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Spirit of the Phantom City

On paper Orania looks cut-and-dried – it’s an apartheid town for aging white Afrikaners, and that’s that. On inspection, it’s given to shades of surreal diversity and home to young intellectuals seeing themselves as post-colonialists and nation-builders.

Original publication: SL, 1998.

Image courtesy of Kim Ludbrook

No one’s immune, not even here. His eyelids are reddish and swollen, partly from the fog of cigarette smoke in his office, partly from his having worked throughout the freezing Karoo night till four a.m. (his days are longer than his weeks, he laughs). Mainly, though, he and his all-white townsfolk are contaminated by a trans-continental flu virus that originated in Australia and spread inexorably across South Africa. Yet he still speaks at a hundred miles an hour. Ideas spiral out like the smoke he exhales, eddying and mutating into different forms; sentences have hardly begun before they change tack, overtaken by one competing thought after another. He rubs his eyes and smacks his forehead; he scratches his stubble, blows his lips in momentary catatonia. The talk is driven, energised. It’s like listening to three people speaking at the same time.

Raising spirits and sparking enthusiasm among visitors: this is what Christiaan van der Merwe does. Here in the Northern Cape early morning temperatures are so icy you’re afraid your fingers will crack off in the wash basin, so the 29-year-old attorney’s wearing a woollen trench coat over his dungarees. With his resemblance to Brad Pitt, he looks part mountain-man shyster, part Student Union avante-gardist – aptly enough, since Christiaan was renowned as ‘an emotionally charged radical’ at Pretoria University. ‘I was born with a placard in my hand,’ he says, and to this day ‘my whole world consists of arguments about the ten sides of any given issue.’

The issues he confronts daily range from questions of town planning and legal practice to the problem of finding available women in this country town – ‘an absolute frustration,’ he confesses. But all the questions resolve into one as old as the country’s history of white settlement: the survival of Afrikanerdom. And disillusioned with the Conservative Party for criticising without proposing alternatives, Christiaan joined the Volkstaat movement while on campus, captivated by its advocacy of an Afrikaner homeland. For him, the answers, like the questions, resolved into one as well: Orania, the first Volkstaat-town. ‘You can’t just complain,’ he says. ‘You have to do something.’ So, after having vacationed there regularly as a volunteer worker, he took a leap of faith and assumed residency two years ago.

It’s a risky decision for a graduate standing at the threshold of his professional career. On the map, Orania is west of Bloemfontein, south of Kimberley. There are other town-names you can use to orient yourself, but they’re no longer on the map: Good Hope, Hoopverloren …These are the names of some of the myriad boomtowns that sprouted in the heyday of the diamond rush and finally decayed into ghost towns. Vaunted as another future boomtown, Orania’s located on the rim of the Karoo diamond fields, isolated in a land of thorn bush and brittle undergrowth where millennia ago there was primordial jungle. Today the Karoo is as empty as the endless sky above it. On the far horizon of this Zen nothingness are dull mountainous shapes. The region was a Boer rebel-nest during the Anglo-Boer War, and rocks lie scattered like spent cartridges.

Orania itself was a ghost town. Built in the 1970s by the Department of Water Affairs for personnel working on the bordering Orange River, the prefab houses and face-brick offices were abandoned in the 1980s, a prey to squatters and plunderers. Demolition was underway when Orania and the adjoining ‘coloured’ hamlet of Kleingeluk were purchased by the Volkstaat movement in 1991, during which time high-level discussions were held with Nelson Mandela.

The first pioneers moved in, the bitterbeginners driven by idealism alone; reportedly, few remain. Subsequent newcomers included job-hunters disappointed by affirmative action or hard luck. Freeloaders came and went. Others sought refuge from crime in a town where there are few burglar bars (not even on the bottle store) and doors are seldom locked. All who come to Orania, however, subscribe to varying degrees to the cause of Afrikaner preservation, presumably even the American family who left after a year. The visitor’s book at the guest house records visits by Swedes, Peter Ustinov of UNICEF, as well as Verwoerdburgers and Koekemoere. ‘It was wonderful to find there’s still love for our people,’ writes one wayfarer.

Today the population numbers 600, excluding the 3,500 non-resident family members who contribute financially. Unsurprisingly, the town gets no state funding – indeed, it’s not a municipality but a private share-block company managed by a board of directors, and purchasing a house, with or without a subdivided agricultural plot, constitutes a share in the enterprise.

