FEATURE

‘Everyone in Orania is woke’: A journey to SA’s most notorious town

By Rebecca Davis 21 January 2020
Caption
The entrance to the Afrikaners-only town, Oraniain the Northern Cape. (Photo: Gallo Images / Mail & Guardian / Madelene Cronjé)

Orania is the Northern Cape town infamous for providing a home only to white people. But in recent years, more savvy leadership has seen Orania attempt to move away from its racist associations and present itself as a courageous self-determination project in line with the direction of geopolitics worldwide. It’s also preparing for significant population growth.

On a hill above Orania, atop a series of plinths arranged in a semicircle, sit the sculpted heads of former Afrikaner leaders. This is the home for statues with nowhere else to go.

These are all busts that have been rejected from places that don’t want them anymore,” says Orania’s PR man, Joost Strydom.

Monument Hill is a symbolic place for Oranians — it is home to statues of former Afrikaner leaders since rejected from other spaces such as museums. (Photo: Ayanda Mthethwa)

Hendrik Verwoerd, John Vorster, Paul Kruger and three others are still awaiting the company of Marthinus Steyn, the last president of the Orange Free State. A plinth has been set up for Steyn with a plaque bearing his name – but as yet, no town or museum has indicated there’s a Steyn head ready to be repatriated to Orania.

The symbolism of the half-circle is that none of them is alive any more. They cannot influence politics any more,” says Strydom.

They are all dead. They are just standing in history and looking out.”

The views of Orania from Monument Hill are panoramic, but the semicircle of heads gives the place a slightly spooky atmosphere as the shadows lengthen in the late afternoon.

Is this where you take journalists and murder them?” I had asked Strydom as we drove the dirt path up the hill.

Yes, but after a prolonged torture session,” he replies. “It’s not just murder.”

Joost Strydom handles media relations for Orania — a town in the Northern Cape established in 1991 as a ‘safe haven’ for Afrikaners who did not want to be forced into the ‘Rainbow Nation’ ideology. (Photo: Ayanda Mthethwa)

This forced joviality was a cover for the reality that Orania puts you on edge as soon as you enter.

The fact that this is a space in which no black people live makes it, in reality, very similar to hundreds of other places in South Africa – in which whites hunker together and erect physical, economic and social barriers to prevent the penetration of their suburban laagers by people of colour.

What makes Orania different is that it makes no secret of its discrimination. For almost 30 years, the Northern Cape town has openly advertised the fact that this is a place in which only white Afrikaners are welcome to make a home.

Because of this, the town has come to occupy a place in the public imagination vastly out of proportion to its size. It has become a byword for unchecked racism; a metonym for all unreconstructed white South Africans and problematic race relations.

Farming is a relatively small but emotionally significant part of the Oranian economy, their speciality pecan nuts which are mostly exported to China. (Photo: Ayanda Mthethwa)

Its very existence is a shameless challenge to the rainbow nation project to which South Africans were signed up at the end of apartheid. It is a festering boil on the face of social cohesion; a grotesque suggestion that the country’s racial rifts can never truly be sewn together. Orania exposes the lie of the New South Africa.

But Orania is also a useful symbol. It is a way of outsourcing and distancing white racism, allowing liberal whites to reassure themselves that they are not like those whites, so filled with racial hatred that they cannot even bring themselves to pretend.

It is a subject beloved of both local and international journalists. Part of the fascination is that of any weird, cult-like subculture. Part of it is the voyeuristic thrill of snooping on unconcealed prejudice: “bigotry tourism”, as one writer termed it. When the British Guardian ran a long-form piece on Orania in 2019, it became one of its most-read pieces of the year.

Local journalists return to this place periodically with the air of people picking at a scab that refuses to heal. Did Orania residents cry when Nelson Mandela died? (No.) Why did Orania return some votes for the EFF in the last elections? (Because EFF supporters were bused in.)

The town is also a darkly humorous punchline. When convicted racist Vicki Momberg briefly went on the run in 2019, Twitter users suggested her most obvious refuge was to be found in Orania. When it doesn’t induce hatred, Orania inspires mockery: painted as a home for the kind of people who populate Roger Ballen photographs of the platteland.

Some of these responses are quite valid. Others are not.

***

The first thing you should know about Orania is that its leadership hates its description as a “whites-only” enclave, even though that’s the only thing most South Africans associate with the town.

Instead, Oraniers insist they are part of a project which has nothing to do with race and everything to do with “culture” – an already slippery term which becomes progressively more nebulous as you try to unpack it.

In recent years, Orania leaders have become ever more concerned with highlighting this distinction. But to their evident frustration, journalists almost always refuse to play ball.

The last stand of apartheid, the last bastion of white supremacy,” says Strydom, scornfully quoting media labels attached to the town.

It’s all nonsense.”

