By Jan Stürmann
In a hot tin-roofed workshop, four young men, stripped to the waist, build coffins. With well practiced efficiently, they produce 100 caskets a month, participants in a program to create work for unemployed Afrikaners. Most are sold to bury AIDS victims in the black communities surrounding the all-white private town of Orania.
This town of 600, situated close to the geographic center of South Africa, was established in 1991, as a place where the soon-to-be outvoted Afrikaners, could rebuild a homeland or Boer volkstaat. Thirteen years on, despite bad press and the brunt of endless editorial cartoons, the town has endured.
Earlier in the week, I met with prominent Boer nationalist Danie Theron in the South African capital Pretoria. I had contacted Danie curious to find out how the Boer were faring, ten years after apartheid had ended.
Theron immediately took the opportunity to stress differences between Boer and Afrikaner, two words, which are often used interchangeably. In the world-view of the Boer, they alone made the Great Trek from the Cape in the 1830’s to establish independent Boer republics inland, whilst the Afrikaners stayed with the British and got rich. Then the Afrikaners supported the British; the Boer fought them during the Anglo-Boer war of 1899. And in 1994, the Afrikaner leaders betrayed the Boer by giving their land to black South Africans. Theron explained the Boer are deeply, conservatively religious and to survive, believe they need self-determination on land they can call their own.
In a country of 45 million, the Boer, with a total population of fewer than 1.5 million, are politically insignificant. They gambled on apartheid and lost. Now they live, a distinct nation, within a country not their own. Many Boer are again circling the wagon. The slogan for the Boer-run Radio Pretoria is “The radio with borders.”
The Boers hope that private all white towns like Orania, or Kleinfontein, 30 km east of Pretoria, will serve as seed-crystals for a future homeland. Today, 300 residents live in Kleinfontein. Residents do all their own work, run their own schools, and take care of the old and the poor. Impressive, permanent homes spread across the grassy hills. But when asked how long it will take to grow into a homeland, town board member Jan Groenewald admits “not in my lifetime.”
Since the end of apartheid, many Afrikaners have fallen on hard times. On the edge of some towns, squatter camps of homeless Afrikaners spread like Okie camps in 1930’s California. To help poor Boer, retired businessman Willie Venter started VolksHulp 2000, a charity organization whose objective is vaguely similar to that of the Salvation Army. It’s one of the many social, political and labor organizations sprouting up in recent years to further the Boer agenda.
Theron covers a blackboard with a spider web of affiliations, pyramids of social structures, and pie charts of power bases, describing how these organizations will help the Boer unite and organize their future.
“The Boer are a stubborn, independent, fractious people. It is in our genes. For their contrariness, our ancestors were kicked out of Holland, France and Germany. To get a majority of Boer to unite behind the Volkstaat, will take a lot of work. But we have no alternative. If we don’t pull together, we will simply not survive.”
The next day we make the three-hour drive southeast of Pretoria, to the Hill of Majuba, where on February 27, 1881, the Boer won a decisive battle against the British who, after gold was discovered, had tried to annex the Boer Republic of Transvaal. A week later, the British negotiated peace.
Since 1991, the Boer, return annually to this battle site by the thousands. Some come by horse. A village of tents and campers spread across the foot of Majuba, which rises steeply up from the surrounding grasslands. Pickup trucks share the dusty lot with expensive German sedans. An array of different flags hang off trees, tents, and poles.
Families and old friends talk around campfires; children play between tents; and open fields and teenagers court. Women in long colorful period dresses and stiff sunbonnets mingle with those wearing khaki shirts and wide bush hats, dark from years of accumulating sweat. Large pistols share belt space with cell phones. A group practices whip cracking. Crowds cheer as teams of large, grunting men compete at tug-of-war.
Those who can, make the pilgrimage to the top of Majuba. In air thinner than my coast-bound lungs are used to, I huff up the steep path. At the summit, a group of eight Pretoria University students sit with a large, fluttering flag. They discuss the 123-year old battle—attack tactics, weapons used, numbers killed — as if each has lived it.
“This flag,” Ebert Myburgh, 21, explains, “is one we created by combining the old Boer Republics of Transvaal and Orange Free State flags. “There are too many flags. What’s needed is one under which all Boers can unite. We hope this will be the one.”
These ordinary university students — joking, holding hands, trying to outsmart each other — then circle the summit like pilgrims. I talk with a young man named Andries van der Berg, walking barefoot over the stones and grass. He is studying theater and TV production and wants to use his skills to help further the Boer culture. Already he’s produced two CD’s of Volk songs. “It’s in my blood,” he says. “My great-grandfather was former Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd”
They plant their flag on top of a beacon, link arms in a circle, and sing about their history and people and dreams. A young woman sings a solo, her voice clear and strong and haunting. I walk away, an outsider, witnessing something too private.
Later that afternoon, under an eucalyptus tree alight with the setting sun, five young men tend to their horses. One measures grain into feedbags; another rubs ointment on cracked hooves; the third fixes a broken bridle. Chores done, they sit amongst their feeding horses and talk.
They are part of a commando of forty-five who rode in from Pretoria, a two-day hard trek. Most make their living off the land, tend cattle, grow corn. Pride in their toughness, their horsemanship, their culture, clings to their skin like two days of sweat and grime.
They are shy and awkward around me. Pieter Grobler does most of the talking; he’s a little older, with a full beard and a body like a bear.
I accidentally refer to them as Afrikaners. “We’re Boer,” he corrects, “not Afrikaners.”
