Dispatch

Death of a True Afrikaner Believer

At the end of apartheid, he founded an all-white community he believed would be a utopia in the wilderness. Twenty years later, his death reveals some unexpected paradoxes of race in South Africa.

ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images
ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images

CAPE TOWN — Martyrs are artists whose medium is their own lives. But sometimes the world doesn’t cooperate, letting viewers go away with a different idea than the one the artist intended. Thus it was with Carel Boshoff III, the founder of an all-white settlement in post-apartheid South Africa called Orania, who died there on March 16 at 83. In the early 1990s, Boshoff, a genteel theologian who favored delicate spectacles and a George Washington-esque ruffled coiffure, abandoned the intellectual life in Pretoria and led a troupe of his fellow Afrikaners to a ghost town in a blasted desert that scarcely supports animals, forget about libraries or concert orchestras. Boshoff thought the soon-to-be black government would rule in a manner so hostile and alien to South Africa’s European descendants that retreating en masse into the wilderness — he predicted the exodus would swell to 2 million, half of South Africa’s Afrikaner population — was the only way to survive.

The aesthetics of his Saturday burial, in which he was laid to rest in an austere wooden box draped in the Orania flag showing an Afrikaner boy rolling up one shirtsleeve, reflected the hope for the colony he seeded in Orania’s grid of dusty streets: that Afrikaners would give up the trappings of their ill-won wealth and start anew from scratch, farming and establishing their Calvinist churches and socializing quietly and alone, apart from national politics and society.

But instead South Africa’s irrepressibly genial black leaders kept following him out there. And so Orania became an accidental symbol not of racial reconciliation’s unfeasibility, but of its robustness. Nelson Mandela traveled to Orania in 1995 to drink tea with the smiling widow of Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, the infamous "architect of apartheid." A decade later, President Jacob Zuma toured a dormitory for poor white laborers and commended Boshoff’s ethnic awareness, comparing it to his own pride in being Zulu. When Boshoff died last week, black political institutions were some of the quickest to release statements of praise. The African National Congress’s fiercely pro-black-empowerment youth arm even noted that, while it regretted that Boshoff passed before fully recognizing the need for change, its members always admired the way he "put his arguments cogently and prudently."

Paradox trailed Carel Boshoff through his whole life. Before he devoted himself to building an all-white paradise, he worked for three years as a missionary in Soweto, the vast black labor reserve south of Johannesburg. Only some 2 or 3 percent of his neighborhood’s residents were Christians then, he told me when I interviewed him in Orania a year and a half ago. He longed to share with the rest the light of divinity.

But at the same time, through the 1980s, Boshoff — who married Verwoerd’s daughter Anna — was rising through the ranks of the conservative Afrikaner intelligentsia. This group worried about the preservation of the Afrikaner language and traditions after the anticipated end of white rule, as well as whites’ physical safety. Steeped in the writings of communitarian philosophers and early Zionists, Boshoff began to float the idea of a much tinier Afrikaner state, one which whites dominated not by forcibly subduing a black majority but by barring blacks altogether. In 1990, his dream became a reality when an old mining town in the country’s sparsely populated northwest went onto the auction block. Boshoff and a crew of supporters bought the whole thing, requiring the handful of blacks who lived there to leave. (Boshoff didn’t apologize for the relocations: "When you buy a used car," he told a reporter, "you don’t buy the car’s occupants.") He explained to the curious press that Orania was a "radical solution to a radical problem," claimed 12,000 families had signed up to settle there, and predicted the number would expand exponentially.

But the expected 2 million never came. Most South African whites were tired of their racial isolation. In 1992, they voted decisively to let democratic reform proceed. The few hundred Afrikaners who followed Boshoff out to Orania may have shared with him an ethnic background, but often they did not have much else in common. Stories contrasting Orania’s founder and its populace became a sub-genre within the coverage of South Africa’s democratic transition: Depict the cultivated Boshoff in his home full of books and paintings talking about high-minded concepts like minority rights and cultural self-determination, then pan to some "average" Orania residents, with "steel-blue eyes" or "hamlike legs" (as the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times put it) or perhaps even neo-Nazi tattoos, explaining they had moved to the desert because they feared their kids would get germs from paddling with black youngsters in mixed swimming pools. One film crew taped a woman asserting God had commanded her to go to Orania, though He had delivered His message, perplexingly, by showing her "only His backside."

"The Afrikaners accept reality very slowly," Boshoff told me, a bit mournfully, when I visited him in his small Orania house. A wild May thunderstorm was ripping the leaves off the apricot tree in his front yard and forcing rivulets of water into his little foyer. But the damp mood inside was clearly about more than the weather. Boshoff was dismayed at the way things had turned out. Afrikaners had survived 15 years in post-apartheid South Africa  without the help of his settlement. But outside Orania the unique culture Boshoff was determined to protect had changed. Afrikaans had given way to English at many favorite Afrikaner universities. Young Afrikaners were increasingly choosing American-style evangelicalism over the old Dutch Calvinist gospel that Boshoff preached to the blacks in Soweto so many years ago. Afrikaans music was thriving, but the growth area was in dirty pop with lyrics like "jou ma se poes in a fishpaste jar [your mother’s pussy in a fishpaste jar]," not in traditional Afrikaner accordion-based folk.

Indeed, Afrikaners seemed to be slurping up the realities of this new world with relish, not denying them. So what reality did Boshoff mean? This one: Whites in South Africa remain a privileged class dependent on black labor, said Boshoff, and this position is untenable. To defend themselves against rising discontent among the other half (actually, the other four-fifths) they rely on "good fences and good dogs."

He wasn’t totally wrong. The best part of Boshoff’s vision of a self-sufficient white community was always the self-sufficiency part. In Orania, white Afrikaners have to do all the work, even the service jobs. Unfortunately for Boshoff, however, this requirement also cut directly against his ideal of preserving Afrikaner traditions. Construction, fruit-picking, janitorial work is not a traditional part of white South African culture. When they realized they would have to do the manual labor blacks do in the rest of the country, some Orania settlers left — and this was undoubtedly a reason many more whites never came.  

Boshoff was already shouldering a cancer diagnosis when I saw him in 2009, along with the burden of his disappointment. But he hadn’t given up. He had ideas. He thought Orania could go green while staying white and make a name for itself as a pioneer in sustainable living. One resident was exploring permaculture, in which each household strives to grow 50 percent of its food. Others had built naturally insulated houses from eco-friendly straw. The tiny community was beginning to export pecans from a 2,500-hectare farm. Late last year, as Boshoff got sicker, his son Carel IV became mayor. Even dreamier than his father, he hopes to seed new Oranias elsewhere in South Africa’s northwest.

A recent poll suggesting many Afrikaners are getting sick of integrated living gave him hope. But there’s a big difference between venting frustration to a pollster and enthusiastically embracing Orania’s isolation. The town has about a thousand residents now, not enough to make even its few streets feel full. A kid might be able to play safely unwatched, but he won’t have many friends to join him.

As I left the elder Boshoff’s house to explore his town, cloistered from South Africa and the world, he offered me some whole nuts from a bowl he proudly kept on the dining room table. The fruit beneath the shell was especially delicious, he assured me. When I tasted it, I would understand his passion and see why he believed Orania had something special to offer. But he couldn’t find a nutcracker, so it remained a secret.

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