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A look inside Orania: South Africa's white-only town, yet denies racist claims


There is no secure access to enter this rural South African town, similar to so many others. But very quickly, the uniqueness of Orania is obvious: here everyone is white.


Nestled in the Karoo, a semi-desert area lost in the middle of the country, its population of 2,500 Afrikaners, descendants of Dutch and French Huguenots who arrived in the 17th century, has increased almost tenfold since it was founded thirty years ago, when the apartheid segregationist regime fell.


Here, people say they are not racist: they want to live among themselves, in security, far from the decadence of the rest of the country, which has power cuts, administrative failures, unprecedented violence and glaring inequalities.


"When people see that there are no black workers here," that the gardeners, cleaners and farm workers are all white, "their first reaction is to say to themselves, 'Boy, these people are really racist,' but that's not it at all," says Wynand Boshoff, one of Orania's first residents.


On the contrary, the small town prides itself on having broken with colonial labor practices, "which consisted of using cheap black labor for all the hard or menial work," says its spokesman Joost Strydom.


Meanwhile, on a daily basis, its inhabitants live in a parallel reality where black South Africans... do not exist. Or at least are invisible.


On this chilly southern winter morning, a white man is mopping the floor in the convenience store, another is waving a blower to clear the dead leaves from the sidewalks.


- "A place of our own" -


The 8,000-hectare site on the Orange River where Orania was founded was bought by the son-in-law of Hendrik Verwoerd, the former prime minister considered the architect of apartheid, and a few other Afrikaner families.


The locality, tolerated by the state, relies on an article of the constitution that defends the right to self-determination.


Its autonomy, which relies heavily on solar energy to avoid dependence on the vagaries of the national electricity grid, which has been strained by decades of mismanagement and corruption, is very attractive, says Mr. Strydom, a 28-year-old born in Zulu country, who points to a population growth rate of 17% per year.


For Mr. Boshoff, 52, grandson of Verwoerd and himself a right-wing parliamentarian, the Afrikaners dreamed up and created Orania to have a place of their own.


"Like the African tribes or clans. Here, everyone has a place of reference that is their own," he said after his Sunday morning sermon in one of the small town's Reformed churches.


Orania functions in autarky. It has its own bank and currency, the ora, whose rate is equal to that of the South African rand.


And it "is now part of the South African landscape," says Boshoff. Small orange-white-sky-blue flags - the colors of the old South African flag - are proudly hoisted on buildings under construction.


Old Dutch-style buildings with white walls stand next to row houses with neat gardens. Children race by on their bikes, passing Sunday joggers.




- Shared "values" -


Ranci Pizer, 58, moved here from Pretoria a few months ago. "I can express my own culture. I have more social interaction on the street, with neighbors," says this former tax employee.


Annatjie Joubert, 66, a pecan farmer, also left the political capital in 2007 and enjoys the "much more relaxed lifestyle."


Residency in Orania is granted after a process of checks, including criminal records. "It's like a marriage, both parties have to be prepared to support each other," Strydom said.


It's not a "re-creation or a desperate return to apartheid," he says.


In fact, there is nothing to prevent non-whites whose mother tongue is Afrikaans (like many "coloureds", the category of mixed race identified under apartheid) from applying. "To date, we haven't received any applications," Boshoff notes with the utmost seriousness.


"Orania is for Afrikaners who share the same values," insists Joost Strydom.


Sandile Swana, an expert on municipal governance, says that the creation of private cities like Orania is not unusual. You'll see others," he says, "but the specificity here is that they have chosen their own ethnic origin and culture" as a precondition.


A small, unassuming house was visited in 1995 by Nelson Mandela, the country's first black president. He came to drink tea with Hendrick Verwoerd's widow, tirelessly seeking to reconcile a bruised and divided South Africa.


At the top of a hill, a collection of statues abandoned after the end of apartheid by many municipalities is displayed. "Afrikaner history is almost criminalized," says Strydom, proud that Orania is able to preserve them.

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