Paul McNally
Paul McNally

Orania tourism: Come gawk at the racists

There’s a girl in the tourist office dressed in a tight pink frilly uniform. She’s 21 years old and having a busy day in Orania. Her father John is one of the town’s official tour guides and he’s set to show us the pecan-shelling factory, the bottle store, The Koeksister Monument, Orania’s private radio station and the flag that graced Hendrik Verwoerd’s coffin. But primarily he’s going to reveal the 700 Afrikaners — no fences, no security — who are here to be racist in peace. They want to be left alone, unless there’s a chance of you buying a koeksister.

To generate revenue the folk here are willing to endure a few hours of interrogation. The privately owned patch of irrigated desert turned Afrikaans volkstaat — the sprinkler systems cluck with pride — has grown by only 100 people since its inception 19 years ago and as a last suffocating attempt for survival is morphing into a zoo. Would you like wors with that pap? Another Klippies? Perhaps an Orania-branded hat from the gift shop? A night in a guest house? Founder Carel Boshoff anticipated a huge investment from the staunch Afrikaner rich for his bio-dome of apartheid, but this never transpired. So, like the kid who’s relentlessly teased, the people of Orania believe if they let you come and play with their toys then you’ll grow to like them. These tours are ostensibly borne from Afrikaner pride — to boast a shoddy town built entirely by white hands — but it’s a chance to gawk or experiment around open racists. A sort of ideological fetish club. And they are fully aware of the mocking, but when you’re a town the size of a high school and the residents live in prefabs, like the ones that cooked you during maths, what choice do you have? Orania, that last blemish of the old South Africa, is on its arse and we’re the only ones who can save it.

Better than working

The insignia of Orania is a boy getting down to work by rolling up his sleeves. He’s on T-shirts, mosaics and buildings, always looking suspiciously like he’s tugging on a belt with his teeth to shoot up crack. He embodies White Pride and White Trash like the old/young woman perceptual illusion. Geoff, a retired riot policeman, is eager to speak. “Everyone in this town is a racist. If they don’t admit it they’re stupid,” he says refreshingly, but then hamstrings himself with “But there’s nothing wrong with racism” and proceeds to sketch out the evils of Nelson Mandela. No one here lowers their voices during racial slurs, like they do in neighbouring towns. Geoff tells a curious story of how black cops accept bribes and whites don’t — he knows this because last time he “was in a hurry” he slipped the cop R100 in the folds of his ID. After much badgering he said he’d never tried it on a white cop.

Geoff is only subdued by the barman cranking up the Kylie Minogue — he’s embarrassed by this “old timer”. The barman indignantly claims that none of them are racists. He scorns the reputation and how he has to use a different email address so people “out there” will do business with him. But surely he’s oozing racial epithets out of his pores by living here, no matter what he says? Though most of what he says is friendly. He says you’ll only miss a job as a white person if you’re incompetent, not because of affirmative action. I spill a rum and coke and he pours me another free of charge.

I get a tinge of the Oranian work ethic when sticky Coca-Cola streaks down the bar. I thought of how they are going to make a big deal of the mess because there is no staff. I’m used to spilling drinks and dead-eyed poor workers coming out and mopping it up. But here the man’s wife says “it is okay, no really it’s okay”. Marvel at how these Afrikaners clean their own toilets! This, incidentally, is a conversation we have repeatedly: housework and its new-found burden since relocating here. My friend is writing an article on Orania for an English website. He can’t harp on about how there are white people here cutting grass. 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. You can eat pap and wors for breakfast here, but because there’s no cheap labour it’s almost lunchtime before the food arrives. The town is resolving this by recruiting their own exploited — exclusively white — work force. On the outskirts is an outreach-turned-recruitment centre. This is where they scoop up the drifters and gibbering whites of the Northern Cape. They charge a hefty R450 a month to stay in a reformed barracks — a room twice the size of a single bed. There’s a zero tolerance on alcohol, but you can settle your outstanding payments with services to the town. A frazzled old woman runs the car wash — her record for a day is nine cars, spraying manually — and she seems very content.

Tell us another one

If the apartheid museum is to damn the old ideology, Orania is a karmic companion to how pathetic life can be if it continues. In the bar a cute blonde five-year-old, who can barely see over the table, is hustling a young teen girl who doesn’t resist a feel up from the man who looks like he’s an artistic impression of a great trek soldier without his musket. The women are out-numbered here: they’re no good at manual labour. Geoff and the soldier — blonde, deeply tanned, almond face — ask us to guess their ages. It’s as if to say life is easy here: they don’t age. Geoff is seventy — which we guess correctly. The almond-faced man is 23 but looks closer to thirty.

