Until thirty years ago, white Afrikaners dominated South Africa, today they feel threatened. Orania, a settlement where they want to preserve their identity, is the most controversial village in the country. “Our people always leave when we are under pressure.”
Carel Boshoff IV overlooks Orania from the hill, the Orange River meanders in the distance. The evening sun turns the houses of the village in a red glow, the white spire of the Reformed Protestant church rises above the trees. In a circle are six statues of prominent Afrikaners, above which the flag of the village flies. Boshoff has lived here for 25 years and was mayor. He lays his hand on the statue of Hendrik Verwoerd, his grandfather and the architect of the apartheid system in South Africa. “Orania is still mainly a symbolic place, a safe home for the Afrikaner. But in ten years the population will have increased tenfold, you can be sure of that.”
“Attention European journalists”
Orania is located in the middle of the arid Karoo semi-desert, halfway between Johannesburg and Cape Town, in the Northern Cape Province. The village aims to be a refuge for Christian, white Africans – the specter of apartheid is never far away. However, it was originally a settlement for black workers who worked on the nearby Vanderkloof Dam. It was to supply the few farms in the vast landscape with water. Afterwards, the workers’ houses were largely abandoned.
When apartheid seemed to be coming to an end at the beginning of the 1990s, the political, social and economic dominance of the white minority population also disappeared. Forty families went in search of an area where they could live in seclusion, away from the multicultural society that was in the making in the rest of the country. They found the abandoned workers’ settlement in no man’s land.
Boshoff’s father was the intellectual force behind this migration. He was convinced that the black population would seize power in the new South Africa. The Afrikaners, the white descendants of the Dutch settlers, would have to establish their own state in order to survive. The workers’ houses on the dam were bought up, the few black residents left behind were transferred to a settlement tens of kilometers away. “With the end of apartheid, the Afrikaner became a disembodied spirit,” Boshoff says without batting an eyelid. “We beheld the death of our people. Orania became a resurrection, a phoenix from the ashes.”
There was no question of real population growth in the first decades. In 1996 Orania had about 200 souls, fifteen years later the population had risen to 1,000. The village’s strict basic principles – the Christian faith, the Afrikaner culture and the importance of one’s own work – deterred many applicants. That has changed in recent years. In 2021, the village received 1,225 applications, an increase of 41 percent from the previous year. “We’ve never seen this before,” says Joost Strydom (29), Orania’s spokesperson. Strydom has lived in the village since childhood. “The number of applications exceeds our capacity. If we could build houses faster, a lot more people would already live here.”
As you enter Orania you will be welcomed by a sign warning ‘Attention white European journalists, leave your prejudice at the entrance’. Most villagers are wary of outside interest. Orania is regularly the subject of press attention, which is generally negative. Critics at home and abroad argue that the residents continue the racial segregation, the villagers shrugging off associations with the apartheid past. “It has nothing to do with race,” says Riaan Jacobs, a local entrepreneur. “We are working here on a new society that functions, unlike the rest of the country.”
Although the village still only has 2,500 inhabitants, it is very busy during the day. In the morning, white pick-up trucks with building materials and workers in the back, drive to the new yards. “A hundred new houses should be built here by the end of next year,” says Hans Van Staden, a hefty construction worker who moved to Orania three years ago from Polokwane, in the far north of the country. ‘Every Afrikaner can live here affordably. We build the house, but leave the finishing to the resident to cover the costs.’
Every resident is expected to actively contribute to the growing settlement. The principle of Volkseie labor is so important that the coin and the flag of the village show a young man with rolled up sleeves, a symbol of the Protestant work ethic. Anyone applying for citizenship in Orania must abide by the labor rules. Those who do not comply will be deported. “We do everything ourselves here. From building houses to making coffee and washing cars,” says Strydom. According to him, the white minority has become too used to cheap black labor. Orania, he says, puts an end to economic exploitation.
Playing behind barbed wire
The increased interest in Orania fits in with South Africa’s demographic evolution since the end of apartheid. Between 1995 and 2016, approximately 800,000 Afrikaners moved to countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States. Although there was no ethnic violence during the transition from the apartheid regime to a liberal democracy, many white South Africans felt targeted by the new ANC policy. South Africa has grown in recent decades to become the most unequal country in the world, and for the first time white residents also ended up in poverty. The Black Economic Empowerment program, which was supposed to involve more black South Africans in the economy, is seen by many Afrikaners as unfair positive discrimination.
