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.

* * *

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.”

Breytenbach is perhaps the most striking case. Not long ago he penned a long essay on his current state of mind for Rapport, the Sunday Afrikaans paper. In it, he sneered at those who would “crawl on their knees to blacks in supplication.” The Afrikaners have always been and will always be a “culturally distinctive ethnic group,” he concluded, and even might someday have to find a little patch of land on which they can govern themselves.

* * *

In the end, the man who helped me understand redemption in South Africa wasn’t a liberal nor an ascetic, but someone many see as having turned his back on redemption altogether. We’ll call him Lappies. I met him in Bloemfontein, a town halfway between Johannesburg and Orania. He worked there as a lawyer. I was doing some reporting on a group of his clients, and in the course of telling me their life stories over lunch, he also told me his own. It didn’t seem relevant then. But I have since found I think of it all the time.

Lappies told me he had grown up in Mafikeng, a dusty town near the Botswana border. His father was a cattle farmer there. He was born in 1972, the third boy in the family. His two older brothers had gone to war. Big fights were on at that time in nearby Namibia and Angola. Their black liberation movements were suspected of assisting anti-apartheid fighters as well as conspiring with Russia and Cuba to undermine South Africa’s white capitalist economy. White South Africa instituted a draft to protect itself. The war effort was characterized by the South African government, popular radio, and film as not only necessary but moral. It was part of the greater death match being waged worldwide between Communism and freedom.

Lappies’s brothers had come home heroes. And so all of the daydreams and the play-hours of his childhood were spent fleshing out one fantasy: going to war himself. That was the greatest gift of love a boy could give his community, his country, and the world. That was how a boy became a man.

He entered the army in 1988 when he turned seventeen. It was, however, a strange and unfortunate time to join up, as over the course of his three years of service nearly all the honor and glory that had surrounded fighting in the army dissipated like so much thin fog. The Berlin Wall fell. Then the Soviet Union did, too. All the breathless panic surrounding the red tide creeping over Africa suddenly appeared silly, and the government’s anti-Communist rhetoric a flimsy cover for a racist war against blacks. Moreover, after decades of insisting a black takeover of the state meant certain death for the Afrikaners, the South African government released Nelson Mandela from prison.

The war that had once seemed so critical suddenly seemed foolish. In 1989, South African troops withdrew from Angola and Namibia. Lappies finished his army training and waited on his base’s tarmac for two days for his Angola call-up, but the plane that would have flown him to his heroic destiny never came.

The public moral line was changing exceptionally fast in South Africa. Lappies’s unit, once a particularly elite and respected one, was sent into the townships to keep the calm. One day, some soldiers opened fire on a group of black protesters. The local newspapers condemned the incident as a “rampage.” The government — still white then — referred the unit to a human rights commission for investigation and then, as part of the negotiations around South Africa’s democratic transition, agreed to disband the unit entirely.

The implication was that Lappies should feel ashamed. But when he went on to enroll in university, he found he keenly missed his army life: the intensity of it, the strict discipline, the male bonding, the glory — the idea of glory in Namibia and Angola. He still felt so disappointed he hadn’t been able to fight there. He was also aware these feelings were potentially sick. They kept him awake; they ate at him as he tried to concentrate on his studies. How could he miss something that had been so wrong?

His solution was not to redeem himself from the shame of his experience by crushing the sensations of pleasure and pride his memories of the army triggered, or by constructing a new notion of what glory entails. That would have required the erasure and revision of all his childhood dreams, of what woke him in his youth in an excited sweat like the young Nikolenka Bolkonsky in War and Peace, who awakens from a dream of his battle-slain father and then pants happily, “Father! Father! Yes, I’ll do something that even he would be pleased with…”