We drive around the town and scrounge for racist jokes to tell each other. Kick back and get all that racism off your bare chest. I’m going to get a seatbelt tan. We didn’t act racist with the residents. We tersely disapproved of their stories and slurs, but now we attempt to mock their racism cowardly by telling ironic jokes to each other in the privacy of the car.

It’s a nervous experience having your level of racism tested. If you fall in love with the frilly girl in the Orania tourism office what then? People like to be binary: “You’re a racist and I’m not a racist”. It’s an appeal for visiting Orania that after a visit you’re going to come out squeaky clean by comparison. We can all name a family member or friend who could live here, though wouldn’t admit it. A fight breaks out between the three of us in the car over whom we know that’s reprehensible. Varsity friends, girlfriends: didn’t she say something one time? It’s not a desirable reputation to have and that’s what’s perplexing about Orania is they have publicly declared their prejudice, but they aren’t happy or whooping. A valve hasn’t relaxed from finally admitting their scorn and prejudice. Mostly they are exhausting and sad. It’s not the manual labour which is tiring them, but having to keep their defences up.

It’s not a zoo of fascist harmony, but glum, castrated folk accustomed to city, or at least suburban, life. Mostly from Pretoria, they’ve had the agency to pack up, move and are now forced to pretend like they were raised in a dorpie. Stuffed bigotry exhibits with fake smiles and there is no turning back. Look at all the “Te Koop” signs. There are no clothes shops, nurseries or electronic stores; only shops selling car spares, bars and a ridiculous number of churches. To be accepted here you need to be white, Afrikaans and Christian, but what type of Christian is debatable. For 700 people there are seven churches. That’s what becomes apparent: these people are fragmented.

One family we visit has been in The Netherlands for nine years. They’ve recently returned and cheerfully hand out roosterbrood for us to cook over the fire. The father is here to build eco-houses. This is in the same town where there’s a Verwoerd museum and folk pop in for a casual read of old Huisgenoot magazines from the sixties. One man tells us beside a gigantic bust of the leader that he never liked him. He was too soft on the blacks, he says. John, our guide, tries to soften the outburst with: “Everyone here has a story.” And then he chuckles.

The older woman in the tourist office, the one with candy-floss grey hair, tells us how she was attacked at gun point in her Pretoria home so packed up and moved to Orania. In Orania it takes time to distinguish the traumatised racists from the stupid ones. I found myself splitting people into two categories: true racist and racist from horrific crime incident. This concession, I realise, is pretty racist.

We’ll save them

The presentation video depicts gaggles of little kids on tricycles, but on the roads we see none. Instead we’re told men visit the town so they can ride their quad bikes recklessly because there’s no acting police force. Enforcement is run like a neighbourhood watch, with the worse crime apparently being a stolen bicycle (they are boastfully unlocked). But a black guy I meet says that if he went close to the river then he’d get punched in the face. There’s an uneasy trepidation as I approach him — I think it’s the first time I’ve ever been feared. “It’s weird here isn’t it,” I say and he immediately relaxes and agrees. They have an unofficial system of signing the black visitors in, giving them a pass. He visits in his red bakkie to sell watermelons. There’s an embarrassment around the town for having to rely on outsiders. The truth is they import practically everything.

After the video the pretty girl at the tourism office hefts down the media file. “That’s not even half of it,” she says. She’s a subservient encyclopaedia of facts — a great help to the four sets of journalists who are in the town, and that’s just today. She went to school here. Orania gives parents the choice of a sci-fi, home-grown curriculum: plugged in to computers with CD-ROMS like Master Maths, allowing you to develop at “your own pace”. The second is the standard theological backwater: The Christelike Volks-Onderwys. This is more conventional with special emphasis on Afrikaner history. I think of the blonde five-year-old pool player and pity who she’ll become in ten years. Two separate schools, each covering all 12 grades: you can’t help but think they were expecting more people.

Carel Boshoff the 4th, grandson of the town’s founder, is an intellectual racist. He’s a man with perfectly circular spectacles who’s chosen to put himself in a certain box and he isn’t coming out. His grandma is a Verwoerd and he’s cherishing the time when it’ll be his generation’s turn to fight for Hendrik’s remains (they’re stoically rotting in Pretoria). While standing over the grave of his son — he was a baby of one year when he died — John said, “His other two sons are retarded”. and then added: “It’s very sad.” This is the end of the Verwoerd and Boshoff line — the future of Orania — a tiny grave and two mentally handicapped children.

By spending money here you’re helping old Boshoff survey his kingdom for a little longer so take a packed lunch and sleep in the car. Don’t give them more than you have to, just enough to keep them afloat: it only works as a tourist destination if they’re miserable.