Orania: Will the koeksister stand or fall?

Singing a Sonia Herold song to Freedom Front leader

Many of us might have forgotten that two decades into democracy, as the nation is about to come of age, there is still an exclusively white enclave in the Northern Cape. The Journalist’s Assistant Editor paid a visit to Orania and sang for the leader of the Freedom Front there.

There is nothing that indicates you are about to arrive in Orania. You only realise you’ve penetrated the small Afrikaner settlement when you are already slap bang in the middle of it.

Situated in the Northern Cape, about 160km south of Kimberley, it seems like any other rural location in South Africa. A filling station and some shops on the side of the main road. No traffic to talk about. Farmlands in the background. Some people and a dog casually walking down a gravel side road.

But then you gaze at the slightly built woman at the car wash, the labourers doing some construction work on the side of a building and the guy filling cars with petrol. And they are all White.

White Labourers Culture Shock

Twenty years into democracy it is still a culture shock… these white people doing menial work. I find it almost more fascinating than the koeksister monument in the town or the fact that Orania has its own currency and bank.

I am accompanied by Clarence Oliphant, a young fisherman from a township called Kleurtjie, near the Vanderkraal Dam. The aim of our visit is to find out about an experimental fishing project that has the potential to create food security for impoverished communities. A related, but separate project idea concerns the use of old Khoisan-style fishing kraals to generate food and income.

Men at work

Men at work

Orania is about 40km east of Vanderkraal. We have been put in touch with a local architect , a friendly, soft-spoken man who walks us over to the Information Centre. Here we are treated to a slick, eight-minute promotional video on the virtues of Orania, before we embark on a free, guided tour.

John Strydom takes us along the back roads of the town where there are vast open farmlands. Farmers grow Lucerne, mealies, wheat and pecan nuts. We pass a woman and a boy, presumably mother and son, on horseback. John begins the story of Orania. On the surface it seems almost harmless.

It is run as a private company and promotes Afrikaner culture and identity. The land was bought for R1.6 million in 1991 and is now worth close to R500 million. There are 1 100 people living in the town and the population is growing steadily. It is a long way off though from the early projections of Orania’s founding father, Professor Carel Boshoff snr, who envisioned an Afrikaner Volkstaat spreading across the Northern Cape with some 60 000 residents.

But the founders’ aim of making selfwerksaamheid (self-reliance) “not just an idea, but an actual practice” appears to have made significant headway. Residents work together for the improvement of Orania and the town has a major environmental focus. Battery driven motorcycles are growing in popularity and there is a big move to solar heating. Here operates a kind of Ubuntu in practice, albeit a racially exclusive type.

Learning From Orania?

I have to admit, grudgingly, that from a social point of view, it is definitely something from which lessons can be drawn.

Many visitors have made their way to Orania. Mandela’s famous tea with Betsie Verwoerd, the wife of Hendrick Verwoerd, one of the architects of apartheid, captured the attention of the country and the world. Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema have both been here and so have delegations from other communities.

In 2007, a delegation from the “coloured” community of Eersterust went to Orania for an exchange of ideas. The community of Orania made a donation towards the nursery school in Eersterust.

According to Wikepedia; “Orania and the Xhosa community of Mnyameni signed a co-operation agreement on 11 December 2012. The objective of the agreement is to assist in the development of own institutions and the transfer of knowledge between the communities in order to reduce their dependency on government initiatives for development.”
We stop at an office where I am given a permit that allows me to take photos and take notes, even though I started this process long before receiving the modest looking document.

“We are not against anyone or anything, “says Strydom. We are for an ideal, an ethos, a set of values. We promote Afrikaner culture and identity. If some English people want to come and live here, then it is possible, but if they want to play cricket on a Sunday, then it will not be permitted, because it is the day of worship.”

Gay People Will Not Be Happy

He continues in this vein. “A gay person may want to come and live here, but he may not be happy because of the values of the people who live here,” he says. I interpret this to mean that he may not exactly be made to feel welcome.

I then half-heartedly asked about the prospects of a Muslim living in Orania, imagining the cultural conflict between the koeksister and the koesiester. Or the row that will flow from the early morning call to prayer. I stop short of asking what the chances are of a gay Muslim Afrikaner moving into the town.

We pass through a part of Orania that Mr Strydom referred to as a “coloured area during the apartheid days”. Apparently it housed people who had worked on the building of canals leading from the Vanderkraal Dam. We learnt later that there had been land claims instituted and that families received about R50 000 each in settlement.

John Strydom and Clarence Oliphant

John Strydom and Clarence Oliphant

We pass a primary and high school. Strydom says there are about 360 learners in total and about 60 or so of them are registered as distance learners, doing grades 8, 9 and 10. There are a number of houses under construction where we stop to take pictures, still somewhat amazed by the all-white labour force.

