On the eve of Nelson Mandela’s funeral, a white Afrikaner settlement in the Northern Cape region wants no part of black South Africa
By Neil Tweedie 8:14PM GMT 13 Dec 2013
On a hill above the small settlement of Orania in the Northern Cape region of South Africa five men look out across the vast semi-desert of the Karoo. They are Paul Kruger, JBM Herzog, DF Malan, JG Strydom and Hendrik Verwoerd. Five leaders of South Africa spanning the first two-thirds of the 20th century, cast in bronze.
The busts are monuments to another age, when Afrikaners enjoyed their power and black people were taught to know their place. Kruger, president of the Transvaal, was brought low by the British at the end of the Second Boer War, dying in exile in the Netherlands, but the Afrikaners rose again, producing the four prime ministers who keep the old man company on this lonely outcrop.
It is an incongruous setting. The sculptures once graced government buildings and public spaces but they were not wanted in the new South Africa, fashioned in major part by Nelson Mandela, whose legacy was celebrated this week. Locked away in storerooms, shunned as reminders of white domination, they languished until rescued by the people of Orania, who hold these men heroes still.
They have another hero, “Little Giant”, a boy rolling up his sleeves and about to get to work, the town’s motif and a symbol of self-reliance. His statue stares westward together with the others, towards a promised land.
This town of some 1,000 people, manicured and irrigated by canals channelling water from the nearby Orange River, is like a time capsule. The fall of apartheid never happened here.
Walk into a shop or restaurant in Orania or stroll along its quiet lanes, and you will be greeted only by white faces. There are a few black and brown faces but they belong to people making deliveries. That is how the people here – almost 100 per cent Afrikaner – like it. To own or rent a home in the town you must be accepted by the community, which runs it as a company and has the power to deny entry to those who do not share its love of the Afrikaner language and ”culture’’. A lot of black South Africans speak Afrikaans but that is not the ”point’’.
“There is a difference between an Afrikaans speaker and an Afrikaner,” says Jaco Kleynhans, Orania’s public relations man. “We are not talking about race here – we want to associate with certain cultural traditions.”
Those ”cultural traditions’’ include celebrating people like Kruger and great days in the Afrikaner calendar, like December 16. On Monday, the day after Mandela’s funeral in his home village of Qunu, Afrikaners will celebrate what is now known as the Day of Reconciliation. Before black majority rule it was known by another name, Day of the Vow, and commemorated the Battle of Blood River, the victory in 1838 of 470 Afrikaners – Voortrekker colonists – over an army of up to 15,000 Zulu warriors.
“The 16th of December is very important to us, one of our most important festivals, when people wear traditional clothing,” says Kleynhans. Not an occasion for celebration if you are a Zulu, or indeed a black person of any tribe. For culture, read skin colour. It’s just that, this being post-apartheid South Africa, Oranians can’t quite put it that way.
Much has been made in recent days of Mandela’s political genius in steering South Africa bloodlessly towards majority rule in 1994. The “Rainbow Nation” is lauded as an example to all of how mutual tolerance can conquer ethnic antagonism. But that rosy picture requires qualification. When a crowd of 60,000 people gathered in Johannesburg’s FNB Stadium to celebrate the life of Mandela, joined by some 60 heads of state, there were few whites indeed cheering with them.
In the end, the event, a public relations disaster for Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president, booed by his own people in front of world VIPs and media, resembled more a political rally than a coming together of a people. The rainbow that day was green, gold and black, the colours of the African National Congress, which has enjoyed uninterrupted rule since 1994. What kept the whites away is open to debate but fear is part of it. Talk to Afrikaners and Anglo-South Africans about the future and the word “fear” is rarely absent.
Orania is an answer to that fear, born in the dying years of apartheid. The main options then were simple: stay and hope for the best or emigrate. Some 750,000 whites chose the second option, moving mainly to English-speaking countries. But there was a third course, a kind of internal exile aimed ultimately at the creation of a federated or independent Afrikaner homeland. This radical solution was the brainchild of Carel Boshoff, an Afrikaner intellectual and son-in-law of Hendrik Verwoerd, prime minister from 1958 until his assassination in 1966. Verwoerd, an American-trained sociologist, was the man who conceived apartheid.
