Valley of the Afrikaners: Orania and the Making of a Post-Apartheid White Identity
In a subtle valley among the rolling green hills of the South African veld, there is a rural village enclave known as Orania. Established on private land by a small group of South African citizens, the village is a bastion of memory for its 800 residents, within which they have attempted to recreate a failed 20th-century sociopolitical experiment architected by the man whose statue overlooks the town square. That man was H. F. Verwoerd, and that experiment was apartheid, arguably the most brutal and sustained violation of human rights since World War II.
Although Orania maintains a somewhat isolationist policy due to its decidedly awkward status in modern South Africa, I was given the opportunity to interview the residents of Orania and its leaders in order to study the realignment of the South African white identity after apartheid.
Apartheid is often misunderstood, by Americans in particular, as a system of segregation not unlike that in the pre-Civil Rights southern United States. In reality, apartheid was an absolute, undeniably fascist, fully compartmentalized system in which arbitrarily designated racial groups were not only relegated to separate citizenships, but operated within separate economies, polities, and juridical systems. (In one telling example, at one time during apartheid there were ten separate departments of education—one for each “race,” and one for each dependent “homeland” territory.) The Afrikaners were a white, Dutch Calvinist population that settled in South Africa in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and developed their own linguistic, ethnic and cultural heritage, so much so that by the time of the British colonization in the nineteenth century it was the Afrikaners, not the native African populations, who put up the most resistance to British rule. Apartheid’s underlying philosophy was born of the political determination of the Afrikaners.
The Afrikaner dream of an independent volkstaat (“people’s state”) was delayed during the period of British colonization. It had to wait until 1948, when the National Party came to power. Its first order of business was the attempted establishment of a utopian, linguistically and culturally pure Afrikaans nation, in a political system that came to be known as apartheid. In 1960, Verwoerd, then Prime Minister, tried to fulfill the Afrikaner dream of full independence by separating from the British Commonwealth and establishing the Republic of South Africa.1
Increasing international isolation and internal demands for reform led to the demise of apartheid, and in 1994 the new multi-racial and multi-party democracy promulgated a new constitution that outlawed racism and guaranteed recognition of all South African ethnic identities. The new constitution offered many oppressed South African ethnic groups, such as the Zulu and Xhosa, who had been relegated to poverty and insignificance in the “native” homelands set up during apartheid, the opportunity to practice their linguistic and cultural heritage freely, and participate in the South African democratic project as equal citizens. But for some, like the Afrikaners, this constitutional provision was necessary to allay their fears of post-apartheid marginalization. After their protected status under apartheid ended, they feared the loss of their national and linguistic identity as they suddenly became a disempowered minority. Although most Afrikaners adapted to the transition by embracing non-racialism as an essential component of the new national order, some felt a compelling urge to entrench themselves further in the land, reaffirming their belief that Afrikanerdom constituted a culturally distinct and uncompromisingly African heritage.
Enter Carel Boshoff, grandson-in-law of Verwoerd himself, who, along with his wife and 30 Afrikaner farmers, professors, missionaries and clergy—and along with Verwoerd’s 92-year-old widow—spent half a million dollars on a ghost town in the Northern Cape to found Orania in 1993.
Orania, as a constitutionally legal self-governing entity with its own currency, banks, schools, and farms, occupies a fascinating position in the new South Africa: a group of Afrikaners, wishing to extend the nationalist project of apartheid, created a self-determined nation unto themselves, by citing their constitutional right to cultural advancement. Indeed, Oranians are overwhelmingly, if not unanimously, conservative Afrikaners who support a return to the ideals of Verwoerd and apartheid.
That sentiment in itself is not surprising. What is surprising is the nostalgia of these Afrikaner purists as it relates to their own self-determination. Frequently the residents express discontent over the “sapping of Afrikaner identity” and their fears of marginalization in the new South Africa, and they suggest that the Afrikaner ideal could be lost due to “Afrikaner pragmatism.” Observed Carel Boshoff IV, the grandson of Orania’s founder, “What was once a resolute community that demanded respect has now developed into a loose bundle of individuals that totter between nostalgia and opportunism.” However, Oranians do not consider themselves to be victims, but cultural crusaders who seized the opportunity of the transition to found a self-determined community of proactive, proud Afrikaners. Oranians hope to practice Afrikanerdom in all its purest linguistic, racial, religious and cultural forms free of outside molestation. Only Afrikaans is spoken, the only church is the Dutch Reformed Church, and no non-Afrikaners are allowed to live in Orania—not even white, English-speaking South Africans (unless they identify as Afrikaner).
