Orania: The town that time forgot

2013-07-18 11:00

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After seeing a gripping documentary about Orania, the whites-only Afrikaner volkstaat, Hannelie Booyens checks out the Northern Cape town for herself.

We blinked and almost drove past the town – it’s easy to miss the entrance, especially if you’re looking for big ‘Whites Only’ signs or old Vierkleur flags.

Only once you turn off the main road do you see the orange-coloured propaganda on big billboards. The symbol of Orania is everywhere: a small boy rolling up his sleeves. Like statues of workers in

Communist Russia, this little guy, representing self-sufficiency, is in every public space. He adorns business signage, like at Ons Wassery (Our Laundry), where Sonja and Amanda ‘wash and iron for your convenience’.

It’s striking how small and quiet the town of 1 000 residents is. We wonder if people have gone away for the weekend, but the unkempt gardens suggest that maybe not all the modest houses are occupied.

None of the town’s buildings are impressive, not even the Hendrik Verwoerd Museum, with its numerous statues of the father of apartheid in the garden.

It’s here where Verwoerd’s widow, Tannie Betsie, spent her last days – and where Nelson Mandela came for tea in 1995 as a gesture of reconciliation. Among the exhibits is the suit Verwoerd was wearing when he was assassinated in 1966.

The koeksister monument. Picture: Marida Fitzpatrick

We head off to Afslaan Café, next to the petrol station with its white attendants, in search of salt and vinegar.

The woman behind the till looks surprised that Afrikaans people were planning to braai without such essential provisions, and doesn’t want money for the salt and vinegar she puts in plastic tubs for us.

Back at the (unexpectedly luxurious) Aan-die-Oewer Resort on the banks of the Orange River, an elderly man pops his head around the corner as we start building the fire. ‘Could you girls please lend the oom some matches?’ he asks.

Later that night, over dinner, we try to figure out how to handle the friendliness of the townsfolk.

At Oewer Resort, you can fetch wood and gas after hours and pay the next day, an honesty system that feels weird – especially if you see yourself as something of an ‘undercover bloody agent’.

The graciousness of the Oranians also struck writer and journalist André le Roux when he visited the town earlier this year for a book talk.

A brunch, spoon-decorating session (for women) and inspection of the pecan nut factory (for men) were on the agenda. ‘Everyone greeted me,’ he told me. ‘You quickly figure out that when you greet, you will be greeted.

My hand was sore from all the greeting.’ Also striking, he said, was how quiet and clean the town is, ‘but it’s almost as if there’s desolation in the quiet.’ Two things stayed with him: ‘There aren’t dogs or cats. And I wondered where the town’s children were. Why don’t they play in the streets?’

Early Saturday morning, I phone Wynand Boshoff, grandson of Verwoerd.

I last saw him when we worked together at the University of Pretoria’s student newspaper.

With his long, curly hair, Wynand looks like a cross between the singer Dozi and a friendly spaniel. His dry sense of humour makes him the ideal guide to Orania, especially with his good-natured teasing of his family.

It’s this kind of charm that catches people with preconceived ideas off-guard.

Wynand is disarmingly honest about what does and doesn’t work in Orania. He points to a pathetic vineyard and admits his efforts as a wine farmer failed.

But he also proudly shows the recycling bins next to the houses – something the town gets right. Wynand was a teacher at Orania’s school for a few years, but now keeps himself busy with research.

We take a look at the pecan nut orchards outside town, which have given Orania a substantial economic injection. And we stop at the place where his mother and grandmother are buried, and where the family wants to erect a tombstone for his father, who died in 2011.

I ask about the documentary, Orania, that’s getting worldwide praise. Wynand and the German director, Tobias Lindner, became friends in the three months the movie was made. ‘I understand what Tobias tried to do,’ Wynand says, ‘but there are people in town who feel the way in which some of them have been portrayed creates a negative image of the volkstaat.’

Wynand also isn’t ashamed to point out the contrasts that hit you the deepest.

In the movie, his father (Carel Boshoff Snr) looks like a calm and reasonable man who milks cows, looks after horses and leads church services in his old age.

His generation’s arguments about self-determination are sophisticated and based on international principles of minority rights, even though they stem from a fanatical and oppressive Christian philosophy. You can’t accuse any of the Boshoffs of racism.

The flag of Orania showing the symbolic 'diligent boy'. Picture: Loanna Hoffmann

Among the thinkers in Orania you’ll also find a few eccentrics, who might even be seen as ‘eco radicals’ anywhere else.

Like the Everson family, who built their house from recycled materials and which functions independently of municipal water, electricity and sewage. But there are also the less-sophisticated Afrikaners who come to Orania under the impression that unemployment, dislike of the ANC government and hatred towards other races are reason enough to find a home – and income – in Orania. We drive through Kleingeluk, the rapidly growing downtown working-class area.

Onoe of the most upsetting profiles in the documentary is of a young gangster from Johannesburg who was sent to Orania by his grandmother, apparently to keep himout of jail. ‘Baksteen’ (meaning ‘brick’) is a displaced rebel without a cause.

His boyish smile looks almost psychopathic when his crimes come to light. You hold your breath when Baksteen befriends an innocent newcomer, Christo, who moves into the single quarters for young men. This housing is managed like a military barracks, where liquor is banned and attending church compulsory.

Christo’s family moved from Zeerust to start a shuttle service between Orania and the surrounding towns.

It’s difficult to see through Lindner’s objective lens whether Christo’s father, Johan, is an opportunist or a desperate entrepreneur.

He had to explain to radio stations why ‘volksvreemdes’ (non-whites) will also be allowed on his shuttle service – provided they’re sober, pay for a ticket and can speak Afrikaans…

In between the humour and humanity, there are many poignant moments in Orania. In what was surely one of his last interviews before his death, one detects a weariness in Carel Snr’s voice when he admits he doesn’t know if this dream of a state for white people will work in the long term.

‘If it doesn’t, we close the books, switch off the lights and the house stands empty.’

In the final scene he sits listening to his granddaughter plinking on the piano. With this melancholic tune in the background, we see Baksteen once more – in the front room of a Coloured family, where he found a home after being kicked out of Orania.

On the Sunday morning, before we leave, we explore the monument hill where busts of Afrikaans statesmen stand – Kruger, Hertzog, Malan, Strijdom. It’s no coincidence there are no sculptures of Smuts, Vorster, Botha or De Klerk.

From the hill the town looks dead quiet – every soul is attending services at one of Orania’s seven church denominations. There’s not much spiritual consensus in the volkstaat.

With the soft chir-chir-chir of sprinklers in the background, I consider how surreal and how ordinary this place is.

And I can’t help but think that the inspiration which sent the older generation to this parched Karoo town will go to their graves with them. And that a lost Afrikaans generation will still be displaced… Like Baksteen, who, two years after he went back to Joburg, was murdered during gang violence.

Orania couldn’t save Baksteen – or Paul Breytenbach, his real name.

• Orania was named Best Documentary Film at Jozi Film Festival in February this year.

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