Inside Orania, South Africa's whites-only town

Updated 0946 GMT (1746 HKT) December 20, 2016

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(CNN)Orania is not prime real estate by any stretch of the imagination.

The settlement west of the Orange River in Northern Cape, South Africa lies on arid and weather-beaten land; baked by the harsh summer sun and frigid through the dry winter. It's farmable, but not easy, requiring strong backs and callused hands.
Rising above the scrub the town's symbol flutters atop a flagpole, a young boy rolling up his sleeves, preparing to knuckle down and transform this landscape. It's a romanticized image for a romanticized notion: a place where Afrikaners can be Afrikaners. Tough, resourceful and making do; descendants of Dutch settlers and proud of it.
    A remote farming town of approximately 1,300, Orania by this description is unremarkable. Except it is not. Instead, the community has gained a notoriety beyond its modest means as a parochial enclave within the Rainbow Nation, where the dream of an Afrikaner state is alive and well.
    Orania, you might have guessed, is Afrikaner-only. And by extension, whites-only.
    It's also growing.

    Culture, Inc.

    Beginning life in 1990 during the last gasps of apartheid, the Afrikaner town was the brainchild of Carel Boshoff III. The son-in-law of H.F. Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, he and a number of families purchased an abandoned workers' village with lofty ambitions that one day hundreds of thousands of Afrikaners might call it home.
    Author Kajsa Norman
    When Boshoff III died in 2011, his son Carel Jr. assumed presidency of the Orania Movement, the political arm of the community. Today he is their lead spokesperson and first line of defense -- a man whose job it is to intellectualize the argument for self-imposed segregation.
    Boshoff IV, along with dozens of others, was interviewed by Swedish journalist and author Kajsa Norman while researching for her latest book "Bridge Over Blood River: The Rise and Fall of the Afrikaners." Norman spent two stretches in Orania.

    Orania from the air, circa 2003. Since then its population has grown.

    "When I first arrived in South Africa people didn't want to talk about Orania at all, didn't want to acknowledge that it existed," she tells CNN. "Many people were ashamed I think."
    Orania's supporters are quick to point out that it exists within the parameters of the law. The post-apartheid government allowed for the concept of an Afrikaner state within the new constitution under freedom of self-determination on cultural and linguistic grounds.
    Mpho Mogale, municipal manager and information officer of Thembelihle Local Municipality (in which the town is located), confirmed to CNN that "Orania exists legally," citing a 2000 Northern Cape High Court case adjourned "sine die" (without a further hearing date), when Orania fought incorporation into its newly demarked municipality.

    Nelson Mandela, guest in Orania in 1995, is introduced to citizens by founder Carel Boshoff III (back to camera).

    The town is built on private land owned by the Orania Company, with shares held by homeowners. As such, the community is able to maintain more control over who is permitted into the collective.
    Nelson Mandela visited in 1995, Norman writing that Orania's residents "greeted him politely and said they'd love to see him as president... of a neighboring country." Jacob Zuma made the journey in more recent years, Orania Company CEO Frans de Klerk telling the author the current president "identifies very strongly with [his] Zulu culture" and seemed "to better understand the desire of a people to remain a people and preserve their culture."
      They made for curious guests no doubt, but no more than that. Permanent residents are screened by committee, applications pored over to weed out pretenders to their cause.
      "'Could a person of color, who speaks Afrikaans, embraces the Afrikaner culture and is married to an Afrikaner, become a resident?'" Norman asks Boshoff in one of their interviews. "'It is not theoretically impossible, but it would be very difficult,'" he replies.
      CNN asked Boshoff to elaborate via email.
      Carel Boshoff IV, president of the Orania Movement.
      "If someone who is obviously not a typical Afrikaner -- a 'colored' for example -- would wish to live in Orania, he/she would be noticed and would be reacted upon accordingly, in other words be asked if and how he/she would assimilate with the community," he writes, adding that such questions "would probably offend" and "not make for easy relationships."
      "It's only honest to concede that it [would] confront us with practical difficulties," he continues. It's perhaps why, he concedes, Orania does "not depart from a racial basis" when defining culture -- and implicitly, when selecting its residents, despite there being "no rule to forbid [the] scenario."

      Residents broadcasting on Radio Orania.

      So not impossible for a person of color, but highly improbable -- and without any desire to be facilitated by local leaders.
      "Essentially they've given themselves their own Bantustan," says Norman, describing an apartheid-era policy in which the white-dominated government allotted territories to South Africa's various indigenous peoples as pseudo-national homelands.
      "It's disappointing," says Mogale on Orania's self-imposed isolation, "but because it is the decision of the High Court that it should be allowed to be on [its] own, there's absolutely nothing we can do about it."