The community, to them, is not about racism but about the continuance of Afrikanerdom as a legitimate cultural project. They see themselves therefore less as racial purists than as cultural purists, and view their town very much as a bastion of Afrikaner purity. Said one Oranian teacher:
Orania’s growth depends to a large extent on the situation in the rest of the country. If Afrikaners feel threatened in [South Africa] Orania will grow quicker, but fear should not be the driving force for people to move to Orania—neither racism. Orania cannot be seen as a place to escape—it may not be a negative action, but proactive and a positive challenge.Furthermore, Oranians are surprisingly willing to engage in the national political discourse. They consider themselves to be citizens of South Africa, and are proud of the Afrikaner contribution to its history. Most moved to Orania because of what they perceived to be their victimization by the government when it came to employment, and fear of white-targeted crime. (It is a matter of debate among scholars whether the high crime rate in South Africa disproportionately targets whites.) They take a stance against the assertion that Afrikanerdom is merely a racial identity, and defend their right to exist in a closed community. Finally, they believe that living in such communities should be a goal of most South Africans. Said an Oranian engineer:
True peace can only be found in the co-existence of the different peoples of South Africa. If each group can find peace with themselves and peace with their neighbors then South Africa will be a good place to live in. You can only found peace with yourself if you respect your own identity and be prepared to protect it. The only way to protect it is to group with your own people.This sentiment is echoed by another resident, who told me:
Yes, I think there should be more towns like Orania, as we are a bit far from our families, I would say, one Orania-type town in every province, maybe. No, never will the whole of SA ever be like Orania, as it is a rainbow nation, but to have a few places for each nationality in and around SA where your own culture is kept, will be a good idea, I think. [emphasis mine]Certainly, this concept is nothing new—apartheid itself was an experiment in “Bantustaning,” the practice of allotting land to different ethnic groups. The Bantustans were legally treated much in the same way that American Indian reservations are today—separate governments, with little to no assistance from the apartheid government. The Bantustans, which date back to the 1913 Natives’ Land Act, were the government’s solution to the problem of the black majority. By giving them “homelands,” it was hoped a large-scale demographic catastrophe would be averted. The Oranian position, for this reason, has been challenged by South Africans who reject separatism and see echoes of the racist apartheid project in Orania. Orania has been criticized by many South Africans for being a racist enclave and continuing to support and teach apartheid-era ideas. One professor observed that the ruling African National Congress (ANC) opposes places like Orania because it fears a trend toward the Bantustaning of South Africa.
What is to be made of this group of rural settlers whose primary goal is the continuation of an apartheid system in the face of overwhelming national opposition? Are they to be celebrated for their commitment to a nationalist cause, or ridiculed for their refusal to assimilate into an increasingly democratized South Africa? Are they politicized? Whom do they represent, if more than just themselves? And finally, are they merely racists? Or do they represent a complex identity crisis, where whites have been forced to reexamine their own conceptions of themselves?
White introspection is not a peculiarly Afrikaner phenomenon in post-apartheid South Africa. It is a common discursive theme in the collective white experience, drawing from feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness in the new regime. After apartheid, the white identity in the new South Africa is no longer seen as a specifically racial concept, but as representing a complex relationship between culture and class. Whites have experienced a dismantling of their own worldview, a correction in their previously assumed conception of themselves. In response, many have created an environment of collectivism tied to a common history, in an attempt to legitimize whiteness as a compelling identity. The narrative of whiteness has become one of separation, of delegitimization. In other words, whites have finally had to come face-to-face with their minorityhood.