The town Deep Throat, a lanky engineer-turned-tradesman, estimates that a third of these shareholders are pensioners, financially secure unlike others still in their middle years who’ve taken ‘golden handshakes’ or, like him, resigned in disgust at high-profile appointments of ‘politically correct apes, black and white.’ For the ordinary townsperson, it’s make or break, and although Orania’s small business operators work from 16 to 20 hours a day, six days a week (the Sabbath is observed), the dividends are slim. Deep Throat watches powerlessly as his car rots away. ‘You can’t eat idealism,’ he says. Swearing is rarely heard, so it’s a relief to hear him tell a joke: Wife watches Husband pack for Orania. ‘Why are you going?’ she asks. ’Vir Volken Vaderland’, he announces. Months later he’s packing to leave. ‘Why are you going?’ she asks. ‘Vir fokken Vaderland!’ he yells.

‘I’m getting a pension,’ says Arthur Naude, Chairman of the Board, ‘but a young person would need to adapt to salary-levels here. The young crowd are starting to come in, and our challenge is to provide some entertainment-value for them. They want a club and a fling on weekends, and wherever we put facilities for them, the older folk will complain about the noise … the motorbikes … the music …’

His worries might be premature. Oranian youth aren’t the brandied-up lynch-mob shitkickers you’d expect. Current youth action includes choir practices, concerts, sport, and get-togethers at the pool room (no boozing if minors are present). A birthday party of a dozen young Oranians spend the night quietly watching videos. Hardly a session in a Detroit crack-house, but you’d imagine the blokes at Elim, an accommodation block for labourers aged 18 to 34, would perhaps be more riotous. After all, rugby’s on TV in the recreation hall and these drifters, showered and spruced up in linoleum-pattern shirts, have built up a thirst. But no. No booze, no cheering. The drunkest person for miles, you sit in silence with these guys from Grapes of Wrath while the Springboks trample Ireland. A bat flits over the screen; halfway through, the ringleaders trundle off for supper. Game over.

So for some Orania would make a fine retirement village. Driving on the R369 bisecting the property, Orania extends for about 2,5 km. On the less occupied side is a complex of shops and offices. Bags of oranges hang from the eaves outside the café, and a notice board advertises various home industries. Nearby stands a petrol pump overhung by bare girders, and you can shoot the breeze about genocide and liberal hypocrisy with the owner, a man’s man in calfskin hat and the pose of a western gunslinger. A car pulls up and out steps an effete black guy in cheek-clenching silken joggers. In a town with diverse shades of conservative politics, some residents object to black customers, but not John Wayne. Fill her up? Sure. Besides, there’s an agreement with the local ANC premier that Oranians will refrain from any ‘incidents’. Oh, and there’s young Stephen, working in the repair shop. He lived in his Datsun when he was a carpet merchant: its dashboard-fur’s as tufty as mammoth pelt.

Across the road is the tree-lined village, where lapdogs in jerseys bark at council workers tending the verges (spot the mistake: they’re white). The homes are mainly hardboard, and inside you’ll find plaques reading, ‘As eie tale eie denke wek, dan kan ons na ons eie trek.’ Outside are signboards: ‘Ons Werk Self,’ they say, referring to the whites-only employment policy. A girl in a German army duffel coat rollerblades past and waves. Everyone waves here, but apparently these days you’re not sure you know to whom you’re waving – a sign of incremental growth.

From ghost town to retirement complex: this is one version of Orania, and aptly its oldest inhabitants include 97-year old Betsie Verwoerd, widow of the architect of ‘separate development’. Seeing her engenders the same eerie wonder as an Elvis sighting, and she smiles in response to your courtly nod. She’s living history haunting the present. From a hilltop her husband’s statue overlooks Orania; in the town museum, stocked with flintlock rifles and Auschwitzian photographs of British concentration camps, a sanctum of Verwoerd memorabilia houses the jacket he wore when fatally stabbed by Dimitri Stafendas. At night you snap awake in the guest house: there’s Betsie, reunited with Verwoerd in the portrait above your bed, arm in arm in their halcyon days.