The government’s inability to tackle insecurity and corruption is also driving more and more white South Africans away from the cities. Nationalist Afrikaner groups encourage their members to move to Orania en masse. “We had the opportunity to go to Australia, but chose Orania,” says Jessica Bornman. She moved from Johannesburg three years ago and now runs an equestrian center with her husband. “Our life in the city was mostly about survival. It’s unsafe, you always have to be on your guard.” She says her children couldn’t play in the street and spent their lives behind barbed wire walls. “With every outbreak of violence in the cities, we get a call from our friends. They want to know how they can come and live here.”
According to Joost Strydom, Afrikaners in South Africa are targeted. “Across the country, we are being attacked on our farms and our land is being taken. Everyone here is healing from some trauma.” There are no independent figures to support Strydom’s claims. A recent study by the independent South African think tank Institute for Security Studies shows an increase in murders and armed robberies in the country, but states there is no evidence that whites in South Africa are at a disproportionate risk. Right-wing Afrikaner groups claim the opposite and speak of a ‘white genocide’.
Possession, Faith and Community
In Orania, security is the number one priority. Strydom takes us to the brand new building of the village security services, where security guards, nurses and the fire service are stationed. A few armored cars are parked in front of the entrance. “The police in South Africa are doing nothing. That’s why we have to do it ourselves. The Afrikaner must always be ready to protect property, faith and community.” In the future, the village wants to organize safety training for Afrikaners from all over the country.
Strydom shows us the control room, where a new monitoring system is being installed. “We will soon have cameras all over the village.” The room receives an average of three reports of suspicious vehicles a day. All of Orania keeps an eye on things.
The security guards all carry pistols. Although they are not police, they are authorized to make temporary arrests. We are told that most inhabitants of Orania possess one or more firearms, and that weaponry is an integral part of Afrikaner culture. “We don’t carry our weapons to provoke,” says Theuns, one of the security agents, who prefers not to say his last name . “It’s not the Wild West here, we’re not cowboys. But if the danger comes to Orania, we’re ready.”
Café de Bittereinder is located behind the building of the security services. The name refers to the Afrikaner insurgents who, at the end of the wars with the British, ignored the peace treaty and continued to fight to the bitter end. The pub, where a group of rough men drink home-made alcohol, is one big ode to Afrikaner history. Giant flags of the 19th-century Boer republics, and the flag of the apartheid regime, adorn the walls. Paintings and photos tell the story from the first Dutch settlers who set foot at the Cape to the last years of apartheid. Then history ends abruptly. “Our fathers betrayed us thirty years ago,” says Nikolaas (38), the bar owner. He refers to the 1992 referendum in which white South Africans were asked whether they supported the abolition of apartheid. Nearly 70 percent voted in favour. “That was the beginning of our decline,” he says. “But hard times make hard people. We are the tough generation. Our children will have it better again.”
The bar owner sees the exodus of Afrikaners and the popularity of Orania as a repetition of history. “Our people always leave when under pressure.” In the 19th century, thousands of Afrikaners, the Voortrekkers, left the Cape Colony to escape British rule. They moved into the African interior to establish their own republics, where only whites had civil rights. “It was a pilgrimage of martyrs who had to escape persecution.”
At the first morning sun, about two hundred residents gather in the center of the village. They celebrate Foundation Day, the day the Dutch merchant Jan van Riebeeck founded the Cape Colony. Although the Day of Remembrance was abolished in the 1990s, it is still celebrated every year in Orania. About twenty riders try to keep the horses calm while four men, dressed in khaki shirts and with pistols in holsters, retrieve a dozen old flags from the trunk of a pickup. The children are dressed in 19th-century dresses and robes, with Dutch caps to protect them from the sun. After a Bible reading, the procession sets off for a tour of Orania, flags proudly waving in the air.
The procession reaches the cemetery, its final destination. Fifteen young trees will be planted, a symbol of the growth of the community. Adam Boshoff, brother of Orania’s intellectual father, jokes that he may not see them grow. ‘In Orania, the good old days simply live on. I can die happily, knowing the Afrikaner has a safe home.”