For Afrikaners, the identity crisis gains another level of complexity. Afrikaners have always had a strong conception of their own national heritage, born of religious persecution, anti-colonial resistance, rugged pioneering, and entrepreneurship. They were the first European settlers in South Africa, and they feel the same right to their country as white Australians feel to theirs. The deconstruction of apartheid, to most South Africans (including white non-Afrikaners), was the deconstruction of a racist aberration; for many Afrikaners, it was the deconstruction of a dream of independence and self-determination. Thus, many Afrikaners have been unable to adjust to their new post-apartheid minorityhood, but instead have found themselves to be a shadow in search of a form—a stark contrast to the previous regime, where the definition and elaboration of an Afrikaner national identity was an accepted dogma of state policy. In this search for recognition as a new minority, they have been met by a hostile South Africa that cares more about lifting the disenfranchised masses out of desolation than protecting a privileged few.
Thus it is not particularly surprising that since apartheid, a sentiment has emerged among Afrikaners that racism, while still very much active, has been turned on its head. A 2009 documentary, “Poor Whites/Rich Blacks,” depicts a poor Afrikaner family faced with the realities of the new South Africa. The man tells the interviewer that apartheid still exists, but in reverse: “Yes, we were in the good position, that was apartheid. Now it’s the opposite, but it is still apartheid.” The conception of “reverse apartheid” has become a rallying cry for Afrikaners. One Afrikaner wrote: “I continue to be against it [apartheid], also now that the role players have been swapped around and the policy of race differentiation is being labeled ‘affirmative action.’ Under the policy of apartheid, particularly the Afrikaners sought to obtain certain privileges and protection for themselves. Today the black majority seeks to do likewise.”
The use of the term “new apartheid” is particularly controversial because it draws an equivalency that is not historically or sociologically accurate. However, it is a common theme in interview responses from Afrikaners, especially those in Orania, to state their objection to the apartheid system, then draw a moral equivalency between apartheid victimization and their own experience. In doing so, they hope to legitimate their own position. It does not follow that white racism and black racism are morally equivalent, or that the white “victims” of the new order occupy the same historical position as their black counterparts. The compulsive desire to be sympathetic while simultaneously apologetic is reflective of a new type of white identity characteristic of the new South Africa, which has become ideologically linked with the persecution ethos of previous generations. Within the Afrikaner pro-nationalist and pro-white historiography, South Africa has always been a land of racial conflict, from the natives to the English, and now from black nationalism to black power. Thus, while it is hardly possible to demonstrate a moral equivalence between white racism and black racism, there may nonetheless be a relationship between the white fear of marginalization and the black fear of marginalization. Certainly this undercurrent runs through Afrikaner discourse on their experience, and it has permeated the modern Afrikaner society, causing it to reevaluate its own status in a post-apartheid world.
Many Afrikaners feel that to see evidence of their victimization, they need look no further than the systematic dismantling of Afrikaner institutions and linguistic heritage after apartheid. This was a bilateral process: not only did Afrikaner influence in government, education, and law wane, but after apartheid, Afrikaans-language publications, Afrikaans-identified businesses, and traditionally Afrikaans-identified political parties started to downplay their Afrikaner roots and integrate with mainstream society. Afrikaans festivals and cultural organizations saw a drop in funding, and the previously unabashedly Afrikaner bank, Volkskas, diluted its stake in Afrikanerdom by making the first “black empowerment” deal, courting Coloured management and selling its insurance policies to majority non-Afrikaner customers. Even the National Party, whose roots lay solidly in Afrikanerdom, disassociated with Afrikaners in an attempt to form new coalitions, notably merging with the ruling ANC in 2005.
However, despite a persistent fear among most Afrikaners in South Africa about delegitimization, Orania is one of only a couple such Afrikaner enclaves in the country, suggesting that on the whole, most Afrikaners participate in civil society and seek to protect their interests through the democratic process within public, diversified communities. This phenomenon is nowhere more apparent than in the activities of AfriForum, a major white advocacy group. Its charter draws heavily from the post-apartheid South African constitution and stresses the importance of minority rights vis-à-vis the rights of the majority, a common theme in the philosophy of liberal democracy. AfriForum’s commitment to the democratic process and its belief in the constitutionalism of the new South Africa legitimizes the organization, allowing it to be accepted, if begrudgingly, not as a fringe group seeking extremist or racist goals but as a lobbying group interested in advancing the interests of the white minority. (AfriForum is currently embroiled in a national controversy over the hate speech trial of Julius Malema, president of the African National Congress Youth League, who has been criticized for his use at rallies of the apartheid-era fight song “Kill the Boer, Kill the Farmer,” which has been used in the past to incite violence against Afrikaner farmers.)
