Orania and the third reinvention of the Afrikaner - Carel Boshoff

President of the Orania Movement explains the origins and history of the establishment of the community

Presentation by Carel Boshoff, President of the Orania Movement, to the Property and Freedom Society conference, Bodrum, Turkey from 11 - 16 September

Freedom, Liberty and Common Sense: The community of Orania as an experiment in reality


Orania is a self-detemining community of just more than one thousand Afrikaners and was established in the upper-Karoo region of central South Africa by the Afrikaner Freedom Foundation in 1991.

Although it may seem like an extremely simple factual/historical statement to open a challenging conceptual argument regarding ideas like freedom and liberty, and phenomena like common sense and community with, every term of the opening statement justifies some elucidation. In this way I will also try to ensure that we do not depart to far from that source of authority called reality.

To go about it logically, I will set out with a short description of the Afrikaner people; refer to the Afrikaner Freedom Foundation - which has since changed its name to the Orania Movement; explain something about Orania's location and the reasons for it; and underline the significance of the date at which it was established.

The Afrikaner people

The Afrikaner people would not have existed, was it not for the establishment of a refreshment post at the Cape of Storms by the Dutch East Indian Company in 1652. From that essentially colonial starting point evolved a situation (or rather a series of situations) that resulted in the descendants of the early Dutch, German and French settlers to amalgamate into a new socio-cultural group with a distinct self-consciousness, especially in reaction to the later British annexation of the Cape and the civilizational differences with the African tribes they encountered in their migration along the east coast and interior of South Africa.

During the eighteenth century these settlers survived in relative isolation, which resulted in a deviation of language and culture and culminated in a mutual solidarity in the face of an alienating political system. It resulted not only in two short-lived local republics in 17C, but more significantly in the Great Trek to the interior and the establishment of the Boer Republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State in the 1850's.

These were internationally recognised states, albeit small and poor at the outset, and accomodated a citizenry that lead a traditional and rural life, resisting outside control to the extreme. That extreme would be the Anglo Boer War of 1899 to 1902 in which more than 30 000 woman and children died in British concentration camps and ended with the imperial conquest of our freedom.

Afrikaners entered the 20th century at a low point, not only in terms of political effacement, but also in terms of the socio-economic revolution that modernisation entailed. South Africa's increasingly centralising administration was adjusted to mining and industry and to the idea of an economy of scale, which effectively excluded the Afrikaners with their mainly traditional skills.

Nonetheless the Afrikaners answered to this challenge by a huge self-modernising project based on two pillars, firstly the development of Afrikaans as a technical, scientific and literary language able to mediate the transition to a modern world in our mother tongue, and secondly gaining control of the state of South Africa, establishing it as an independent republic again in 1961 and utilizing the instruments of state for the sake of Afrikaner upliftment and empowerment during most of the twentieth century.

Judging by the position in which a great number of Afrikaners found themselves by the end of the 20th century, this strategy was hugely successful and they were able to resist the dominant powers of the world for some time in favour of the extremely unpopular policies of apartheid.

It is common knowledge by now that the apartheid government in South Africa gave way to an open democracy in an undivided and unified South Africa and it follows from the above that this development landed the Afrikaners in an awkward position. On the one hand there is much to be said in favour of their willingly giving up the kind of political freedom that stood in the way of others' political aspirations, but on the other hand it stripped them of those instruments that were essential to their well-being and self-confidence.

In spite of their proud history as a freedom loving and anti-imperialist people, they walked into exactly that trap - and escaping it again, ended up politically marginalised and, on a broad front, economically downhill. That confronts us with the question of how the Afrikaner will re-invent itself for the third time and on what basis this third Afrikaner will establish a sustainable existence in the world.

The Afrikaner Freedom Foundation/Orania Movement

The Afrikaner Freedom Foundation was formed in 1988 by a group of eminent Afrikaner intellectuals who foresaw the end of white minority rule in South Africa, but did not view any kind of majority domination in a centralised state as preferable to it. They were still attracted to an important line of thinking within the Afrikaner nationalist rule since 1948, viz. the partitioning of South Africa along ethnic lines.