Outside, the darkened passage is lined with images of Boer generals. On one wall is a painting representing the Battle of Blood River: the laager, swarms of Zulus. On the facing wall is an epic icon of the Great Trek. High in the mountains an ox wagon is toppling over and Olympian figures are straining to pull it aright. The two paintings reveal a peculiar tension that’s relevant to Orania. One represents the maintenance of the laager’s safety against invaders, the other the struggle to reach a new society.

‘Afrikaners’ high-points came when they strived for something, not when they had everything and tried to preserve power,’ observes Sebastian B., 23, an Honours student planning to settle soon in Orania. ‘Struggle is good – not struggle against somebody, but for something.’ He’s experienced struggle first-hand as a labourer at Orania, which gave him ‘a rootedness in the soil. If you make something yourself, it’s your own.’ Personal struggles, too. ‘Some of my friends don’t understand the concept of Orania. They’re not progressive – they’re threatened because they can’t have black workers and lead the old life. We don’t want to recreate apartheid. We’re founding a concept unique in South African history … If you’re 70 you’ll try to keep what you have. The future doesn’t matter. For us, seeing things going down the drain is terrible. We have to create our own future.’

For young Oranians, the place is no enlaagered pensioner’s retreat. If Orania can accommodate Betsie, it can do the same for Anje Boshoff, 25, her grand-daughter, a goldsmith who lives with husband Carel in Orania’s Bohemian quarter and drives a retro-trendy 1950s Mercedes. Leaving Cape Town, what do you expect? You pack toothbrush and Mein Kampf, leave by car or native bearers, and arrive hours later to get fucked up by the locals under the light of a flaming cross. Roll into town, roll with the punches, roll home again. Instead, sitting down to a meal of soup and litres of wine and a discussion of Johannes Kerkorrel, you meet Anje, a gorgeous MA student in postcolonial literature, and Carel, 34, a self-described ‘loyal African’ and the son of the Volkstaat president, Professor Boshoff. Carel’s spectacles and wiry, loping build make him look every inch the humorous and meditative intellectual he became during his draft-dodging days at Pretoria University.

Indeed, as you explore Orania – initially chaperoned by fast-talking Christiaan Van der Merwe, later as a skylarking drunk-driver – you realise how limited it is to represent the place as a one-horse town. For a start, says Anje, Orania is demographically atypical of platteland towns since it has a higher percentage of youth and graduates. What’s more, echoing Sebastian, their project is ‘a radical idea, although it’s seen as reactionary. A colonial community exploits cheap labour; Orania is a postcolonial project because Afrikaners have to do their work themselves.’ And while older newcomers migrate from a changing society to a familiar world, the younger generation are moving precisely from the known into the unknown. ‘The country is in a new situation, and I think you can’t but try something new.’

‘Yes, you’re sacrificing the known for the unknown,’ says Christiaan, the trench-coated attorney who’s staked his fortunes on Orania. ‘But I’m here for what’s yet to come, and I’m helping to reach that point. You’re not centring your life around yourself – you’re part of a larger whole, and that gives your life some meaning. Those who praise Orania’s peacefulness and kick against development because there’s too much noise and young people are misguided. The more noise, the more development! We’re here to build a big city.’

To this effect, he takes you on a tour. Orania is largely self-sufficient. Electricity and telephones are supplied externally, but it has its own water-purification plant, sewerage farm, airstrip, library, supermarket (no porn), and industrial district including, among others, an engineering works and a furniture factory. It even has a clinic: the theatre, ward and X-ray chamber are as pristine and empty as museum displays. ‘It’s not Hillbrow,’ he jokes. Like all Orania’s enterprises, the clinic is run by a private company with a view to long-term profits.

‘Our planning is geared to the future,’ Christiaan explains, ‘and you can’t go Mickey Mouse. Even if there’s no immediate need for a particular project, in five years there might be. It’s traumatic creating an economy on a cultural basis alone, but it’s vital to stay ahead on a planning level. The past seven years were developmentally fundamental – now we can move forward, and we’ve already completed a town plan to accommodate several thousand people here.’

