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Claire Nielsen: Apartheid’s Final Outpost

In Orania, South Africa’s last remaining white-only town, the country’s history of racial segregation and white supremacy lives on.

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Image from Flickr via Aryan Blaauw

By Claire Nielsen

It’s been over twenty years since the end of Apartheid, and even in the most remote Karoo desert towns there are African languages spoken and people of all colors strolling the dusty streets. It would be foolhardy to declare that racism is no longer an issue in South Africa, but outright, enforced segregation is mostly a thing of the past, with one exception: Orania.

Most people I asked in Cape Town had never heard of Orania, and those who had didn’t know much about it. One person’s estranged great aunt’s fifth husband lived there, at least for a time. Another seemed to think the project had failed. I decided I had to see South Africa’s last white-only town for myself and convinced my friend to join me on the excursion.

It wasn’t easy to find. Originally set up for construction workers building a dam that was completed decades ago, Orania has never grown enough to merit much more designation on a map than “other settlement.” Today, the population hovers around 1,100, but locals insist it’s growing. We followed the Orange River out of Hopetown for kilometers, almost turning back before finally, right before the bridge that would take us into the Orange Free State, we saw a sign: Welkom In Orania. Under the words was a picture: a group of white-clad teenagers jumping for joy on an orange floral background. It looked like a perverse ad for laundry soap. On the opposite side of the road stood a bust of Henrik Verwoerd.

Former Prime Minister Verwoerd is considered a key architect of Apartheid, but that’s not why he’s commemorated in Orania. It was he who made the town what it is today by buying the land in 1991, when the regime he helped found was beginning to crumble. His widow lived there until her death.

The cameras, the chain link fences, the detailed history of attacks on Afrikaans farmers prominently displayed in a tiny bookshop I visited—all these things signaled that the people of Orania were obviously afraid of something.

Verwoerd’s statue holds a place of honor as busts of other Apartheid-era presidents overlook the town from a hill by the river. As street and building names were changed elsewhere in South Africa during the first years of democracy, and as new statues sprung up—from commemorations of Nelson Mandela to the ubiquitous concrete soccer balls erected for the 2010 World Cup—the town of Orania sought out and collected those of disesteemed former leaders destined for the scrap heap.

Thinking of Orania, I expected something old fashioned, even quaint: a town to wander through, with one-room shops and young couples flirting in cafes. What I saw looked more like an American suburb, each house accessorized with a chain link fence, manicured lawn, and barbeque. What few people I saw hung out at picnic tables outside a restaurant, which also seemed to serve as pub, café, and notice board.

Still too timid to confront any locals directly, my friend and I went into the OK Grocer. It’s a brand familiar all over South Africa, but in Orania even chain stores are different. The staff was comprised entirely of white retirees cleaning the floors, slicing deli meats at the back, or checking out the occasional customers. Half of the store’s shelves were empty; dozens of cameras watched over them.

The cameras, the chain link fences, the detailed history of attacks on Afrikaans farmers prominently displayed in a tiny bookshop I visited—all these things signaled that the people of Orania were obviously afraid of something. To them the changes that the end of Aparteid had brought on were not only regrettable but also dangerous. One of the most visible changes brought about by democracy was freedom of movement for all South Africans. That caused a wave of urbanization as the country’s 91% non-white population rushed to explore new opportunities. You can still see it happening: people arrive from rural communities and build makeshift huts, adding luxuries like electricity and plumbing when they can afford to. Inequality remains a serious problem, and with it comes with petty theft and sometimes more serious crime.

“This is an intention community,” he repeated. “We’re trying to protect our heritage, so it’s important people come from the same culture.”

These are not new issues in South Africa, but during Apartheid—and today in Orania—the white minority could ignore poverty. Twenty years into democracy—twenty-three into Orania’s existence—you can still see the anger and resentment fueled by generations of oppression. Faced with it, the residents of Orania have chosen seclusion from the rest of South African society.

In Orania’s tourist information center, which doubles as the town’s DVD store, a middle-aged woman in head-to-toe purple told me about the Ora, the system of coupons that constitutes Orania’s currency. It would be illegal for the people of Orania to simply start printing money, of course, so the South African Rand is still accepted. Shops encourage use of the Ora by pricing things slightly higher in Rand.

I asked the woman if she saw many tourists.

“Yes,” she confirmed, without a second’s hesitation. “Foreigners, South Africans who want to move here, people who are curious… a lot of journalists.”

She was the first person I heard use the term “intention community” to describe Orania. Theo, an older tour guide, explained it more fully.

Speaking Afrikaans—the most widely spoken of South Africa’s eleven official languages—was not enough, and people of mixed heritage didn’t qualify either.

“We’re an intention community. Orania exists to protect Afrikaaner culture. So, to live here, it’s important that you share our goals.”

There’s constant construction underway in all neighborhoods of Orania, and anyone could, theoretically, buy a house on the free market for the equivalent of $800. The statistics Theo threw out to Stefan, an Afrikaaner from Johannesburg who was unabashedly enthusiastic with the project, were impressive: 10% population growth rate, full employment, 1,100 people, two schools, a burgeoning tourism industry with four-star hotel and campsite. So I had to ask: did that mean anyone could live here? Theo hesitated.

“There is an interview process,” he admitted. “We meet with people to make sure they understand our vision and share it.

“This is an intention community,” he repeated. “We’re trying to protect our heritage, so it’s important people come from the same culture.”

Speaking Afrikaans—the most widely spoken of South Africa’s eleven official languages—was not enough, and people of mixed heritage didn’t qualify either.

“We’ve never had a colored person apply to live here,” Theo said. “The culture is just too different.”

Our tour continued. Theo showed us Orania’s small graveyard, the lush fields on the outskirts of town growing pecans for export to China, the community radio station, a “community safety office” in lieu of a police station, and the solar panels affixed to every surface. The latter were a source of obvious pride to Theo, not because of environmental concerns or sustainability, but because of the prospect of “going off-grid.” Orania, as far as possible, tries to be separate from the South African government, and solar panels are an easy way to achieve independence in a desert.

We went to the hotel where Stefan was staying, a sprawling wooden building with a half-full parking lot. We had to dodge several vacationers on their way into town. Before getting out of the car, Stefan vented his frustration with the new South Africa: “This used to be a first world country! Now, it’s third world.”

“White people in South Africa lose their jobs every day,” Theo added soberly.

Back in Cape Town, I worked as a waitress (a job I had no problem getting as a white person, incidentally). I was new, inexperienced, and in the early hours of evening I preferred to hover around the back, brushing invisible crumbs off tablecloths and avoiding customer’s glances. We were overstaffed.

The other waiters hung out near the door, menus under their arms, and expertly helped the occasional customer who came in. They were men and women, young and old, and probably spoke half a dozen languages between them; they were also all black.

A customer came in on one of my first shifts, on a particularly quiet day when I was setting the same table for the third time. He brushed past the other waiters without looking at them, ignoring their inquiries, and came up to me. When I looked up, he smiled kindly, did not take the menu someone else offered him, and spoke to me in Afrikaans. I don’t speak a word of Afrikaans, but even after learning that, he was determined: he would deal with no other waiter.

Claire Nielsen is an expat, writer, and freelance-everything. She has previously written for The Guardian and blogs about her more bizarre experiences at luckygutsy.wordpress.com.

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