In South Africa, the road to redemption is a desert one. It leaves Johannesburg to the southeast, passing through the remains of white ambition here: the slag heaps of the mines that gave birth to the city; the sprawling township where black laborers were forced to live under apartheid; the oil refinery built to circumvent the apartheid-era trade embargoes, whose towers still flare like torches over the towns spread out beneath. After a couple of hours, the road narrows and enters farmland, but you cannot stop there and hope to find deliverance. No, you have to keep going as the villages grow scarcer and scarcer until they peter out and you are driving through nothing but an endless expanse of white grass, its long tufts lit into its own little flares by the sun. This desert is called the Great Karoo. Once it was an inland swamp, teeming with plants and frogs and reptiles, but now only their fossils remain, tucked in amongst the white grass and the dust.
Finally, after miles and miles of that white grass, another town suddenly appears, a grid of reddish roads, a church, low beige houses, little Toyotas plying the perfectly-squared corners. It is as tidy as a town imagined in a dream, because it is one. In 1991, three years before the democratic election that freed South Africa from white minority rule, eleven Afrikaners bought a long-abandoned mining town here wholesale with the dream of rebuilding it from scratch. They named it Orania after the Orange River running nearby. Such a dream rarely emerges from nothing, and Orania’s sprung from a powerful motive: to expunge the sin of the white South African. This could only be done out in the Great Karoo, divided from the city and the mines and the townships by so many miles of absolving grass.
I went to visit Orania in May 2009, three weeks after I had arrived in South Africa on a writing fellowship. I was curious to meet whites who were reinventing themselves, and the Oranians were the first ones I read about. “We’re a new breed of Afrikaners,” a resident had told a reporter in a little write-up in the local paper.
When I got to Orania, one of its founders, a former missionary named Carel Boshoff III, explained the idea to me in more detail. “In South Africa we have cheap black labor,” he began. He led me inside his house to sit at a long wooden table, which was littered with dirty plates and stacks of papers. I felt a little awkward — should I pretend I didn’t notice the mess? — until I realized Boshoff was proud of it. Such a tableau could only exist in Orania, he said. In the rest of South Africa, the old relationships of race and power persisted in day-to-day life, even though whites had technically lost their political status and blacks had gained it. Black people still washed white people’s dishes, still tidied their tables, still existed as a predominantly poor underclass on which rich whites relied to do their dirty work. Such a situation psychologically damaged the white as well as the black, because “you don’t see that person as a person,” Boshoff said.
By Boshoff’s reckoning, exploiting blacks to build their society was the critical mistake the Afrikaners made. But the mistake was too hard to scrub out of life in the city. Even if one gave up one’s own maid, blacks still brought the food in the restaurants and pumped the gas, and finding, for instance, a white construction crew was impossible. So Boshoff and his co-founders, cosmopolitan intellectuals who’d been stout Afrikaner nationalists for most of the apartheid era, retreated to the Great Karoo to conceive of a new town in which Afrikaners would learn to “do all their own labor.” Not only would Afrikaners be Orania’s elites, they would also be its service workers. In Orania, whites would pump their own gas, build their own houses, and clean their own tables.
Fifteen years later, having grown into a modest settlement of 800 people supporting fifty small businesses, Orania remains deadly serious about its mission. Any newcomer has to endure back-to-back Saturday orientation sessions on how to treat underlings, and Afrikaners who cannot break their ingrained habits of mistreating laborers have to leave. The Orania flag, tacked up everywhere, depicts a young boy proudly rolling up a shirtsleeve. “We are breaking from our past, our history, and our culture,” Boshoff told me.
I admired him. And yet there was something strange about his project, something paradoxical. Though Orania was breaking with one aspect of the past, it was simultaneously dedicated to preserving other aspects of it unmolested. Orania’s other mission, the other raison d’etre that required it be established far from the perverting influences of city life, is to defend traditional aspects of Afrikaner culture. In Orania, old-fashioned pioneer dress — the Afrikaners ceased being Dutch and became their own people during a trek through the Great Karoo in wagons in the nineteenth century — is worn and celebrated in many seasonal festivals. Traditional holidays like Geloftedag, the no-longer-politically-correct commemoration of the day Afrikaners triumphed militarily over the Zulus, are still observed. Traditional food like biltong, a beef or venison jerky, and a syrup-soaked donut called the koeksister still anchor the restaurant menus. (The town even boasts a giant statue of a koeksister as well as busts of Afrikaner political leaders like the apartheid-era prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd.) In the rest of South Africa, Afrikaans is fast giving way to English, a more inclusive language, but in Orania the school curricula, radio programming, and community meetings still operate only in Afrikaans.
