Put simply, Orania is the theme park version of the Old South Africa. It’s immersive theatre for the High Apartheid dream; a place where racism and white separatism somehow linger on, as if 1991, Nelson Mandela’s release and the 1994 election never happened.
You can go there, and increasingly people are visiting this weird world apart. But the truth is that the residents of the one true Volkstaat still have an ambivalent relationship with tourism.
“Orania is booming. The population has doubled in under a decade, the property market is thriving, and as of this month, Orania is on the blockchain”
‘Gawping at racists’ isn’t the marketing board slogan, but it was definitely crossed off of a whiteboard somewhere. The few visitors who make it three hours up a dirt track to Orania are rarely onboard with the project. Yet the town relies on them. The cheery grannies renting out rooms in their houses know that the occupants are sitting in judgement, waiting for some kind of mask to slip, yet still they must grin on, with all their famously warm Afrikaans hospitality.
Taking photos around town can be fraught. People sidle up from nowhere, enquire after your purpose. “Do you have permission?”. A few words of Afrikaans are an easy in. A friendly, upbeat attitude helps, but full-on saucer-eyed faux-naivety is probably the best posture. These people have a prospectus to sell you, and a self-image to uphold. You’re on their turf now. All the real world rules have been perfectly flipped – your foreigner privileges depend upon mirroring the stiff-backed formality of the burghers.
Some history – in 1991, a small group of intellectual Afrikaners who still bought into the crumbling ideal of whites-only self-determination trekked deep into the interior of the country, and bought up an abandoned old town: a dormitory settlement for the crews who’d been working on a massive irrigation project nearby. It cost them about £290,000, all in.
They soon set about making a house a home. They created their own flag, their own anthem, radio station and bank. On the far side of the town, high on a hill, they fashioned a circle of busts, of the National Party leaders who once ran the country. Rescued from public buildings readying them for the skip, they now formed a pantheon of remarkable similarity, with their male pattern baldness, their stern drooping jowls, and their biblical double names: Balthazar Johannes Voster, Johannes Gerhardus Strydom, Daniel Francois Malan, Pieter Willem Botha, Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd.
Then: nothing much. Stalled at around 700 residents, for years Orania was a dream dying slowly in the desert, a punchline for the country’s stand-up circuit. Only, lately, that deflated status just isn’t true any more. Orania is booming. The population has doubled in under a decade, the property market is thriving, and as of this month, Orania is on the blockchain. That’s right: they’re cyber-luddites now.
The town already has its own currency, the Ora, which features the emblem of the town, a small boy rolling up his sleeves (based on a saying of Dr. H.F. Verwoerd that if the Afrikaners wanted self-determination, they ‘should roll up their sleeves and do it themselves’). This month, they’re launching an electronic version: the eOra.
Though ‘currency’ is perhaps pushing it for the Ora, which, deep down, is a voucher, citizens buy them in exchange for Rands, but the rate is pegged at 1:1. Some shops offer a 5% discount for payment by Ora. Not only does it keep them spending locally, the Orania Chamber of Commerce then takes their Rands, and banks them in a high interest account, generating money for nothing. The notes also expire, meaning any time a note is lost or forgotten, it’s donated to the Chamber of Commerce.
The blockchain project is spearheaded by Dawie Roodt, who works for an economics consultancy called Efficient Group. “I leapt at the chance,” he enthuses. “Because you see it offers a unique opportunity. Because of its size, and its isolation, Orania is going to be a perfect petri dish.” He has been gifted a chance to freeze in amber almost every transaction that takes place in one town at one time.
The eOra will function as an app on smartphones. Visa and Mastercard charge store holders three percent of the transaction fee; going on the blockchain slashes that to half a percent.
“And don’t forget, that is 2.5 percent you’re adding to the GDP of the town,” says Daniel Dames, head of the local Chamber Of Commerce. That additional 2.5 per cent would push Orania towards China levels of growth. Roodt reckons they’re adding ten percent per year to the population.
It’s a far cry from back in 2010, when For Sale signs dotted the neat lawns. With no black labour to make up the shortfall, these pioneers were discovering the limits of growth kick in pretty quickly. The pecan nut processing plant was stocked with Afrikaners who’d been bussed-in for rehabilitation – a canny little quid pro quo, where the town got semi-able bodies in exchange for a bolthole from big city troubles.
“Ideologically, we want to build a city,” Dames points out. “We have hit a kind of critical mass. It’s becoming exponentially more and more, and I cannot see that the growth will not continue increasing. Now, Orania is a success story. It’s a town that works, even compared to the towns around us. They’re sitting with power cuts because the municipalities haven’t paid their bills.”
If they were straight-up, Oranians would add a bust of former President Jacob Zuma to their circle. The jolly round kleptocrat, finally ousted this year, spent a decade looting what he hadn’t already let fall into decay.
Under him, the feeling Orania had originally tapped into – Afrikaner disgust and fear at the New South Africa – has been replaced by something much more prosaic but twice as effective – the low-key misery of ever-higher electric fences in the city suburbs, of crumbling roads and mouldering public services in the big cities. A new generation of Oranians are less interested in the ideology, more in the practicality of living in an ethno-Disneyland. Is it the proverbial “great place to raise kids”?
Lately, the town has swung behind this more pragmatic approach, emphasising quality of life, playing down the Volkstaat card.
Even Dames isn’t keen to talk ideology; while his own reasons for ending up here, which he darkly hints at, mirrors that broader trend. “Long story. Not prepared to talk about it. Very personal.”
“You know Gavin,” he continues. “Maybe you can’t imagine, but there are a lot of things that people take for granted in Europe. Just being able to walk down the street at night…”
By trade, Dames is a property developer. He says they’ve greenlighted R52 million (£3 million) of new buildings in the last year. “Now, you get traffic jams in the middle of town in the mornings. Even 18 months ago, that was unheard of.”
Getting past the thousand mark has been crucial to the new phase – it’s a psychological marker for the point at which life becomes visibly less rugged. The point where you can choose between coffee shops, between hairdressers, maybe even clothing boutiques. “I think a lot of people sat back, sceptically,” explains Dames, “They just waited to see what was going to happen.”
But relaxing the reins of ideology has left a vacuum for ideological competition. Roodt is at pains to point out he doesn’t necessarily agree with Orania’s goals. He was only introduced to the community leaders via a libertarian group he belongs to. The town has had to forge alliances with other radical communities, and what’s hot in that universe right now is the libertarian planned-anarchism of Liberland. “Many of the people who have moved to Orania are the intelligentsia. I think they have influenced the town to the extent that it has become a more liberal enclave.”
That in turn invites obvious tension with the Christian-nationalist collectivist founders. But Orania is working that one out by means of a paradox we’d tend to reverse in the real world: the toleration of intolerance.
“The other night, we discussed marijuana. And they are pretty much in favour of that,” says Roodt. “I’m pretty sure that if we’d discussed that five years ago, the answer would have been very different. There are also examples of gay people moving into Orania. And initially people opposed that. But the liberal-minded people are not undermining that conservative project. If you don’t like gays, well, you don’t have to like them, but that doesn’t mean you get to intrude on their lives.”
For recent entrants like Daniel Dames, the contradiction is still something they’re working out for themselves. “It’s very much a religious community, very conservative. I had my own misgivings, apprehensions, but 99 per cent of that has been allayed.” A pause. “Honestly, you know Gavin, nothing can compare to the feeling of waking up in the morning, and being a part of a community that’s working towards a common goal.”
That depends on the goal. But at least the dinosaurs of Orania are swinging with the times. After all, what could be more 2018 than viewing ethno-nationalism as a therapeutic wellness endeavour?