Rather, his solution was to redeem the experience itself from its bad reputation. He did it this way. When he advanced to graduate studies in law, the university asked him to act as a kind of “dorm father” to an unruly residence of undergraduate boys. He decided to restore discipline to the dorm by introducing all the practices that had taught him discipline in the army. Early in the morning, the boys underwent room inspection: shirts stacked from light to dark and toothbrush, toothpaste, shaver, shaving cream, and Bible lined up in that order on the bed, exactly like he’d had to do it in the army. Screw it up and they had to do “P.T.”, or push-ups, exactly like he’d had to do in the army. Freshmen were subjected to intense hazing to promote male bonding, just like he’d been in the army. Lappies’s wager was that the judgment on his army experience would come full circle: in correcting these bad boys, it would prove that those years had a purpose that might have been positive after all.

It did and it didn’t. Lappies’s dorm became the model of discipline. It won the annual campus float-building contest and the intramural rugby league. But in 2008 the dorm came to shame when its boys filmed a video protesting a university plan to place more black students in the dorm. In it, the boys mock-haze their elderly black janitors, forcing them to pound beers in their basement and run races. The video went viral across South Africa. After weeks of uproar, the dorm met the same final fate as Lappies’s unit in the army: the university shut it down altogether.

* * *

In Hamlet, Claudius, after having killed Hamlet’s father, delivers an anguished monologue on redemption. “My fault is past,” he reasons,

But, O, what form of prayer

Can serve my turn? ‘Forgive me my foul murder’?

That cannot be; since I am still possess’d

Of those effects for which I did the murder,

My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.

May one be pardon’d and retain the offence?”

I have long loved this monologue, but I always understood its lesson to be that giving up what you’ve won through sin, and promising not to sin again, are the prerequisites to redemption. Claudius still has an out, if a distasteful one: give up his crown, his wife, and his political ambitions, and he’d be ready for pardon.

In South Africa, I learned you might also have to give up your past; you might have to give up your memories. It was easy for Lappies to promise he’d never fight for apartheid again after apartheid ceased to exist. It was harder to regret having done it and harder still to erase having spent his whole youth wanting to do it.

Apartheid was an exceptionally pervasive system of social engineering. It strove, cruelly, to govern all aspects of human life: where people lived, where they worked, whom they married. It was the vast cloud under which many ordinary people built their lives; at first it sheltered them from the sun, but when it burst, everything under it got wet. The Afrikaner poet Danie Marais has written about feeling a wave of nostalgia for his first kiss, followed by shame when he remembered that kiss occurred during apartheid: “It seems unlikely, almost perverse, that one’s own personal experiences of beauty and innocence could have happened in such a time and place.”

I see now that there is a lot of work being done here toward redemption. It is the redeeming of the self through the redeeming of the past. In a place that has been touched by a wrong as all-encompassing as apartheid, what we ordinarily understand as redemption would entail the renunciation of a huge number of things, including one’s feelings and beliefs about one’s own youth. We call the people who do that lunatics or saints. In South Africa, ordinary people are involved, instead, in redeeming aspects of their old lives. The liberal historian is redeeming his education by insisting that the language in which he was taught is a noble one that must be preserved. The Oranians are redeeming their favorite holidays and foods by trying to show that traditional Afrikaner culture could be clean, if only the exploitation-of-black-labor tradition could be scrubbed from it.

Lappies is still engaged in redeeming his army experience. You might think, after the demise of his dorm in 2008, he would have given up. But instead, he collected money to open a private dorm just off campus in which the traditions of the army are again given center stage. When I visited, I asked one college freshman whether he thought early-morning room inspection was a little inhibiting, a relic of an earlier era when strict discipline for twenty-year-old men was more in vogue. He vigorously shook his head no. “It makes us big for the future,” he said.

Lappies as he was in the army exists again there. In fact, Lappies as he wanted to be has come into being there. “Have you noticed the way he smokes?” one student asked me. He explained that Lappies’s unusual thumb-and-forefinger grasp on a butt lets him cover the burning end with his palm. It was a habit, the student was sure, that came from when he had to stop Communists from spotting him on the battle line at night in Angola.

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