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Zealots' Dream Falters in Whites-Only S. Africa Town : Racism: Bastion of intolerance sees itself as model. But glimpse of future disappoints some separatists.

February 28, 1994|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ORANIA, South Africa — Their living room furniture was still parked in the driveway, but Chris and Ina Smit stopped unpacking one sunny day last week to cheerfully explain just why they had decided to become the newest residents of one of this country's strangest towns.

God had appeared to him in a vision, Smit said. "I only saw his backside. He spoke to me in a telepathic way. . . . And he told us to come here."

Other than his strict Calvinist faith, Smit shares one other crucial belief with the 350 other whites in Orania: virulent racism. Only whites may live or work in this 3-year-old community, a bastion of intolerance that considers itself a model for a racially pure Afrikaner homeland in the post-apartheid South Africa.

The self-described pioneers probably would be called zealots and misfits anywhere else. But Orania is in South Africa's spotlight as right-wing separatists increasingly threaten to sabotage the country's first all-race elections unless they are allowed to secede and create an independent state for whites. Many say Orania should be the capital.

Never mind that the neo-Nazis, neo-fascists and other militants in the far right can't agree on the borders of their proposed volkstaat , or people's state. Or that polls show few whites would move there anyway.

And never mind that dozens of grim-faced, khaki-clad whites--many sporting Nazi-like insignia and waving guns--marched through several rural towns last week and declared them part of the volkstaat. Despite the demonstrators' bellicose bluster, the towns did not secede.

Orania is different. In 1991, a Pretoria newspaper advertised a "town for sale." It was deep in the rocky Karroo badlands, more than 600 miles away to the southwest--about 150 prefabricated homes, plus churches, shops and schools, all built for engineers and workers who had constructed nearby dams and canals. The nearest neighbor was 25 miles away.

Carel Boshoff, a professor and former missionary, decided Orania could be the nucleus of a volkstaat. All he had to do was persuade whites to move to one of the country's most desolate, thinly populated areas. He and 30 other Afrikaners pooled their money and bought the tumbledown, tumbleweed town for $567,000.

Once they owned it, they could make the rules. The first was revolutionary: To keep blacks out, whites would have to do all the work, sweeping streets, cleaning toilets and toiling in the hot sun in a land where manual labor always was reserved for poorly paid blacks.

"We started this town as an example, an experiment to demonstrate to the Afrikaner that he can do his own work," explained Boshoff's wife, Anna. "That sounds hilarious in Europe or the U.S. But it's new here. In South Africa, when an Afrikaner says, 'I'm going to do something on my own,' he's talking about himself and 20 black people."

Anna Boshoff is the daughter of South Africa's most infamous prime minister, Hendrik F. Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid who was stabbed to death in Parliament in 1966. At least 15 members of Verwoerd's family have settled here, including his 92-year-old widow, Betsie.

Frail and white-haired, Orania's oldest resident sat primly beneath an oil portrait of her late husband in her living room. She defended his dream of apartheid, the legalized segregation of the races enforced by a web of repressive laws.

"His policy of apartheid is the only way of solving our problems today," Betsie Verwoerd insisted. An Afrikaner homeland, she added, is "consistent with my husband's ideals."

She and others say a white homeland is necessary if the country's 3 million Afrikaners, descendants of 17th-Century, mostly Dutch settlers, are to preserve their conservative culture, religion and language against what they fear is inevitable revenge from blacks once they take power.

"We see no future for us in the new South Africa," said Danie van Rensburg, 69, a retired civil servant who is one of the town's founders.

Racial homelands are not new, of course. Verwoerd created black homelands, usually in the poorest areas, to separate the races. And his son, Hendrik Jr., tried to create an Afrikaner commune in Morgenzon, about 100 miles southeast of Johannesburg, in the 1970s. It collapsed when his followers hired so many black laborers that a slum township was spawned.

Both President Frederik W. de Klerk and African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela have insisted that they will not dismember the country.

But both men recently agreed to establish a parliamentary panel after the election to consider allowing a volkstaat as long as other races have equal rights there.

Still, Afrikaners are a fractious lot, and many of those who moved to Orania hoping to glimpse the future have been disappointed.

Despite the tiny population, the town is bitterly divided, with three competing schools for only 90 pupils and at least seven churches and sects that differ on such thorny theological issues as whether blacks have souls and go to heaven.

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