Much as this project has failed over the preceding decades, the possibility still existed for Afrikaners to take up a part of the country in exchange for giving up control of the whole and let the rest work out a dispensation to their taste. Logical though this may seem, especially by hindsight, it did not carry much support in political circles at the time. Even though the incoming ANC was willing to discuss the idea, the Afrikaners in power preferred to put more trust in constitutional guarantees and participation in the big state than in a more localised and direct form self-determination.

The Freedom Foundation tried to promote its idea of a volkstaat at the constitutional negotiations preceding the transfer of power in 1994, but only succeeded in putting the concept on the agenda and seeing its political partners including it in the new constitution. In the meantime the Freedom Foundation decided not to limit itself to demographic research and to political analysis and lobbying, but to launch a practical project implementing its principles of self-sustenance as the basis for self-determination.

The result was that, when the Department of Water Affairs put the desolated town of Orania, which was used as a construction camp for the canal-system along a part of the Orange River, on public tender, members of the Freedom Foundation formed a company and bought the land. That was the beginning of the most adventurous and challenging time in the lives of both the idea itself and its proponents. By 2000 the Freedom Foundation, already a membership driven society since 1993, decided to change its name to the Orania Movement.

Orania's location and the reasons for it

Anyone knowing South Africa's beauty and assets may well wonder at the Freedom Foundations initial choice of locality for its pilot project. The Karoo is an arid, semi-desert region with climatic extremes and limited opportunities to meet the eye. Fact is that it suited the basic demographic argument of focusing on an undeveloped and lowly populated area to which the competing claims would be limited, especially as the Orange river carries the potential for innovative development which a technologically adapted population could unlock.

Added to that, Afrikaners lived in the area since the late 18th century and it is the part of South Africa in which Afrikaans is the dominant language, even though the number of Afrikaners living there is presently a small percentage of the total population. (There are also other groups who are Afrikaans speaking, although it sometimes resulted from the replacement of their original languages, with the effect that they are not as loyal to Afrikaans as Afrikaners are.)

When Orania was established

For the continent of Africa 1994 was not only the year of the Rwandan genocide in which plus minus 800 000 Tutsis were murdered by the Hutus in government, it was also the year of the most heralded democratic elections in South Africa. The fact that both these events took place during April of that year, could serve to remind Afrikaners of the potentially precarious existence that they entered into at that time.

One might need to be reminded that the Rwandan genocide followed a period of approximately 50 years of peaceful co-existence by Hutus - the majority, and Tutsis - the previously dominant population. Nonetheless, old resentment came to the fore again and was fired on by seemingly unimportant reasons until a programmed process of violence was entered into. It was facilitated at least by two further facts, that of the Tutsis being physically and recognisably different from the Hutus and that of their being spread thinly over an area populated mostly by Hutus.

Point is that, even though Afrikaners may have been able to negotiate a peaceful settlement in 1994, that does not guarantee that Afrikaners, being a previously dominant, highly recognisable and thinly spread minority, will not fall prey to the adverse attitudes of a frustrated majority, regardless of the question whether they are in fact responsible for its present position or not.

Not only does this suggest the idea of a politics of concentration, it underlines the significance of the date of Orania's establishment. If one takes into account that plans for the acquiring of the empty town started already during 1990 and that the Freedom Foundation's leadership was already in contact with the ANC leadership while it was still in exile, it is obvious that turning to Orania was not a reactionary step by an unadaptable and undemocratic section of South Africa's population, but the result of a fundamental analysis of the balance of powers in a future unitary state. It was offered not as o form of resistance to change in South Africa, but as an alternative to the kind of conflicts that are typically associated with power political competition in multi-ethnic states in Africa.