The Oranian community has its own clinic and ambulance service with only one doctor serving a population of about 1,600 residents. They are hoping to expand their medical services as the population continues to grow. (Photo: Ayanda Mthethwa)

Strydom is 27: an energetic and articulate young man who is prepared to spend hours with Daily Maverick over the course of two days, despite – or perhaps because ofhis open distrust of media coverage of the town he calls home.

On the phone as we drove into Orania, Strydom warned us that ordinary residents were unlikely to be willing to talk to us. He said they had been burnt too many times. Indeed, there proved to be an almost palpable tension from locals in response to our presence. When two young women realised they were within shot of our camera, they jumped up immediately and scrambled to hide around a corner.

Strydom says that in one single week in 2019, five separate TV crews were shooting in Orania. To live under this kind of scrutiny must be just one of the many undesirable features of life in the town, but Strydom shrugs it off.

A bit of stress is good for us,” he says.

It’s a mantra he will repeat in various ways during our time together. Oraniers pride themselves on their hardiness. Strydom says when people leave the town, it’s often because they can’t handle the hard work. Here, residents are expected not just to live – but also build.

The construction sector in Orania is currently the single most important market as it employs most of its people and contributes the most to its economy. (Photo: Ayanda Mthethwa)

The town’s population numbered 1,602 in 2018, the last year for which there is a completed census. Orania is experiencing population growth of about 10% per year, but everywhere you look, preparations are being made for a city many times its current size.

We are currently building a new sewage dam for 7,000 people, expandable to 10 or 12 [thousand],” Strydom says. Driving around the town, he points out the construction which is happening on virtually every street.

The demand for housing is constant,” Strydom claims. He says townhouses in new developments go for amounts which would be considered astronomical in other small Northern Cape towns: up to R1.2-million.

Everything Orania does is premised on the idea of continual growth. It’s both a vindication of their raison d’etre and a political necessity. The next step will be building a university here: there is land set aside for that purpose. A training centre offering diplomas in technical skills like plumbing and electrical work already exists.

We drive to Orania’s proudest current development: a multi-million rand “community safety centre” being built by AfriForum.

It’s going to service the entire southern part of South Africa,” says Strydom. There is space within the building for a fire department, helicopter, ambulance and radio tower.

When I contact AfriForum to try to get some more details on the purpose of this facility, CEO Kallie Kriel emails me a decidedly defensive statement.

Kriel says the centre is just one of almost 150 community safety structures that AfriForum is establishing in both rural and urban areas across the country.

Our aim is to play a constructive role to make the country safe as a whole. AfriForum is thus not ashamed that we also contribute to community safety in the Northern Cape and Orania,” he writes.

In the same way that AfriForum was more than willing to assist the Zulu community in Nkungumathe to get a school, we are also more than willing to assist the Afrikaner community of Orania to fight the common enemy of the country, namely crime.”

That even a self-described Afrikaner rights organisation like AfriForum feels that it has to clarify that it is “not ashamed” to be associated with Orania tells you something about the reputation of this place.

***

In an air-conditioned boardroom in the headquarters of the Orania Movement (obligatory statue of HF Verwoerd: check), Strydom and I had already gone several rounds over the usual Orania questions.

No, there are no people of colour currently living in Orania – but neither, insists Strydom strenuously, is there an explicit prohibition against it. It is simply the case that the town only gives a home to those who are fully committed to the Afrikaner culture, ideology, language, and way of life.

I ask a question which has been on my mind since I organised this visit: In what ways exactly is “Afrikaner culture” considered so incompatible from the cultures of the rest of the country that it warrants withdrawing from society entirely?

After all, it’s probably safe to say that most South Africans are both Christian and conservative. It’s not hard to imagine a Zulu patriarch and an Orania tannie coming together over a shared distaste for the idea of banning corporal punishment in the home, for instance. And if the Afrikaans language is a cornerstone of this identity, it’s well known that the majority of first-language Afrikaans-speakers in South Africa are now people of colour.

Afrikaner culture is not just speaking Afrikaans,” Strydom begins. “It’s a shared history, religion…”

But it soon becomes clear that, in reality, the objections of Oraniers to the rest of South Africa are far less cultural than they are political. Strydom cites affirmative action and land expropriation as issues on which Oraniers find themselves at loggerheads with contemporary South Africa.

The real reason why the almost 2,000 inhabitants of Orania have chosen to seclude themselves in this inhospitable part of the Northern Cape is because they do not want to live under majority – ie, black – rule.

We [white Afrikaners] did minority rule for a while,” says Strydom, with laughable understatement, “and obviously it ended. It wasn’t sustainable. If we want to have any say, we need to be a majority in a certain area. We want – let’s say, a homeland. We are actually a very small nation. We just want a piece of land where we can look after ourselves and do things our way.”