AfriForum’s foremost concern, according to their literature, is the “apathetic withdrawal” of whites into their own political disenfranchisement, which leads to further non-involvement and lack of influence in the political process. In describing this apathy, they refer not just to the citizens of Orania, but to the attitude of the white minority in general, which they feel is a victim of its introspection as well as that of the ruling majority. They advocate a “Come Home” campaign, seeking to bring disaffected whites back to South Africa, and a campaign “for the protection and consolidation of civil rights,” which seeks to address specific policy points in the new race discourse, including employment inequity and crime.
Are Oranians merely racists? Indeed, many Oranians admit, even insist, that they are racists. However, the point of divergence with mainstream society, observed one foreign reporter, occurs when they insist that “There’s nothing wrong with racism.” The society of Orania has coalesced around a modern, and virulent, sort of racist white exclusivity—it is a way of life. However, unlike their white counterparts in the rest of South Africa, who live their lives in a “bubble” within a sea of black labor, whites in Orania do all of the work themselves. As a British journalist observed, “It’s not a photo opportunity in Britain to snap a white person holding a spade. For Afrikaners—hell, most of white South Africa—it’s a shock.” Orania can be viewed as a microcosm of the newfound white identity in South Africa, where racism lives on, but where new expectations regarding racial roles are being accepted. The racism of the people of Orania is almost a nostalgic throwback to an earlier era, to which they cling to retain cultural legitimacy. However, unlike some right-wing Afrikaner reactionaries who seek to dismantle the new democracy using violence, Oranians seem to be content living their lives in their cultural bubble, seemingly without ill will toward the larger South African state, with most actively participating in national elections as supporters of the Freedom Front Plus (FFP) party. As one resident told me, “I don't mind being part of South Africa and having a loyalty toward the country as long as it does not mean that I have to sacrifice my own identity as Afrikaner.” Greater South Africa has not been as hostile as might be expected toward this community: Nelson Mandela, Julius Malema, and current president Jacob Zuma have all visited Orania.
So one has to ask: is it not so much a return to apartheid they crave, but a return to cultural independence? Is it minority rule they seek, or minority acceptance? Maybe in their search for their own apartheid, they hope to capture what control they can achieve: self-determination, self-government, and, if possible, self-respect. However, many Oranians hope that such a system will one day be unnecessary, and they can live in a greater South Africa free of the burdens of the past. One of my respondents wrote:
If there were ANY cure for this ugly mess in our lovely country called crime or violence, the necessity for an Orania would not have happened, as we are not people for hatred, fights and murders, no, no, no, we are loving people, that would only like a place in the sun, and a haven for our children and old people, where we can live like normal people, and not locked up in our houses that became our jails! If ever there is a cure for all of this, please let us know, and we will implement it immediately, so that we can have a SAFE and LOVELY SOUTH AFRICA again, which we love so much! Where else can we go, where can we hide, nowhere, so we will just have to stay, and pray to our Lord that all will end well!It is hard to see these residents as anything but the people they have become: a minority—now perhaps an unprotected minority—who feel, sincerely, that their salvation will come not in their assimilation but in their separation. They do not view themselves as whites: that is a racial identity they would rather subordinate to their Afrikaner heritage. Instead, their very definition of Afrikanerdom is intertwined with their idea of cultural uniqueness, of rugged individualism, and above all else resistance to domination. As one of my respondents wrote,
What is an Afrikaner? To be proud of your heritage as a group of people that was forced out of their original mother country, to regroup in a foreign continent, and to build a community with strong Christian living norms, create their own language and norms and use it to better the living conditions not only of themselves but also the other people of South Africa.The question today for the residents of Orania is how they can reconcile their new identity with a new nation that is also striving to identify itself—how they can be reabsorbed into the new South African identity without losing their own.
1 It goes without saying that a true volkstaat never did—and never could—exist in South Africa. This is both because 80% of the population was non-white and because half of the white population was English-speaking non-Afrikaners, who were needed to form a white power coalition.