Strydom, who has lived in Orania for 20 years, works for an organisation called Orania Beweging that has a number of components related to liaison, public relations and security. They have eight employees. He must have predicted my next question.

“We are a membership based organisation and get funding from the 3 000 or so members from across the country, you can call them Friends of Orania, “ he smiles.

Clarence sits quietly in the back seat, just listening to the exchanges but not giving any of his thoughts away.

More Questions Than Answers

I have more questions than answers, to quote a famous line from a Johnny Nash song.

Is it legal for them to essentially have a whites only neighbourhood? And how different is this from many upmarket places who have gated communities and heavy handed neighbourhood watches that keep out poor people who are mainly black.

Many news stories have been carried about people “of colour” who battle to get a hotel booking or rent a flat on the Atlantic Seaboard and other such places with a history of racial exclusion. The problem of exclusion spreads way beyond Orania.

On horseback in the field

On horseback in the field

We meet Nic Alrich, the Northern Cape leader of the Freedom Front, who has lived in Orania for just under three years. He is a fifth generation South African with Norwegian and English Heritage. The first member of his family came to South Africa as a “professional soldier” in 1806 and stayed on, integrating with the Dutch community. He later married an Afrikaner woman, rearranging the family tree.

He talks a lot about the family history before expressing the well-known narrative of marginalised whites who have to leave the country to prosper and survive. The country was losing infrastructure and valuable expertise, he says. I remind him that down the road, the fishing communities were talking openly about another reality – the persistence of white domination in the region and the continued existence of apartheid, as they saw it. This does not quite strike a chord with the elderly man.

“I decided to settle in Orania, he said, so that I can live out my culture and identity (so dat ek my kultuur en identiteit kan uitleef),” he says, with passion even though it is rhetoric and cliché all rolled into one. As an aside, I mention to him, without any irritation or judgement, that some of us manage to express our identities and culture without resorting to isolationism.

Ek Verlang Na Jou

Mr Alrich talks about cultural preferences. “Afrikaners do not play soccer, they prefer rugby, in the same way that you may not like the Afrikaner music that we enjoy listening to.” I was not going to take this lying down. I immediately broke into a rendition of Ek Verlang Na Jou, the Sonia Herold song that we listened to on Springbok radio in the 70s.

I took a deep breath, and began;
Ek verlang na jou
Daar waar jy nou in die verde lande bly
Dan verlang ek as die son en die maan en die wind en die wolke oor jou gaan.

I persist through to the chorus;

Waai, windjie waai
Bring hom terug na my

Messrs Alrich and Strydom, sitting on a bench outside a Café and Bistro, both flash broad smiles. But my attempt at toenadering in song may not have been enough to convince them that I was a candidate for residency in the glorious Volkstaat of Orania.

DSC_0513

I walk into the shop where two young Afrikaner women greet me enthusiastically. L’lize van Rensburg says she is crazy about Orania (ek is mal oor Orania), in a very pronounced but gentle Afrikaner accent. She describes herself as an ‘uitwoner’. Apparently there are a number of people like her who live in Orania where they have business interests, for part of the month, and elsewhere for the rest of the time.

She waxes lyrical about the place. “It is safe, everything is organised and pristine, people have respect and we maintain the culture and religion. We see amazing development and environmental sustainability”.

She continues: “If you want to come and live here, you have to conform to a set of prescribed rules. Your application is approved or rejected by a panel. If you cannot comply, then you have to move out.”

Koeksister sculpture

Koeksister sculpture

A Giant Koeksister

The two meter high statue of a koeksister, a syrupy confection, is not under threat, like other statues around the country. It has been standing for twelve years. It is the brainchild of Orania’s Kaalvoet women’s organisation and named for Susanna Smit, who said she would rather walk barefoot (kaalvoet) over the Drakensberg than suffer under British rule.

Orania has a local council, that operates like a business. It generates income through the sale of water and electricity, and from membership fees. But the settlement does not get funding from government. This seems right, because they operate as a private entity.

They have internal elections every year, for a five person council. But Oranians also participate in local, provincial and national elections. Some research shows that 75% of people vote for the Freedom Front Plus, 15% for the DA and the rest for other parties.

Whether an idea like Orania is able to survive and grow in a modern, globalised world appears highly unlikely but remains to be seen. As much as there are examples of cosmopolitan and multi-cultural living spaces throughout the world, there are also moves to recreate smaller, homogenous communities, as a means of countering the cultural challenges that modernisation brings.

The basic question is; ‘Will the koeksister stand or will it fall?’

As we are leaving, one of the people gives us a packet of biltong for our trip back to Vanderkraal. It may have been a simple act of hospitality. Or it could be saying ‘sorry you can’t stay so please be on your way’. Maybe a song for my next visit.

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