      Standing at a crossroads

      Norman says the key questions in her study were "How do you persuade a people that they're superior to others? And what happens when that illusion is shattered?"
      Deconstructing the effects of policy change in the post-apartheid years, Norman crosses the country speaking to Afrikaners choosing either to redefine or consolidate their identity. She makes it clear in our interview that she was out to validate no one.
      Among her conclusions, she tells CNN: "Afrikaners who have become the most successful in South Africa today have given up their Afrikaner identity and become South Africans first and foremost."
        The disavowal for some is extreme. One interviewee says learning the Afrikaans language is "a waste of gray matter."

        Girls in Orania wearing traditional clothes, circa 2004.

        For others however, their Afrikaner identity is sacrosanct. The great fear -- and one this group claims plenty of evidence for -- is erasure. Street signs, town names, rivers, mountains, dams, even airports, have lost their Afrikaans monikers in recent years. Institutes of higher education are dropping Afrikaans with abandon.
        "There is only one truly Afrikaans-speaking university remaining of the 22 institutes for higher learning that there used to be," Hermann Giliomee, extraordinary professor of history at the University of Stellenbosch, tells Norman. The BBC also reported in 2015 that the university faced calls to drop Afrikaans.
        In its embattled state, Afrikaner history becomes hagiography. The efforts of the pioneering Voortrekkers, who traveled inland fleeing the British and fought against Zulus in the Battle of Blood River, are lionized by some present day Afrikaners, who identify with their struggle.
        "We are the white tribe of Africa and I want my people to understand that we have as much right to be here," the Reverend Schalk Albertyn, once an anti-apartheid activist, tells Norman.

        Gideon de Kock, curator of the Orania Museum, circa 2013.

        A minority ruler, in the space of three decades, has reverted to a minority movement. And "a minority," writes Norman, "can always become a majority through isolation."
        For some, Orania is a solution, for others a symptom of the failings of post-apartheid South Africa. Its residents are largely conservative and Christian. Between them they're disillusioned and disenfranchised, wary of the government, its political structures, policies and leaders. The system, they say, is not working for them.
        The safety net of social welfare for Afrikaners, including jobs and houses, which maintained the image of the "good white," is no more. Affirmative action has shaped a more diverse workforce, proportional with the racial breakdown of South Africa. However some white people with Afrikaans as their first language, who make up about 5% of the population according to the 2011 census, say they feel squeezed out (despite unemployment data suggesting relative stability).
        (NB: The South African government defines "African" as black, "Colored" as mixed race, and "Indian/Asian" as of South Asian or Asian extraction.)
        Today there are as many as 400 white informal settlements in South Africa, according to charity Helping Hand, something once unthinkable. But that doesn't give the complete picture. Fact-checking website Africa Check analyzed the 2011 census and found that while 7,754 white households lived in informal settlements, 1,868,325 black African families lived in similar circumstances.

        Kobus Gouws and Caspar Muller, step-brothers interviewed by Norman and residents of Sunshine Corner, a township outside of Pretoria.

        But empathy is lacking, suggests Norman.
        "Many Afrikaners ... still have a feeling of entitlement," she argues. "They may realize that things are just as bad for the majority of the black population, but they're used to being in a place where that couldn't happen to a white person. That's what they're comparing it to: comparing themselves to the past, rather than their poor contemporaries."
        "Many poor and uneducated Afrikaners I spoke to claimed they would prefer to starve rather than become the maid or gardener of a black middle-class family," Norman writes.

        Small happiness

        Some Afrikaners come to Orania out of desperation, Norman told CNN. Much of her time was spent in Kleingeluk ("Small Happiness"), a block of residences for single male workers brought in from the fringes of society.
        "[Orania takes] on people who struggle with drug abuse, alcohol abuse, former felons, or just the unemployed and uneducated," says Norman. Put to work largely farming and building, there's zero tolerance of substance abuse for these men who had been "total 'come-aparts'."
        "This is a last resort for them; a place where they can find work, pick themselves up. Some only stay to sober up. They work, save a few rand, then move on. Others come because they feel they have no opportunities in South Africa," the author told CNN.

        Riaan, one of the residents of Kleingeluk, small apartments for single male workers in Orania.

        "For some it's been a good thing, and it's definitely better than the alternative -- although that's not to say it's ideal," she adds, describing their living conditions on the edge of Orania as "pretty deplorable."
        Describing the whole community, Norman says she doesn't think they're the most racist Afrikaners in South Africa: "There's more racist areas, and certainly more racist people than these guys in particular.
        "But that doesn't mean they're role models in any way."