Implementing ideas of freedom and liberty

As was mentioned above, negotiations during 1990 resulted in a private company, formed by the Freedom Foundation, acquiring the land on which Orania stood on public tender for the amount of R1,5m. And that was only after the town was offered to the Defence Department and even to Correctional Services who could not imagine any use for it. As the Department of Water Affairs needed to finalise matters like the relocation of its last maintenance staff, the new owners agreed to take occupation in April 1991. Being mostly left to the elements for years, it was a dilapidated town that awaited the first thirteen inhabitants that moved in at the time. It consisted of 380ha of land, 250 houses, some public buildings and facilities, as well as municipal infra-structure - all of good quality, though in a state of neglect.

The shareblock system

The first matter that deserved the founders' attention, was that of ownership and participation. It was agreed with the provincial government that Orania would be viewed by them as an improved farm as it previously was and did not need to go through formal township establishment procedures. That left Orania administratively essentially on its own. Then the founders established a filial company in the form of a shareblock scheme (in accordance with South African company law), which meant that ownership of plots and houses would be in the form of shares in the company, represented by a shareblock certificate and specified by a surveyor's map in the file and survey pegs in the ground. It practically replaces government issued title deeds and guarantees and represents an alternative land ownership regime.

Although differences of opinion on a host of matters is nothing strange to a community of this kind, especially during its pioneering phase, Orania has never had an ownership dispute regarding internal property rights or the administration thereof. This is the result of both institutional integrity and sound leadership.

The initial holding company systematically transferred control as its shareblock filial grew into its own, but it needed to plough back all the proceeds of sold property to ensure basic services and support economic development until the threshold of a self-generating scale was reached. Shortly after the initial transaction, the founders bought an additional tract of farmland of 3500ha and registered water rights on xx ha, constructed an irrigation scheme and subdividing it into 10ha micro-farms. Though millions of Rands were invested in private enterprises over the past 20+ years, the founders did not take any profit on the development, which proved to be a key to the successful establishment of a new community which requires its own economic basis.

The bodies corporate that make up a community

With this I have touched upon one of the key issues in Orania's functioning, viz. the institutions that give it a supra-individual dimension. There is a saying in Afrikaans that a people lives in its institutions and in Orania's case it is almost palpably true. Reference has been made to the Afrikaner Freedom Foundation, establishing Orania Management Services as holding company for the town and Vluytjeskraal Shareblock Ltd as body corporate for the owners and occupants of premises in Orania. The Freedom Foundation had its roots in the South African Bureau for Racial Affairs (SABRA), established in the mid 20th century and associated with the ethnic partitionist line of thinking in apartheid South Africa, as well as in a cultural society that was formed when the mainstream Afrikaner organisations were lined up in support of the democratisation of a unified and undivided South Africa. They were later amalgamated into the Orania Movement with its offices obviously in Orania. As has been stated above, none of these institutions were in favour of extending white minority rule, but they were in favour of a more localist and less centralistic approach towards the political administration of South Africa.

Once the community of Orania started to take form, Vluytjeskraal Shareblock's offices started to function like a municipal administration, funded by rates and taxes (to which the citizenry agrees on an unnual basis by adopting the financial statements and participating in the next year's budget process) and delivering services like water, sewerage, electricity, waste management, streets and public facilities like a community hall and swiming pool. It also manages the integrated development plan and approve building plans, administers the right of residence, as well as some other functions that will be discussed seperately.

The bulk of daily activity is of course not represented by the "town council's" business, however important that is for the enablement of other things. Two independent schools, a number of Christian congregations and of course a whole lot of private businesses make up the everyday life of Orania's people. Non-profit social institutions include the Orania Welfare Council, with a registered Social Worker in its service, and the Orania Movement's Helpsaam Fund, that raises monetary support for projects like subsidised housing for newcomers in need. These two institutions work closely together to ensure that social support programs don't result in endemic dependence, but in empowering people to take responsibility for their own affairs.

"Public" financial institutions, excluding private funds management, include Orania Savings and Credit (OSK), a local co-operative bank that grew from a savings and credit union to a model for local empowerment initiatives, and the Orania Movements Orania Growth Fund that raises funds from outside supporters and invests it in local business. In 2004 the Orania Chamber of Bussiness launched a local currency, intending to promote local spending - added of course to symbolic and safety reasons for using it.