I ask if he understands why so many people find the idea of Orania offensive – that it seems, to many, to be the absurd final manifestation of white South Africans’ refusal to share space with their black countryfolk.

Isn’t the idea of forcing people to build a nation together offensive?” he shoots back.

But after a second Strydom regains his customary composure.

I think people misunderstand Orania and genuinely feel it is an AWB stronghold,” he says.

As evidence that this perception is misplaced, he points to the fact that in Orania, all labour is done by white people.

Indeed, this is one of the only features that makes the town cosmetically different from other places in South Africa. On every street, white people are visible undertaking work that elsewhere in the country is almost always performed by black people, from construction to cleaning.

We do all our own work. Compare that to the average estate in Pretoria or Johannesburg, where you live in a gated community, surrounded by people of the same income level, and get people from townships travelling for hours to come clean your toilets.”

I comment, half mockingly but half-seriously: “You sound quite woke.”

I am,” Strydom responds immediately, with no trace of a smile.

Everyone in Orania is woke. Just not the way you journalists think.”

***

The contradictions of Orania are many. It’s a town famous for its racism; it is also possibly one of the only places in South Africa which does not profit from the exploitation of black labour.

It is also a town which prides itself on its inhabitants’ self-sufficiency, but which offers a social welfare blanket to the poor far more extensive than that provided by the South African government in many areas.

Orania is divided into two areas. One is more upmarket, and known as Orania proper. The other is called Klein Geluk (literally: Small Happiness). Here one will find far more modest dwellings, with the universal markers of low-income communities: cars rusting in yards, dilapidated fences.

Rows of single-storey, flat-roofed rooms are Orania’s answer to low-cost housing. The rooms can be rented for around R900 a month; Strydom says the minimum wage works out to around R6,000 monthly.

We don’t keep [poor people] going with food packets, but we try to give them the opportunity to help themselves. If you come here with nothing, you’re going to work in the sun most probably. You’ll get subsidised housing, but the next day you start working.”

Oraniers receive an interest-free loan from the local co-operative bank for the construction of a house. Land is made available to those whose income falls below a certain amount for around 10% of its market value.

Strydom sounds like many urban activists when he speaks about “breaking the cycle of poverty”, reeling off Orania’s three-step approach: stabilisation, rehabilitation, integration.

The opportunities available to poor white people in Orania have seen people arrive in recent years with possessions in plastic bags. Not everyone who applies to live here is approved – but Strydom, who sits on the committee responsible for the decisions, says only a small minority are rejected. Usually, rejections are the result of involvements with drugs or crime.

Strydom believes Orania’s interventions when it comes to poverty, contain useful ideas for the rest of South Africa.

We help people to take responsibility for themselves,” he says.

We give people menswaardigheid [dignity].”

***

The Verwoerd museum is immediately distinctive on a drive through Orania despite its location on the corner of an uninteresting suburban road: outside the house, a statue of HF Verwoerd stands permanent guard.

Strydom meets us in the garden to open the museum for us. It is not kept permanently accessible, he says, because the financial cost of having someone to staff the place would not be worth it. But judging by a guestbook filled with effusive compliments, quite a number of tourists make their way here annually and find the visit enriching.

The Verwoerd Commemorative Collection is a museum in Orania dedicated to the memory of Hendrik Verwoerd and his family during his time as South Africa’s Prime Minister under apartheid. Verwoerd is a widely celebrated figure in Orania. (Photo: Ayanda Mthethwa)

Tourism is, in fact, the largest contributor to the Oranian economy. In 2019, almost 3,000 visitors took a tour of Orania. The total number of annual tourists is likely much higher, because those who did not participate in an organised tour are not counted in that figure.

Before we enter, Strydom explains that we are not permitted to bring in cameras – because “the Verwoerd family is very sensitive”.

The museum has two parts: a front section, filled with artefacts from the life and political career of Hendrik Verwoerd, and a back section which has preserved Verwoerd’s widow Betsie’s living quarters as they were on the day she died in 2000.

The gravesite where Elizabeth ‘Betsie’ Verwoerd is buried. Betsie was married to Hendrik Verwoerd — who often is referred to as the ‘architect of apartheid’ — until his assassination in 1966. (Photo: Ayanda Mthethwa)

To call the place a “museum” is, in reality, a misnomer: museums generally try to grapple with the legacy of their subjects in a reasonably nuanced manner. Walking around, I reflected by way of contrast on the Harry S Truman museum in Kansas to which I was taken on a US State Department tour in 2018. Truman is, to many Americans, the heroic president who helped end World War II: but even in a place ostensibly set up to honour his memory, visitors were urged to contemplate the catastrophic human toll of the dropping of two bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki which brought the conflict to a devastating close.