Orania was the result. Situated halfway along one of the main roads linking Johannesburg and Cape Town, it lies in a sparsely populated area, where huge skies meet a horizon punctuated by escarpments and triangular kopjes. It is an arid place, chosen by Boshoff to be unattractive to all but those sufficiently desperate to come here – frightened Afrikaner whites.
“It is argued that Verwoerd constructed two huge dams on the Orange River and irrigation canals because he knew what was coming and saw this as a future homeland for Afrikaners,” says Boshoff’s son, also a Carel. “Why here, in this place? Well, where else does a previously advantaged small minority go? Where other people don’t want to follow.”
Orania is actually quite an attractive town, if a little ”Stepford’’ in atmosphere. Clean, manicured, it is populated by people of seemingly limitless courtesy, but it likes to keep an eye on visitors. John, a retired doctor, accompanies The Telegraph around and is anxious to get a photograph of his journalistic visitors, not just for social purposes, one feels. CCTV is all-pervasive and reporters must obtain a press pass before walking around.
“My father interacted with black people on the most convivial basis but he was trying to be realistic about power politics,” says Mr Boshoff Junior, now head of the community. “Being a missionary for the best part of his life, he knew that you could have quite constructive relationships [with other races] but also experience deep cultural differences. He said, ‘Either one or the other is going to dominate.’ He did not believe that things were going to come tumbling down immediately after 1994 but he realised that there could only be one outcome. He did not oppose majority rule, seeing it as inevitable. This was about thinking outside the box.”
Orania’s status as a white redoubt was highlighted in 1995 when Mandela paid a visit to meet the widowed Bêtsie Verwoerd. It was another exercise in reconciliation by Mandela but also a refusal to recognise any area as ”no-go’’. The new president and the wife of the architect of his oppression shared a classic Afrikaner delicacy while taking tea, koeksisters – sweet cakes. Orania has welcomed other black leaders since, including President Zuma, in an attempt to mollify black opinion. Confrontation is not the game, rather the slow growth of a de facto white volkstaat.
Mr Boshoff is not sentimental about Mandela but admits to a certain admiration for the man. “Mandela was a good soldier in the sense that he understood that it’s not all about fighting,” says Mr Boshoff. “He did the right amount and right kind of fighting to attain his goals. Only after succeeding, he had to decide what kind of winner he would be. He decided to be a conciliator to bind South Africa into one whole. That is quite remarkable. There is nothing given about that – it’s a sort of greatness. We are quite clear on Mandela being a great character but he was not born for reconciliation, he was a fighter who wanted to reach his aims, and his tactics included armed struggle. It takes something away from him to ignore this and portray him as a teddy bear figure hugging everybody.”
But that unified South Africa can be no place for Afrikaners, argues Boshoff. “An Afrikaans-speaking white elite has been replaced by an English-speaking black elite. You are in for a huge clash of interests, and it would be foolish not to consolidate your interests somewhere. It is a simple strategic question: where do you regroup after you have lost your instruments of power?”
After years of stagnation, Orania’s population is growing again, at a rate of 10 per cent per year. Roelien de Klerk, a jeweller, who moved to the town with her four children, is one of the early inhabitants. “I like it because it is conflict-free,” she says.
But why feel so threatened, when the vast majority of white South Africans manage to co-exist with their black countrymen?
“The crime and corruption in this country are terrible,” she says. “If the dark doesn’t scare you, so be it. But if I need a torch, let me have one. It’s comfortable for me here because I love my language and culture and want my children to go to a Christian school. I’m not the same as a Zulu or Xhosa. People in other places say, ‘Lucky for you, there are no blacks.’ But that’s not why I’m here. I want to build something that can last.”
Oranians like to say they are not the Amish, not a religious sect caught in amber. Why, they even have a lesbian couple, and a gay man is thinking of moving in from the diamond town of Kimberley. But homosexuality is acceptable only if it is discreet and white. And of the two, it is the white bit that matters more.
Boshoff dreams of a string of settlements to the sea, the nucleus of his beloved volkstaat. But he’s a realist. “Black economic empowerment, affirmative action, are not only marginalising Afrikaners, they are kicking them in the –––,” he says, dropping the academic language for a moment.
“The First Afrikaner was the pioneering farmer,” says Boshoff. “The Second Afrikaner came to an end with the end of his exclusive control of the state. There has been a huge erosion of Afrikanerdom since. This would be the third construction. We are constructing the Third Afrikaner. The odds are against us. But one man can change history.”