One other institution deserves mention: the Orania Representative Council. It is a council of which the history will unfold a little later, but that represents every permanent resident and not only shareholders or their proxies. It was instituted in terms of South African municipal law and resisted the government's attempt to integrate Orania into a common municipality with neighbouring towns, but presently describes itself as a common law local government institution. Its main significance has to do with Orania's recognition as a self-determining community.

Laying down the basics

As Orania operates in terms of South African private property law, the company has the right to control access to its land. This means that aspirant residents need to share our vision of a self-determining people, concur with the community's common values and participate in our key practices like performing our own labour. As our basic instinct is to include as many as possible Afrikaners that support this idea, we do not describe Orania in exclusivist terms, but rather as an intentional community. Who-ever understands and supports our broad intention, deserves an opportunity to participate in it and see how far they desire to commit themselves. Many, in fact the majority of the members of the Orania Movement, presently live outside Orania. They either do not wish to or are not able to move to Orania on the short run, but support it other ways and visit us frequently. When any of them move to Orania, they also have to commit openly to Orania's constitution (in the broadest sense of the term).

Safety and settlement of disputes

Two aspects in which a small community like Orania would want to, but cannot totally escape the macro-state in whose territorium it is unlucky enough to find itself, are those of safety and the settlement of disputes. In both cases Orania takes it as far as it can while still operating perfectly within the given legal framework. In fact, the Community Safety Committee that consists of volunteering residents, works in close co-operation with the SAPD's Community Police Forums in neighbouring towns, ensuring the best intelligence reports available from that quarters. It is supported by a filial of Vluytjeskraal Shareblock Ltd, Orania Safety (Pty) Ltd, a registered security company with the rights and responsibilities of privatised policing as it administered in South Africa.

Local disputes that spill over into South African lower of higher courts, undermines Orania's self-confidence and its image to the outside. It also brings about costs that flow out of the local economy, whilst matters could often be settled locally, even if not amicably. Residents commit themselves to use the mediation and arbitration procedures available at the Town Council, which consist of well experienced amateurs with a sense for negotiation and justice. Though not all disputes can be satisfactorily settled in this way, it helps to engender a culture of solving our own problems instead of expecting the state to do it.

Recognition and symbols

Closely associated with this sense of self, are the matters of recognition and expression. Fundamental to our initiative is the idea that a self-reliant community that chooses to act does not need anyone's permission to do it - given that no gross contravention of law takes place in the process. That does not mean that we view the individual community as autarchic and self-sufficient agent - just as we do not hold the individual human being as such. In both cases the concept of recognition, in other words being part of a reciprocal network of entities, be it human beings or communities. In other words, an isolated and forgotten Orania will not be able to thrive, not only because of material need, but also because we all live in the eyes of others, we need each other to fulfill our calling and live virtuously. In fact, we do not enter into relations with such an agenda in mind, we emerge and appear as individuals because these pre-existing relations empower us to do it.

That is why Orania do not want to isolate itself, either from the rest of South Africa or from the world. What we do want, is to enter into mutually recognising relations according to which we look after our affairs and engage with whoever crosses our way regarding those matters that can benefit us both. That is also why it is important to us that luminaries like Pres Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu honoured us with visits, as well as political leaders like President Zuma, several provincial premiers and even that enfant terrible of South African politics, Julius Malema. More important may be the memorandum of understanding between Orania and Mnyameni, a traditional isi-Xhosa community from a dominantly is-Xhosa part of South Africa. And that is why we value an opportunity like this, to tell our story to such a select audience, so highly. Even our Representative Council, which carries the stamp of a court order, settling the dispute between us and the South African government regarding our local authority, serves as a symbol of the kind of recognition that we need.

Which brings us to the question of expressing ourselves in terms of symbols. Not only are practical instruments of self-determination of high symbolic value, "pure" symbols like a flag, statues of heroes, festive days, national colours, etc. are as important as the words that we use when explaining our case. All of that are held in high regard by our community and are often displayed publicly. In fact, it is by means of symbols that one can exist publicly at all.