        Crime and punishment

        Norman's interviewees frequently cite violent crime as a concern. The numbers, on the whole, are chastening. Murders nationwide increased 4.9% between April 2015 and March 2016 to 18,673, the equivalent of 33.9 per 100,000 of the population -- a rate nearly seven times higher than the United States in 2015.
        There have been claims of high levels of black-on-white murder in post-apartheid years. However Africa Check looked into these claims in 2013, using figures dating back to April 1994. Among its conclusions, it said "the fact is that whites are less likely to be murdered than any other race in South Africa." Further, "the current murder rate of white South Africans is also equivalent to, or lower than, murder rates for whites recorded between 1979 and 1991."

        Stubble burning on one of Orania's farms, circa 2003.

        Breaking down victim-perpetrator relationships, only 2.3% of total murders were committed by "unknown people from outside" and 12.6% by "unknown community members" in the Statistics South Africa Victims of Crime Survey 2013-2014 (the last year for which this breakdown is available).
        "Since 1990, race has not been listed as a category in official death records," Africa Check notes as part of the same 2013 analysis. "In reality... the absence of such information has effectively perpetuated a race-crime mythology in South Africa."
        "Obviously there is a problem with violence," Norman told CNN, "but I also got the feeling there was a climate of paranoia, feeding in and exaggerating the real problem."
          The threat is often existential and "othering" of the black population is still prevalent, a point made clear by the Suidlanders Norman meets, a group of Afrikaner "preppers" not affiliated with Orania, planning for the event of a revolution. Established in 2006, while they "believe the revolution will start with black-on-black violence, they fear that aggression will quickly focus on white people," writes the author.

          Two young men having a drink in Orania, circa 2013.

          "We don't have any violent tendencies," Steve Meyer, head of the Suidlanders in Durban, tells Norman. "We're just concerned about our people. We'll go into hiding and stay there unless attacked. The UN will have to send help."
          Pragmatic or paranoid, private security forces in gated urban communities are a common sight in South Africa. Orania is a far cry from these wealthy boltholes, but Norman says around 20 men patrol the vicinity at all times. Crime levels are low, no doubt helped by its selective policies and requirements that permanent citizens are financially reliable on entry.
          There's also the fact Orania sits on the edge of a desert.

          What next?

          The splintering of a portion of South Africa's Afrikaner community is only a microcosm within a much larger trend. In the wake of Brexit, the rise in nationalist movements in Europe and arguably the United States, directly or indirectly through President-elect Trump, isolationism has become a hot topic.

          A young boy rides a toy tractor next to a mural of Orania's emblem.

          In correspondence with CNN, Boshoff argues "the popular picture of a multicultural society so dominant amongst liberal individualists all over the Westernized world [...] presents a fictation [sic] and fiction of its own."
          Identity is not something to be tampered with to Boshoff's mind, rejecting "a kind of existential attitude towards human identity that views it as a mere construct, to be reconstructed by anyone and everyone for and by him/herself."
          "That is not the way we plan to live," he adds.
          "Society is becoming more divided, more polarized," says Norman. "If you don't have a Mandela to constantly work on the reconciliation of things, then..." she adds, her voice trailing off. "I think the more divided a society is, the more support you're going to get for these types of initiatives."
          Nevertheless, despite evidence of fundamentalists within its ranks, Orania "offers some lessons for the rest of South Africa; it shouldn't just be dismissed as some bunch of loonies," the author says.
          But while Orania continues to attract Afrikaners with deeply divisive views on race, arguments that it is a cultural project and not a racial one will be met with suspicion by many.
          However the argument for cultural preservation, a tentpole under which Orania shelters a spectrum of Afrikaners, is becoming more acceptable in the public imagination, according to both Boshoff and Norman.

          A statue of H.F. Verwoerd, former prime minister and the architect of apartheid, looks out over Orania.

          Annual population growth in Orania is steady at 10% it says, and claims to have 10,000 registered supporters across five countries, dubbed "Outhabitants."
          About 4,000 hectares of land have been purchased on the West Coast by a private buyer, though "not an official part of Orania's strategy," James Kemp, spokesman for the Orania Movement, told CNN. Neither Kemp nor Boshoff will confirm the intentions for this plot of land, nor reveal the buyer, but there is speculation that another Afrikaner community could be in the pipeline, with the hope they might one day be joined.
          The latter told CNN that "if close co-operation can be reached and a common interest in [a] bigger self-determining region be cultivated, [a land] corridor can become part of the project."
          "It may be possible for a strong and successful Orania to play a leading role in such a future coalition between communities with related cultural backgrounds," writes Boshoff, although concedes "it seems quite far off at the moment."
          Far off, perhaps, but if the events of 2016 have emboldened anyone, it's been fringe movements.
          "In the beginning [...] we were regarded as mad," Boshoff tells Norman. "Now that has changed dramatically."