A small group of right-wing Afrikaans men and their sons were in a rural Eastern Cape village, shyly singing Sarie Marais – not one of them in tune – while the Xhosa villagers looked on and later applauded their effort. Earlier, the visitors from Orania enjoyed the dancing of the village’s children.
It’s a moment that could have played out during the days of Andries Pretorius, Piet Retief and Dingane.
The president of Orania, Carel Boshoff, has been taking the drive of 700km to Mnyameni to meet his counterpart, Mnyameni chief Siphiwo Mdledle, for the past two years. They share ideas, though the chief (wearing a shirt with a Chinese dragon on it) was quick to acknowledge Mnyameni must learn from Orania. The chief, who can even speak some Afrikaans, wants his village to turn around its growing sense of apathy – where once it relied on subsistence farming, its residents have now overwhelmingly turned to government grants to get by.
“But the grants aren’t much,” Boshoff said. “The youth leave for the city. If they were leaving for good jobs, that would be one thing. But they are losing them to urban crime.”
Mnyameni is hardly unique. South Africa’s proportionate lack of small businesses in comparison with other developing nations like Brazil and India has often been blamed on the disincentives the graft system creates against the concept of self-reliance.
But the “Afrikaner-only” town of Orania in the Northern Cape’s entire reason for being is self-reliance. It says it has more than 70 businesses. It’s now exporting pecan nuts worth millions to China every year. It recycles almost everything, is trying to provide its own eco-friendly electricity (every house must have a solar geyser) and it’s increasingly attracting tourism. The population of just more than 1 000 whites-only faces is a far cry from the 60 000 Afrikaners all working together Boshoff envisioned 20 years ago, but he says people are still coming to Orania and investment is growing. I can only assume the town is paying its taxes.
I’ve long been one of those to have a good laugh at Orania’s expense. The idea of a whites-only enclave in the parched central interior desert-lands of South Africa spoke to me of pointless bittereinder stubbornness that did no good to its proponents and the rest of the country. I found my own inspiration in Nelson Mandela’s idea of a big melting pot of culture, race and language.
But in so many ways we still live past each other. White privilege continues and black suffering is perpetuated, both by our blundering elected government and the wealthy elite, who hope the status quo will continue.
Those who’ve separated themselves at Orania are far from our biggest problem. Boshoff and co’s willingness to reach out and assist in the development of fellow South Africans – who are nothing like Afrikaners – is testament to the fact South
Africa doesn’t need international NGOs to come here and help with its development. If even those who’ve long been accused of being racists are willing to help out, and do so with grace and respect, how bad does that make the so-called liberal South African – who doesn’t do much to help – look? I’m talking here of those of us who provide merely lip service to the idea of a rainbow nation. We have no controversial views – but so what? No one can eat our happy thoughts. Our happy thoughts put no one through school.
The annus horribilis of 2014 is almost behind us. May 2015 be the year more of us get practically involved in improving this country.