I ask Pieter what will be the plight of the Boer in South Africa. He pauses momentarily, “Exactly what happened to the farmers in Zimbabwe. The government will squander the countries wealth, which the Boer created. As they run out of money, they will confiscate our farms to give to their cronies; already this is happening. But we will unite and resist. For me to let them take our land is to stab my ancestors in the back. I will fight and make my forefathers proud. The Boer will survive.”
I ask him if he thinks black South Africans have a right to this land.
“Of course they do. All I want is for them not to mess with me, and I won’t mess with them. They must leave us alone; let us practice our own culture. But the Boer and the blacks are like oil and water: we just can’t mix.”
The day before, in Pretoria, I attended a meeting of the Boer think tank Studiegroep vir Eietydse Geskiedenis (Study Group for Current History). Once a month at an upscale restaurant downtown, this group of mostly elderly men, meet in a private room adorned with scantly clad Greek and Roman goddesses. They sat at white-linened tables, sipped wine, and listened to guest speaker Christo Burger talk about the threat of Islam, the biased media, the Antichrist, and God’s special plan for the Boer nation. His business card describes him as President of the CIA (Christian Intelligence Agency), “Spreading Absolute Truth.”
They asked ponderous questions, heard only what confirms their worldview. Like old lions they sat, growling into their wine glasses, their teeth worn down to stubs, hair gray and falling out. If evoked, their roar will still freeze blood, but most have lost the will to fight. They are disappointed and bitter and dazed. “Adapt or die” the old saying goes. In 1994, when the black South Africans gained power, these men were too old to adapt, too young to die. Now they are old; soon they will die, and be remembered for the mistakes of their past.
It is the young Boers who will lead the Volk forward. The ones who carry new flags up mountains, who live their history, learn the songs and sing them spontaneously on former battlefields. They are too young to be burdened by the guilt of apartheid. They embrace riding in commandoes and the Internet. They live the old traditions and adapt new ones. They can imagine a Boer future and are willing to fight for it.
I spend the night sleeping under an old ox-wagon, as Orion performs a slow back-flip over Majuba. The Boers sing and talk around a bonfire until 3 am.
Early the next morning I hitch a seven-hour ride to Bloemfontein. I rent a room in this small city in the Orange Free State, which was once a Boer Republic capital, and is still South Africa’s judicial capital.
In the evening I walk through downtown, a rare white face in a city turned African. Professional black families sit on balconies to catch the evening breeze. Young men rev hotrods at traffic lights. A large sandstone church, once filled with Afrikaners worshiping their white God, is packed with a well-dressed congregation of blacks singing foot-tapping gospels. The few whites, who had to venture downtown from their walled suburban homes, sit hunched behind steering wheels with the doors locked. Foreigners in their former capital, they pass like cloud-shadows across the land.
At an Orania guesthouse the next day, I meet a retired couple from Nelspruit. They sit on the front porch, sip tea, and watch the sun set. She, with hair shaped into a black helmet and eyes magnified behind thick glass, tells me: “Our children think we are mad coming here, but we have to find a safe place to live. The crime in Nelspruit is terrible, and getting worse. Four times they broke into our home. We have to chain our car to a tree so it won’t get dragged away. I can’t sleep anymore. The smallest noise, and I wake up; have to go check. Our friends have been killed; women we know raped…” Her voice grows with hysteria; eyes wide with remembered fear. “It’s just terrible, terrible. Always locking doors, locking windows. We’re like prisoners in our own home. No one should have to live like this. I’m going mad, quite simply mad with fear.” Her husband tries to calm her. She takes a deep breath and strokes nonexistent wrinkles on her dress.
In an Orania packing shed, young Afrikaners with enviable tans and sun-bleached hair, pack melons for export to Europe. They wear the unofficial uniform of South African farm laborers everywhere – black rubber boots, blue overalls and threadbare tee shirts. They came from towns like Newcastle and Kimberly where work, particularly for Afrikaans males is scarce. Ten years of the New South Africa has pushed these young men to the bottom of the food chain. Undereducated, white and often racist, their only hope lies in finding manual work at a place like Orania. So for $9/day they work where no blacks may; wielding shovels, swinging pick, harvesting melons, pruning 20,000 pecan trees.
They hate it here, but it’s a living. The town folk, 51% of whom are university graduates, look down on them. Young women are scare, and extramarital sex is forbidden anyway. They can’t get drunk, can’t play their music too loud. The bright spot for many of them is the racial isolation. The bigotry is blatant, not hidden behind a veil of intellectual contortions: “A kaffir (disparaging term for a Black person) is a kaffir,” says Tiene Martines, 17. “He just stinks.”
In big vats of molasses, children at the Volk School Orania, cultivate microorganisms.
This school, with a graduation rate of 100%, is regarded as a model of progressive education. A self-directed, computer-based learning system called KenWeb, was developed here, and is exported to home-schoolers around the world.
Anna Boshoff, daughter of apartheid-era Prime Minister H.R. Verwoerd, is the principle of the school. The children treat her like a grandmother. One of her sons, Wynand Boshoff, is head teacher. A guest speaker demonstrates an earth building technique. Wynand takes off shoes and mixes mud with the students.
Mrs. Boshoff explains how Effective Microorganisms, or EM, works: “ 80% of microorganisms have little known benefit, 10% are harmful, and 10% are vital to maintain an ecological balance. Conventional farming practices have upset this balance. Through a company in Japan we buy EM spores, which we cultivated in vats of molasses. The EM-rich liquid is then sold to local farmers. They feed it to their cattle, spray it on their crops, put it in the water. In time, animals get healthier, crops stronger, and balance is again restored to the land.”
Maybe Orania is itself a big vat of molasses for the Boer people. A place in the semi-desert where they can preserve their own culture, and cultivate that which they require to survive.