Christmas in the volkstaat


Christmas in the volkstaat

Orania does not allow you to be just an observer. The dusty town forces you to put your cards on the table, writes SARIE MARAIS.

  • 12 January 2024
  • Free Speech
  • 9 min to read
  • article 6 of 23
  • Sarie Marais*

FOR a dusty place in a dusty corner of South Africa, Orania takes up a lot of space in the national psyche. It seems that quite a few white people know at least something about the place but mostly it is limited to the fact that coloured and black people are not tolerated there.

There is also the expectation among some people that Orania's inhabitants are quaint and strange and that we “enlightened" people can expect them to stimulate our laughing muscles. At the same time, there is the idea that it would be a bit like coming across an accident or a disaster scene: creepy wonderment at a situation that one does not really understand. That, at least, was the feeling I got every time I mentioned to someone in my circle of friends and acquaintances that my husband and I were going to Orania to spend Christmas with my parents.

I specifically mention the reason for our visit because for me, Orania is intertwined with the physical, geographical and emotional implications of my parents' decision to move there. Orania will be their last abode; with both in their eighties, the chances of them pulling up their tent pegs again are surely negligible.

I was in Orania for the first time two years ago. In less than an hour there, my colleague and I refuelled and bought lip balm in the odd petrol station shop. We drove around town while trying not to openly stare and had a cold drink on the banks of the Orange. We slightly embarrassedly admitted to each other that it was impossible to be objective, given the filters of expectation and prejudice with which we arrived.

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In December I realised it again: Orania does not allow you to be just an observer. No one goes there without preconceived notions. You go because you expect to see or find or feel something there. You don't go because you are neutral; you go to get confirmation of whatever you believe about the place.

I tried to visit just my parents but found it impossible. My parents, especially my father, wanted us to realise and appreciate the wonderfulness of their new home (they moved from Pretoria in the middle of last year). It involved hours of driving around in their car. We shopped in the Oraans and Eureka supermarkets and the local nursery, stopped by Ria's shop (nothing more than a spaza in a small room opposite her house) and even passed the sewerage plant and the  dumpsite. We were introduced to the neighbours and the men who helped my father build the house, went on the hour-long guided tour that shows visitors the highlights of Orania and had Christmas Day dinner at the Oewer Restaurant.

And all the while I struggled with what I felt.

One of the dominant impressions was the glorification of hard work. In his ripe old age, my father actively built his new house with a construction team that initially consisted of five men but quickly scaled down to just two. The light steel structure was easier and faster than a brick building but it was still hard work in an extreme climate. On the tour, the guide pointed out a pipeline built by four schoolboys (nonsense, says my engineer husband) and the road laid by just six pavers in a few days. “Isn't this the most beautiful road you have ever seen?" he exhorts his minibus audience. The theme, or mantra, of “here we do our own work" is ubiquitous. It's as if they think they've invented hard work here, I told my husband.

Another strong impression is unapproachability. The heat saps the energy out of you. The sun is merciless, like lava on the head and shoulders. The wind is scary at times and almost never stops blowing. The red dust is everywhere and always, in everything and on everything. So many of the people we see have skins like leather, their eyes squinting, hair and clothes neglected, but maybe that's just because it's hard to be cool and neat in Orania. My impression is that the people have as few soft spots as the environment: my father proudly says that there is no charity because “everyone works here".

There are also many more who seem worn-out than there are who  seem progressive. For me, there is a contrast between the skill and competence with which the town is planned and marketed and the sloppiness of plots, vehicles, clothes and even bodies. There are opulent homes on tree-lined plots, especially close to the river, but in other parts of town many people live in caravans while their homes are under construction and the layout basically is rundown plots. There are people who are obviously poor; the young man without front teeth sticks in my mind, and the single quarters don't seem like a place to make yourself at home. Even my father, who is still wholeheartedly in his Orania honeymoon phase, notices there are a lot of overweight people in town. Oraans supermarket (formerly an OK) feels … backward? It's a strong word, I know, but how else do you describe the feeling of a store stuck in the past?


