S. Africa's island of whites
As radical white groups threaten violence over the holidays, one town touts its separate peace.
ORANIA, SOUTH AFRICA — It looks like any of the other small towns peppering the plains of the upper Karoo. White picket fences, wind chimes outside the post office, and dull prefab houses bleached by the relentless sun. A battered pickup truck lumbers by; a young mother heads into the grocery store to buy a jar of jam.
But something seems off. An unfamiliar flag on the post; a different language on the street signs; an almost eerie quiet. And no blacks. In a country where just 12 percent of the 45 million people are white, Orania stands out.
Founded a decade ago, Orania is an Afrikaner "private town" with a throw-back ideology and a stringent admittance policy to match. In the wake of historic elections, when South Africa left behind the apartheid legacy of separation and discrimination, most whites ignored Orania, or were embarrassed by it.
But now, residents say more whites are embracing the idea of Orania. An increase in poverty and crime in South Africa, coupled with a national affirmative- action policy, making it harder for the old white Afrikaner elite to get access to education and jobs, has led to white frustration.
Recently, several fringe Afrikaner groups have set off explosives aimed at the black government, killing one woman and wounding many more. Last Thursday, a bridge was destroyed in KwaZulu-Natal, and a letter was sent to newspapers by one radical group warning of more destruction to come over the Christmas holiday season.
While citizens in Orania have no connection to nor condone the bombings, they are trying to capitalize on the sentiments behind them. Orania is busy portraying its segregated lifestyle as the only alternative for South African whites.
Don't fight the system, says Mayor Prinsloo Potgieter, "Join us and leave the system behind."
The 500 or so acres of land on which Orania sites were bought in 1991 by a small group of Afrikaners - descendants of Dutch and French settlers who came to Africa some 300 years ago. Afrikaners make up about 60 percent of the country's 5.5 million whites. The plan was to build a homeland to which all Afrikaners could flock, but the population has never risen above 600.
"It is too hot," explain residents. "There is no work," suggest youngsters, "and there is no one to work for you," they add sheepishly. "It is a little limited socially," admits one housewife. But mainly, most here agree, the town hasn't grown because it is still "not bad enough" for Afrikaners "on the outside."
Some say it's getting that way "out there." "Two years ago, I thought these guys were nuts," says Neels Oosthusizen, an Afrikaner lawyer down from Johannesburg to see Orania for himself. "Now I think it is the only way." He says he is sick of "hard times. They [the black government] have messed it all up."
Not all whites agree, based on the fact that Orania has grown little over the years. "I am getting along fine together with everyone ... and have no need for a place like Orania," says Marina Vermeulen, an Afrikaner businesswoman in Kimberly. "But," she adds, "I can understand them."
Some residents say the recent bombings are a reflection of just how bad whites feel. "Five years ago, [the radical Afrikaners] would not have planted bombs," says Orania high school teacher Wynand Boshoff, who was at university with some of the half dozen men arrested on charges of high treason and terrorism in connection with the plots against the government in recent months. "So who knows what will happen five years down the line?"
Down the road from the Orania grocery store is the Verwoerd Museum, commemorating former South Africa Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, a determined believer that South Africa's races should live apart. Mr. Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, is not very much in fashion in today's new South Africa.
"It's not politically correct to have statues of Verwoerd, so they are all getting sent back here," says resident John Strydom, glancing around at a half-dozen busts falling over among the geranium rows. "But his ideas are very logical."
The dream of Orania, fashioned with Verwoerd's theories in mind, was to create a politically and economically independent homeland for the Afrikaner peoples, where their unique Afrikaans language and traditions remained pure, and "outsiders" were kept at bay. Such a homeland, believed the founders, would provide the security and sense of identity Afrikaners needed to survive. "Even if only 50 percent of Afrikaners come here," says longtime resident Chris Jooste, "it will be our Israel ... our salvation."
"We Afrikaners will not rule South Africa again. I am resigned to that," says Mayor Potgieter. "But I don't want to be ruled by any other.... We want self rule."
South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki has sent envoys to Orania on several occasions, but the government has consistently put off demands for self-determination. An independent Afrikaner entity in the middle of the country would not jibe with the government's current "Rainbow Nation" policy - South Africa's effort to integrate all races.
Even though Orania seems as far from its goal of self-determination as ever, it doesn't show. Townspeople celebrate Afrikaner holidays, vote in their own elections (no one approached the polling booth set up by the government during the last national election), fly the old Afrikaner Transvaal flag from 1852, and hold cultural evenings of Afrikaner music and dance. National taxes are paid, but reluctantly. Meanwhile, "others" (a euphemism used mainly for blacks) are politely asked to stay away. Prohibited by law from barring blacks from entering, Orania tolerates visitors only when on official business.
"If a child from here went away to university and came home with a black friend, that would not be looked well upon by the community," admits Mr. Boshoff. "I'm not saying that is right. I'm just saying that is the way it is."
Black laborers need not apply for jobs here, either. "I used to have a 'girl' doing all my ironing and cleaning," says Hilda La Roux, who began washing her own dishes and mopping her own floor for the first time - at age 76 - when she moved to Orania eight months ago. "But there is no room for her here. And I can manage."
High-schooler Annabe van den Berg has lived in Orania for most of her life. Next year she hopes to go to university in Pretoria. "It will be a - uitdaging," she says, struggling for the English word for "challenge." "But I'm not scared." Well, maybe a little, she soon admits. "I want to get to know other cities bigger than Orania," she says, and "yes, other people, too, I suppose."
Ms. Van den Berg's knowledge of "others" is limited pretty much to what she finds on the Internet. Once, she met a Spanish journalist who came for a visit, she recalls. And there was a Jew once, too. But there were never any non-Afrikaner children her age. "I am sure I will have no problems with them," she says. "And when I finish studying, I will come home. These are my people. And I have everything I want here."
It's nearing closing time at Orania's grocery store and a black man, a laborer from a farm outside town, wheels down the road. He stops, props his bicycle up on the faded wall, and walks in. Making no eye contact with the other customers, he gently asks for a pack of instant tomato soup, pays, and walks out. No one bothers him, or looks his way. The stranger rides away. The chimes tingle as the screen door slams in the dry wind.