Next stop is one of the town’s three schools. The other two employ standard teaching methods, but this is an experimental school based on self-driven computer education. Under a staff of three, 30 pupils from six to 16 sign themselves in, applying for ‘leave’ when needed, and devise their own weekly study schedules. ‘Entrepreneurship is crucial,’ says the principal, so pupils shift for themselves (hardly toilet-trained, some are already sweets-and-stationery merchants). Geared towards self-sufficiency, they also toil for the commonwealth, so every morning they’re on cleanup-duty. There’s no racial indoctrination, teachers claim, and projects are afoot to integrate seniors with black kids in Johannesburg.

Out on the farmlands, grapes, pecan nuts and cash crops are grown with techniques learned from Israel. Oranians aren’t romantic isolationists, says Christiaan. Instead, they’re seeking export markets, foreign and local – sentiments borne out by their major construction project, a multi-million rand dairy, which on completion, they predict, will be the largest in the southern hemisphere.

But Orania’s heart lies on the banks of the Orange River: a pipeline, built at a cost of R2,5 million over six months by nine people, and stretching for three kilometres to irrigate little Israel. As envisioned, the Volkstaters will colonise the Karoo’s scrublands with satellite development centres like Orania until they’ve established an economically viable – and politically creditable – corridor to the West Coast. Massive investment and population influx will turn Volkstaters into a major political force and an unignorable reality, until this corridor is ultimately recognised fait accompli as the Boer-Afrikaner Volkstaat. It will be founded on volkseie arbeid (own-folk labour) and limit ‘aliens’ to 8% of their population. Like Israel, they say, the Volkstaat will be a home from home for Afrikaners and give them a basis for open dealings with broader South Africa, in which they believe they’re ethnically marginalised.

The Orange River water development was Verwoerd’s brain-child, declares Christiaan, and Oranians are building a postcolonial Afrikaner homeland exactly where Verwoerd envisioned it. It’s odd hearing Verwoerd touted as the Che Guevara of post-coloniality, but it’s also the impression given by Professor Boshoff, president of AVSTIG, the Volkstaat’s shadow government.

He depicts the Volkstaat as ‘the outcome of what Verwoerd planned’ and ‘totally postcolonial.’ In Boshoff’s view, Verwoerd recognised the ill-fatedness of minority rule and tried to accommodate black anti-colonialism in a confederation of homelands, but his failure was prescribing other peoples’ futures. Volkstaters will rectify that by moving into a homeland themselves, and let others lead their own lives. The post-coloniality of their project resides in volkseie arbeid , since this avoids perpetuating the hierarchy of white boss, black worker. ‘Baasskap poisoned Afrikaners,’ he reflects, ‘with the baas standing back overlooking the labourer.’ Instead, people should ‘become responsible for their destiny through their own self-sacrificing labour.’

Yet isn’t volkseie arbeid  a racist pretext for excluding others?

From townsfolk you get the idea it’s a matter of emphasis: some are anti-black, others merely pro-Afrikaner. But ‘if you held an election, the right wing would probably win,’ admits Carel, Anje’s husband and CEO of AVSTIG. Carel himself belongs to the Freedom Front, which isn’t ‘markedly right-wing’, and he’s keen to dispel ‘preconceptions’ that Orania’s ‘an apartheid town’. It’s a Volkstaat town, he says, a key distinction being that apartheid dictated to people which communities they should belong, whereas recruits to Orania voluntarily associate themselves with the Volkstaat. The Board of Directors approve prospective shareholders, who in turn pledge loyalty to the Volkstaat’s objectives.

What if a ‘coloured’ Afrikaner applies? ‘That’s a sensitive question,’ Carel says. ‘It doesn’t happen regularly; on the other hand, we should and we will be consequent on the point that it’s a question of free association. So if an English-speaker makes the pledge to Orania, we accept that.’ And the ‘coloured’ Afrikaners? ‘We will be consequent on accepting people who bona fide associate themselves with us.’ Huh? ‘In theory they would consult the Board of Directors who will put the pledge of Orania to them, and if they accept it, they will move in … For me, I don’t think it’s a big deal.’

‘Don’t get the idea the Boshoff circle are the mainstream,’ cautions Deep Throat: ‘They’re not.’ In fact, with Orania’s ideological diversity and ‘religious divisions’ (there are seven denominations), ‘you can speak to ten random guys and get such different views you’ll wonder if they’re living in the same place.’ What’s the truth of Orania, its reigning spirit? No longer ghost town, not yet boomtown, beholden to different angels, the phantom city whispers to you in many voices.


* Names have been changed.


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