.

Each individual stands as an independent candidate, with no political parties involved.

“We’re very happy with the way it went,” said Orania spokesperson Jaco Kleynhans about proceedings. At 55%, turnout was slightly lower than the aggregate for the rest of the country. After a two-hour count overseen by a 16-member electoral team, the result was published on Thursday morning.

But not quite the final results.

Of the 12 council members, 11 were elected by people who had to prove three months in residence to be eligible. “Outhabitants”, or those who could show at least six months of support by way of, say, shareholding in an Orania company but who reside elsewhere, elected the remaining member.

The outhabitant vote ended in a tie between two candidates, each with 31% of the vote. That meant Orania went into an online runoff election, which will continue well after the rest of the country should have finalised results.

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet writes about politics, society, economics, and the areas where these collide. He has never been anything other than a journalist, though he has been involved in starting new newspapers, magazines and websites, a suspiciously large percentage of which are no longer in business. PGP fingerprint: CF74 7B0F F037 ACB9 779C 902B 793C 8781 4548 D165 Read more from Phillip de Wet

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