Humanosity says that change is always difficult and cultural change is no different. In fact for the residents of Orania, perched along the Orange River in the Northern Cape, change has proved so difficult that they have chosen not to try and instead create a whites-only utopia.
The town was founded in 1991, a year after Nelson Mandela’s release from Robben Island and three years before the country’s first democratic election.
Although many had predicted that the end of apartheid would be accompanied by terrible bloodshed. The racial civil war that many felt was coming never arrived.
For the founders of Orania, the looming prospect of democracy was frightening enough to drive them to search for a place where they could forever be in the majority. So a group of Afrikaners including the daughter of former president Hendrik Verwoerd (called the architect of apartheid) and his son in law set out to create an independent homeland where they would be in charge.
Hendrik Verwoerd had created the ethnic Bantustans which formed the heart of the apartheid system to keep control the black majority and in creating Orania his daughter and son in law have kept faith with Verwoerd’s goal of ethnic separation.
Oranians claim the town is a cultural project, not a racial one. Only Afrikaners are allowed to live and work there to preserve Afrikaner culture, the argument goes.
The reality, however, is a disquieting and entirely white town, littered with old apartheid flags and monuments to the architects of segregation. While there are no rules preventing black people from visiting, those who live nearby fear they would be met with violence.
The town has faced numerous calls for it to be broken up over the years, with prominent author and advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi arguing its existence violates South Africa’s successful dismantling of racial segregation. “Orania,” he says, “represents downright hostility to the idea of a single, united, non-racial country.”
In Search of Utopia
For the residents, the town represents a kind of utopia or as one described it, “an Afrikaner Disneyland that you never have to leave”.
October in Orania can be charming. When the sun sets, long ribbons of burnt orange settle on the horizon. The flies and mosquitoes that come with the summer’s oppressive heat haven’t arrived yet. It is Magdalene Kleynhans’ favourite time of year. “You can sit outside until late into the night,” says the businesswoman, whose family spends much of their time outdoors. Her children fish from the banks of the Orange River whenever they choose. Kleynhans leaves the house unlocked. “It’s a good life. It’s a big privilege.”
The Kleynhans own and run a call centre in the town that recruits members for an Afrikaner trade union called Solidariteit and a ‘civil rights movement’ called Afriforum. The latter even managed to secure a meeting with President Trump and Fox News’ Tucker Carlson to push their agenda that Afrikaners are facing genocide in the new South Africa.
For the local black population, the town reminds them of the fear that came with living under apartheid. Black people are restricted to using the filling station on the edge of Orania. They don’t dare enter the town where many residents carry firearms.
“They will hurt you,” one, who didn’t want to be identified, said. “There is nothing we can do.”
Many remember the hundreds of black and mixed-race families that were evicted from abandoned buildings by Oranians after they had purchased the land.
Speaking to the community after the purchase, Boshoff reportedly said he “did not buy a bus with passengers”. What followed, according to Cambridge historian Edward Cavanagh’s history of land rights on the Orange River, was one of the last large-scale evictions under apartheid. It was carried out by the future residents of Orania, with the assistance of beatings, pistol whippings and dogs.
Despite this, the town is experiencing a construction boom and its population has doubled in seven years and there’s a sewage work in the pipeline designed to enable the population to grow to 10,000.
Population growth means a flourishing housing market and construction industry. Neat suburban homes have been joined by new apartment blocks and walkups which sell for as much as R1.5 million (£80,000), putting them on par with comparable homes in Johannesburg. There is an industrial zone of brick and aluminium factories which sell their products around South Africa. China buys most of the pecan nuts.
Part of the town’s philosophy is to only employ white workers, even for the low paid menial jobs unlike elsewhere in South Africa. The influx of poor Afrikaners is largely responsible for the town’s growing population.
Orapeleng Moraladi, Northern Cape secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, blames the town’s continued existence on the courts, an uncooperative Orania leadership, and a lack of political will from the ANC. “[The town] is like embracing an apartheid system within a democratic state,” he says. “Orania is an indictment of the government of South Africa.”