Kumbaya for too long
We leave the village and drive north for a few hours. In Westcliff, Johannesburg’s most affluent area, stately mansions grace the green hill above the city. At the end of the nineteenth century, wealthy gold and diamond traders lived here. Today, the nouveaux riches of South Africa are vying for a home. The neighborhood is walled and guarded around the clock. Tembeka Ngcukaitobi greets us at the driveway of his home. The human rights lawyer and activist is one of Orania’s biggest opponents. “The residents use the weakness of the ANC government as an excuse. Do you think they would not have established an exclusive Afrikaner settlement otherwise?”
Ngcukaitobi takes us to his library, where biographies of Stalin and Gandhi are neatly arranged alongside academic tracts on Afrikaners and land rights in South Africa. Growing up under apartheid, he was one of the only black officials with a college degree when Nelson Mandela became president. “Mandela’s government has accomplished some important things. But over the past decade, the successes of the 90s have been reversed. The state can no longer provide basic services. Meanwhile, the large group of blacks at the bottom of the economic ladder is becoming increasingly impoverished.”
According to Ngcukaitobi, the Afrikaners feel little of the economic and political mismanagement. They still check all the bolts in society. “That was the case before Mandela became president, and it stayed that way. In 1994, 60,000 whites controlled more than 86 percent of the agricultural area. In 2017, that was still 72 percent.’ According to Ngcukaitobi, most Afrikaners have even improved financially in recent decades. He doesn’t understand why they feel threatened and refers to the post-apartheid constitution that included the rights of all minorities. Afrikaans is still a dominant language in the country.
Orania, according to Ngcukaitobi, was born from the desire for a new form of racial segregation. But even the apartheid system has never been able to bring that about. Whites have always depended on blacks to achieve their goals. At the same time, the blacks also do not want the whites to leave the country en masse.”
Ngukaitobi is currently working on a case against the public use of the old apartheid flag, which will soon be before the Supreme Court. “You know,” he sighs, “the idea of an Afrikaner race is just nonsense. It is a political construction, manufactured by Hendrik Verwoerd during the apartheid regime.’ According to Ngukaitobi, the only solution for a new South Africa is more dialogue and economic reforms. “Most people agree. But we have heard kumbaya for too long.” According to the lawyer, in order to move to an inclusive South Africa, blacks must be given the opportunity to grow economically. “And that can only be done by easing the stranglehold that Africans have on the economy.”
We drive 60 kilometers further to the capital Pretoria, in a warm, sheltered valley surrounded by green hills. Named after the Afrikaner Andries Pretorius, who defeated the native Zulus at the Battle of Blood River, the city is now an Afrikaner bastion. Pretoria has the largest white population in Sub-Saharan Africa. Numerous monuments and statues, often remnants of the apartheid regime, tell the story of the Afrikaners.
In one of the green suburbs, next to the local rugby field, we meet the young Reverend Johan Erasmus. His church, the Dialogue Community, is set up in a concrete hangar, next to the rugby club’s changing rooms. Black and white youths come here twice a day to listen to his accessible, often humorous sermons. Raised in a Protestant and African family, he finds Orania a disgrace to the modern Afrikaner. “In this country, some suffer from imagined trauma,” he says. “Many Africans develop a fear based on stories they hear.” According to Erasmus, this is nothing compared to the lasting damage that apartheid has left the black population. To improve the relationship between black and white in South Africa, he invites Afrikaners every month to hear the life stories of black South Africans in the townships around Pretoria. “Initially they are often reluctant to the idea. Many Afrikaners never set foot in the poorer neighborhoods their entire lives. Whites sometimes find it difficult that they are not the only ones in the country. But that doesn’t mean you should isolate yourself.”
A young woman has been following our conversation from a distance. Anna Gouws (28), the deacon of the church, jokingly introduces herself as the descendant of a prominent Afrikaner dynasty. Her grandfather was the founder of Orania, her great-grandfather the apartheid architect Verwoerd. She regularly goes on holiday to the Afrikaner village in the Karoo. “You have more freedom there than in Pretoria, and you can walk safely on the street at night.” But with her hands on her pregnant belly, she says she doesn’t want to move anytime soon. She wants to wait for the birth of her child first. “If I move, it wouldn’t be to escape black South Africans or isolate myself from the rest of the country.” Unlike her family in Orania, she still believes in multicultural South Africa. “We have the opportunity to make something beautiful out of this country. I still believe in the rainbow nation.”