What Orania has established to preserve the legacy of Verwoerd is more of a shrine. There is – quite literally – no attempt made to reflect on the extraordinary evil of the Verwoerd-orchestrated political system defined by the United Nations as a crime against humanity.

In each claustrophobic room there are large paintings and sculptures of the architect of apartheid, to the point where one exits feeling that his visage is permanently burnt on to one’s retinas. Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd, Man van Bestemming – Man of Destiny, one portrait announces.

On the morning of our visit, a barometer gifted to the Verwoerds registers a reading of “Dry”.

On display are presents from foreign governments, particularly Germany and Greece; Verwoerd’s fishing trophies; and a large scrapbook bearing cuttings from newspaper reports on Verwoerd’s time in office.

As you can see, the economy was growing at 8%,” points out Strydom.

A photo album contains page after page of pictures of Aryan-looking athletes in action, and military displays of nationalistic pride.

In one corner, cordoned off by glass, is a worn red chair with long-dried drops of blood staining the fabric. It is the chair on which Verwoerd was sitting when the lesser-known first attempt on his life took place: a shooting by white farmer David Pratt at the Rand Show in 1960. Pratt would later plead insanity; he died in prison 15 months later, in one of apartheid’s suspicious “suicides” during incarceration.

Taking up almost an entire wall is an old South African flag.

This flag is displayed for historical purposes,” Strydom says hastily, clearly mindful of the recent Constitutional Court ruling restricting the flag’s exhibition.

I’ve never seen one up close,” murmurs my Daily Maverick colleague Ayanda, almost flinching.

Oh, you haven’t?” says Strydom, with an awkward laugh. “Ja, it was an…interesting historical time.”

In another glass case, the crowning exhibit: the cream shirt, braces and jacket worn by Verwoerd when he was stabbed to death by parliamentary messenger Dmitri Tsafendas on 6 September 1966. The holes made by Tsafendas’ knife are visible, marked by police with little paper flags, and matched by faded bloodstains.

Strydom pauses to give us an account of the conspiracy theories surrounding Verwoerd’s assassination.

A lot of right-wingers hated Verwoerd for the tax money going to black people,” he says earnestly.

His effort to re-frame Verwoerd as relatively liberal in the context of the time is an ongoing leitmotif of Strydom’s tour – though one clearly undermined by the fact that the UN was already expressing concern about South Africa’s racially discriminatory policies in the early 1950s.

Strydom insists on translating for us in full a letter written in Afrikaans and ostensibly signed by the residents of “Kutloanong Bantoedorp” – in other words, black people – expressing their deep sadness at the death of their “beloved father”.

Accompanying the letter was allegedly a jar containing 12,000 buttons, each one symbolising “a tear of a Bantu man, woman or child”.

As Ayanda later points out, there is no sign of the button jar in a dark nook at the back of the room reserved for “Geskenke van etniese groepe” – presents from ethnic groups.

The rest of the tour is taken up by the living quarters of “Tannie Betsie”, the widow who famously shared tea and koeksisters with President Nelson Mandela in 1995. Mandela had invited the wives of a number of former South African leaders to tea in Pretoria, but Betsie Verwoerd declined on the basis of age and illness. She added that Mandela was welcome to drop in for tea in Orania if he was ever in the area, and Mandela promptly called her bluff – arriving by helicopter and sitting down with her in the community hall.

There are no photographs of this meeting visible in Betsie’s home, which is an unremarkable tannie abode except for the giant portraits of her husband adorning the walls here too.

As we leave, Strydom holds the guestbook open and insists that we sign it.

I hesitate, reluctant to commit anything to the page which could read as an endorsement of this ghoulish space.

Thanks for your time, Joost!” I write in the end.

***

Driving away from Orania, both Ayanda and I feel almost giddy with relief to be leaving. But in the days that follow, I turn over our visit and struggle to arrive at a definite interpretation.

Bidding us farewell, Strydom had said: “I don’t need you to approve of what we’re doing. But I do want you to at least acknowledge that it’s complicated.”

That is, in truth, easily done. Orania is complicated.

Standing on Monument Hill, Strydom pointed to the town’s symbol – a statue of a little boy rolling up his sleeves, intended to reflect Orania’s tiny size, but massive potential – and gave a heartfelt last argument for the town’s separatist existence.

We’re not gonna demand that the state keeps universities Afrikaans. We’re just gonna build our own,” he said.

We’re not gonna demand to have public service in Afrikaans, or live our culture, or even at this stage get treated fairly in business, or university requirements or whatever. We’re just going to go and create our own future.”

Put like that, the whole project of Orania seemed suddenly quite reasonable.

But what I couldn’t shake off as we drove away was the experience of the town’s creepy Verwoerd museum: an attempt not just to preserve the memory of apartheid’s architect, but actively to honour it.

There was no unseeing that. DM

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