Population numbers and profile

We conclude this part regarding the implementation of our ideas of freedom, with a short overview of Orania's development after twenty three years in operation, referring also to the number and profile of people living in the town. In 1991 Orania was an empty shell in a state of neglect. The nearest neighbouring town is a small, mainly farming centre 40 km off and the closest town of significance (e.g. with an airport) is Kimberley at a distance of 160km. It clearly follows that Orania had to manage on its own and could not be conceived as a suburb, or even a satellite of another urban centre. We started off with just a handful of idealists and desperates, and though the numbers of both categories have grown over the years, there is also a settled middle class who needed to strike the long run-balance between living a dream and creating a reality.

After five years in 1996 the permanent population was around 200 souls. This period was the most difficult part of our history thus far, probably because the kind of pioneering spirit that feels attracted to such a new start, is typically not of a compromising nature. The main economic activities were in agriculture, basic local services and construction - though more in the sense of renovation than of building. It was a challenging time to be economically successful and a popular saying was that it's not so difficult to make a small fortune in Orania - you just need to start out with a big one! Education was already well developed, although the question of a suitable model was quite contentious. Orania's leadership was represented in the post-1994 Provincial Parliament under the banner of an Afrikaner party supporting self-determination, that had national representation as well. But not everybody supported participation in the new system and social cohesion was limited.

A significant change took place during the next five years until 2001. The population grew to ±450, the economy was more rewarding and a broad and stable leadership on different fronts was aggregating in the community. The trusted effect of a common enemy was also felt when Orania's own Representative Council, that was installed in terms of an interim local government dispensation in South Africa, came under threat of being incorporated into a new, centralised multi-town municipality.

The Council did not play a significant role in the day to day matters in Orania, but it was the statutory recognition represented by it that was important and the community united behind the actions to resist its annihilation. The whole process ended in something of a constitutive moment when a pending case in the High Court was settled, a day before the South Africa's local elections took place, with an order that Orania's Council will be maintained. The following day Orania held its own elections with a 90%+ voter turnout and it was reported on national television as second item, South Africa's local elections being the first. Thus concluded a campaign under the banner "Recognise Orania!" - literally a banner flying behind a small aircraft over Gauteng, the region with South Africa's most populated metropoles.

The five years up to 2006 was one of consolidation and of mainstreaming the Orania Idea, which was perceived by many as no more than a reactionary project fueled by a resistance against majority rule in South Africa. It is of course a problem that such stereotyping is never completely untrue and Orania needed time, both for its own track record to take form and for the new, centralised South Africa to show its real colours. In Orania both our economy and population kept on growing, nearing 700 souls and rendering a growing number of services to the vicinity. In the meantime South Africa was not living up to the best expectations of a constitutional democracy and policies of Affirmative Action and Black Economic Empowerment were marginalising Afrikaners. In fact, the driving force in South African politics was represented all the more by the word "transformation" rather than by any constitutional provision. In this period our local economic development strategies and questions of sustainability enjoyed a lot of attention, the Orania Savings and Credit Union took root and the Ora was launched. Orania was not quite becoming popular, but it was accepted as a permanent part of South Africa's political landscape and tourism became a growing industry.

By the end of the next five years in 2011, a new dispensation has come about in Orania. The original founders were replaced by a new generation of leadership, both in the Orania Movement and in the Town Council, as well as in most internal institutions. In this period all available housing was taken up and, together with the availability of financing through our new community bank, new structures started to be erected and longer term planning was undertaken.

The population came close to 1000 during these years, starting to put municipal services capacity under pressure. The self-concept of a pioneer town was replaced by one of an established community, based on professional town planning, expressing itself in a unique architectural idiom and in a position to attract the investment and support needed to tackle capital projects. The Town Council was empowered by an able new executive officer and "taking Orania to the next level" became something of a mantra, not only for the administration, but for many of Orania's institutions and businesses. This included the acquisition of strategic new farmland with opportunities for further township development.

It would be risky to try and say too much about the present, except that the political environment is not becoming friendlier towards Afrikaners and that the time for the politics of concentration has come. Orania needs to capitalise on all that it has learnt and gained over the past two decades and gear itself for accelerated population growth by developing the economic and social capacity to support it.