Most noticeably, whereas in the rest of the country people of all colors can now be seen more or less everywhere, in Orania, just like in the old white-only areas under apartheid, there are only white people. The town requires an application to move in, but its ostentatious embrace of Afrikaner culture ensures no blacks apply. Orania maintains its commitment to whites doing all the work by seeming not to welcome blacks. It is the last consciously white enclave left in the new South Africa. And so this is the paradox: while Orania is the place whites can go to undergo the regimen most explicitly designed to cleanse themselves of the sins of apartheid, it is also the place they can go to live most visibly like they did before it ended.
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Since I went to Orania, I’ve been in South Africa for three years, writing mainly about the Afrikaner community’s adaptations after the end of apartheid. I learned to speak Afrikaans, drove through the countryside with Afrikaner men aged twenty to seventy, and lived with young hipsters in Johannesburg, as well as on a sheep farm in the Karoo that’s supported the same farming family for five generations. But I’ve never again met anybody who thought so hard about redemption as Carel Boshoff.
In fact, redemption is hardly discussed in contemporary South Africa. This puzzled me a little. South Africa set the stage for redemption at the end of the long morality play that was the twentieth century. A deposed group of oppressors — the Afrikaners — was offered a chance to share in the promised land with their former captives. Presumably, they would have to do so by proving they could change and relate to their country on new terms.
I imagined there would be urgent efforts to get hip with black culture. I imagined whites enrolling in Zulu dance classes or studying black languages. Before I got to South Africa, I even heard a rumor that whites were now becoming sangomas, traditional African healers. I presumed they hoped the transformative magic of the sangoma’s prayer beads and incantations would work not only on their patients but on themselves.
I found, instead, nearly the opposite. There were no Zulu dance classes, no Zulu-as-a-second-language courses. In fact, in the years after apartheid ended, Afrikaner culture had seemed to become more conspicuously Afrikaner: cultural festivals celebrating Afrikaans music and theater sprouted up all over the country and the Afrikaans-language newspapers — which, employing a mostly Afrikaner staff, turned a distinctively Afrikaner eye on the news — were flourishing. I did come across a little clique of white sangomas in Cape Town. However, they were also all flamboyantly gay, and as far as I could tell, their embrace of African healing was as much a fashion statement as a spiritual one. Being sangomas conferred on them not only the right but the strict mandate to go out in feathers and leopard-print loincloths at three in the afternoon.
Even the old liberals had become new defenders of Afrikaner culture, if not in as spectacular a way as the Oranians. During the ‘70s and ‘80s, a liberal Afrikaner intelligentsia had spoken out fiercely against apartheid in poetry, journalism, and song. Their critiques touched not only the government’s policies but the whole architecture of white life in South Africa: whites lived “guns at the ready and jackboots on Africa’s back,” the writer Rian Malan concluded bitterly. The poet Breyten Breytenbach, arrested by the white government for aiding the African National Congress and sentenced to seven years in jail, reckoned the “sickness” in white society could only be cured by “integration, however hazardous and dangerous.”
Many of these critics are still active. But, even though the architecture of white life hasn’t substantially changed, they’re now more likely to be arguing in favor of reclaiming aspects of it from the moral dustheap. Consider the historian Hermann Giliomee, who in the ‘80s was denied a job at Stellenbosch, Afrikanerdom’s toniest university and his alma mater, for being too liberal. He’s now become Stellenbosch’s foremost advocate in the media against black education officials who want to change some of the school’s characteristics, particularly its teaching in Afrikaans, to make it more accessible to a wider range of black students. Or consider Malan, who now publishes odes to the heroic feats accomplished during the wars South Africa fought against other African countries’ black liberation movements, like the time a staff sergeant, after coming under attack by a crocodile during an amphibious mission in Angola, “drew his knife, plunged it into the crocodile’s eye … and swam another twelve kilometers to the pickup point with lacerated thighs and buttocks.”