“Stuck" brings me to another point — perhaps the point of my Orania emotions. The ideology from which the town was born assumes that Afrikaners can be captured and preserved in amber. Like the DNA that made Jurassic Park's dinosaurs possible. In the process, Afrikanerness is pruned away, narrowed, limited to someone's picture of a noble, hardworking, highly moral and deeply religious group of people who are, of course, white and speak Afrikaans. This is what makes me feel so uneasy, so out of place.

The ideal child walks barefoot, rides a bike and catches fish in the river. The ideal wife keeps herself busy with commendable projects and works by her husband's side. The ideal man works and works and works and is the head of his family. The ideal family? Apparently bigger rather than smaller: the tour guide proudly tells us that two-child families are a rarity in Orania; he mentions a family with eight children and many others with four, five or six. He also claims that most of the more than 600 pupils in the two schools are from the town. All the children are also his explanation for the fact that the average age of the 4,000 inhabitants is 37, despite the two nursing homes in Orania.

The ideal Afrikaner is either chaste or married; you cannot get residency in Orania if you live with someone while unmarried. “We maintain moral standards here," says my father. Members of the LGBTQ+ community are not even talked about. Drug use is an offence that can cost you your right of residence, as can speaking too much English in public places.  English people are welcome, as long as they speak Afrikaans. (Speaking Afrikaans is one thing; spelling is another. So many of the noticeboards have spelling and language errors.) People of colour may spend their money in the shops, especially the liquor store, but do nothing else in town.

The deafening message is that diversity is unacceptable. Here we are all like that! Here we all look, think and do the same. There is also a committee that decides on right of residence. I understand how the committee can assess an applicant's Afrikaans-speaking ability, but how do you determine if someone is a Christian (the first right-of-residence condition) and the extent to which they adhere to Afrikaner culture? (What is this Afrikaner culture anyway? Calling everyone oom and tannie?) According to my father, being a Christian is determined by whether you observe the Sabbath. Then he mentions how many people clearly do not go to church on Sundays and the fact that there are 13 denominations in the town. Perhaps this is precisely Afrikaner culture — every guy wants to do his own thing.

Every “guy", yes, because Orania is chauvinistic. The leaders from Afrikaner history who are honoured are all men (Paul Kruger, John Vorster, DF Malan and HF Verwoerd stand on a hump in a grim bust-laager), manual labourers are men and most people I saw on the street were men. The non-executive mayor is a woman but all the town council's divisional managers are men. My parents' house is a chauvinistic environment, which surely contributed to the feeling that Orania is testosterone-driven.


For me, Orania is a source of conflict and division. I do not believe a white, Afrikaans-speaking person (I never describe myself as an Afrikaner) can be neutral about the town. When the ideology goes against your values ​​and beliefs, it is impossible to appreciate what is “good". Self-determination, faith, language and culture feel like weapons aimed at dissenters. When the ideology supports and reinforces your values, it is equally impossible to criticise what is not “good". My father talks about the conflict of interest between a resident's business and the portfolio he holds on the town council but does not call it corruption. Adherents and detractors inevitably end up in separate camps.

This may sound unnecessarily dramatic but the impact Orania has on my family is the only context in which the place has relevance to me. On one side are my parents and on the other my gay, younger sister who says she will never go to Orania because it rejects everything she is. In the middle, my brother and I struggle. I can't speak for him, but after five days in the company of the “little giant" — Orania's symbol that reminds me of Chucky — I know that meek fence-sitting is not an option. More than ever, I know that I stand on the other side of the fence from the people who brought me into life. Orania forces you to put your cards on the table.

*Sarie Marais is a pseudonym because the author does not want to cause unpleasantness for her parents. She is a freelance writer and lives in Johannesburg.

♦ VWB ♦

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