A conceptual evaluation/understanding

Up to this point the concepts of freedom, liberty and common sense were used, but not introduced. These are words that one would expect to encounter, separately or in combination, in a discourse of the Property and Freedom Society, but they need some illumination if they are to open a broader perspective on Orania as an experiment in reality - and if that broader perspective is to enrich our understanding of where property and freedom could take us to. In the process I will be drawing on classical tradition, especially on Aristotle's political thinking as mediated by Hannah Arendt in her book The Human Conditon (1958).

Firstly freedom stands in contrast to necessity and it means not to be subjected to external force, be it the force of hunger, pain or someone else's dictates. As the human life is subjected to natural processes and cycles - for even in good health man must eat, always and again - the animal laborans has to perform the labour that goes with feeding, clothing, cleaning and all those activities that never end. Whoever spends his life on this labour is not free, but a slave or servant, because he does not have the capacity to participate in the matters of the city; he cannot meet the citizens on an equal footing.

In fact, in so far as meeting other citizens as peers and equals is the object of freedom, not only labour, but work stands in the way as well. Work then refers to those activities by which not our bodies are looked after, but by which our common world is established, by which those things that transcends our individual lives and rhythms are fabricated - the activities of homo faber. Even those whose lives are taken up by producing the things that brings us together (as a table brings together those around it), who are not slaves or servants, but tradesmen of all kinds, are not set free to play the role of citizen.

These are private concerns that, according to classical tradition, makes possible the vita activa and to try and ignore it, will not better anyone's position. Only after the needs of the person have been met, and after the common world has been established can man live up to his full potential, that of meeting his equals in great words and glorious deeds. In other words: the private domain needs to be attended to if the public domain is to be entered - and good as it may be not to lack anyting in private, glory is only to be obtained in public.

Secondly liberty does not relate to necessity in the negative way freedom does, in the sense of necessity's absence in the private domain, but in relation to that critical precondition of human action, namely that together we can attain what separately we cannot. In fact, that very insight in what we can do in common, that common sense, lies at the bottom of the truly constitutive event of establishing the public domain. Out of that sense the polis is born and homo politicon becomes possible - not as free agent, but as citizen.

Thirdly then common sense, except that its not so common anymore, is the key to the public domain which not only offers free men the opportunity to excel, but bestows on them the responsibility of a public spirit.

Finally I want to relate these concepts to Orania and what we have attained during the last two and a half decades. Firstly both traditional and modern Afrikaners (or the first Afrikaners of the nineteenth century and the second Afrikaners of the twentieth century) have built their property and wealth on other people's labour - not quite slaves like the Greeks have done, but a kind of feudalism in relation to the Black population. This dependence on outside labour for the needs of the private domain resulted in the loss of control over the public domain once those subjected to unfreedom understood the political significance of their economic role. Orania is the first ever community of Afrikaners that jealously do its own work, not without a division of labour, but in a way that identifies the whole population with both the needs of the private or the household and the public or political. That makes us the third Afrikaner, a mutation of our modern and unsustainable predecessors.

Secondly it broadens our frame of mind from freedom - the absence of necessity for the individual, to liberty - the opportunity to act together as a community that sets up a polis to become a political community or a republic. Although it may imply that we relegate individual rights to a second order, it does not mean that we have collectivist preferences; it means that the free and fulfilling individual life presupposes something else without which it would not be possible. We are convinced that it presupposes a concrete functional community rather than something as abstract and distant as an operative judicial system. In fact, even an operative judicial system presuppose more of a community than is often understood.

Thirdly, as far as common sense is concerned, we view the community not as the sum of its individual members, not even as more than the sum of its members; we view it as a human phenomenon of a different and more fundamental order. It comprises individual members, but also shared institutions, traditions, beliefs, language, memories, aspirations - and a place for it all, a world of common things, a heimat, and a public domain. That is why we have founded Orania: so that our children may not only have a home, but so that they may have a place in the world where they may perform glorious deeds as did their forebears and ours.

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