Coffins, Old Flags, Microorganisms And The Future
of the Boer
By Jan Stürmann
In a hot tin-roofed workshop, four
young men, stripped to the waist, build coffins. With
well practiced efficiently, they produce 100 caskets
a month, participants in a program to create work
for unemployed Afrikaners. Most are sold to bury AIDS
victims in the black communities surrounding the all-white
private town of Orania.
This town of 600, situated close
to the geographic center of South Africa, was established
in 1991, as a place where the soon-to-be outvoted
Afrikaners, could rebuild a homeland or Boer volkstaat.
Thirteen years on, despite bad press and the brunt
of endless editorial cartoons, the town has endured.
Earlier in the week, I met with
prominent Boer nationalist Danie Theron in the South
African capital Pretoria. I had contacted Danie curious
to find out how the Boer were faring, ten years after
apartheid had ended.
Theron immediately took the opportunity
to stress differences between Boer and Afrikaner,
two words, which are often used interchangeably. In
the world-view of the Boer, they alone made the Great
Trek from the Cape in the 1830’s to establish independent
Boer republics inland, whilst the Afrikaners stayed
with the British and got rich. Then the Afrikaners
supported the British; the Boer fought them during
the Anglo-Boer war of 1899. And in 1994, the Afrikaner
leaders betrayed the Boer by giving their land to
black South Africans. Theron explained the Boer are
deeply, conservatively religious and to survive, believe
they need self-determination on land they can call
In a country of 45 million, the Boer, with a total
population of fewer than 1.5 million, are politically
insignificant. They gambled on apartheid and lost.
Now they live, a distinct nation, within a country
not their own. Many Boer are again circling the wagon.
The slogan for the Boer-run Radio Pretoria is “The
radio with borders.”
The Boers hope that private all
white towns like Orania, or Kleinfontein, 30 km east
of Pretoria, will serve as seed-crystals for a future
homeland. Today, 300 residents live in Kleinfontein.
Residents do all their own work, run their own schools,
and take care of the old and the poor. Impressive,
permanent homes spread across the grassy hills. But
when asked how long it will take to grow into a homeland,
town board member Jan Groenewald admits “not in my
Since the end of apartheid, many
Afrikaners have fallen on hard times. On the edge
of some towns, squatter camps of homeless Afrikaners
spread like Okie camps in 1930’s California. To help
poor Boer, retired businessman Willie Venter started
VolksHulp 2000, a charity organization whose objective
is vaguely similar to that of the Salvation Army.
It's one of the many social, political and labor organizations
sprouting up in recent years to further the Boer agenda.
Theron covers a blackboard with
a spider web of affiliations, pyramids of social structures,
and pie charts of power bases, describing how these
organizations will help the Boer unite and organize
“The Boer are a stubborn, independent,
fractious people. It is in our genes. For their contrariness,
our ancestors were kicked out of Holland, France and
Germany. To get a majority of Boer to unite behind
the Volkstaat, will take a lot of work. But
we have no alternative. If we don’t pull together,
we will simply not survive.”
The next day we make the three-hour
drive southeast of Pretoria, to the Hill of Majuba,
where on February 27, 1881, the Boer won a decisive
battle against the British who, after gold was discovered,
had tried to annex the Boer Republic of Transvaal.
A week later, the British negotiated peace.
Since 1991, the Boer, return annually
to this battle site by the thousands. Some come by
horse. A village of tents and campers spread across
the foot of Majuba, which rises steeply up from the
surrounding grasslands. Pickup trucks share the dusty
lot with expensive German sedans. An array of different
flags hang off trees, tents, and poles.
Families and old friends talk around
campfires; children play between tents; and open fields
and teenagers court. Women in long colorful period
dresses and stiff sunbonnets mingle with those wearing
khaki shirts and wide bush hats, dark from years of
accumulating sweat. Large pistols share belt space
with cell phones. A group practices whip cracking.
Crowds cheer as teams of large, grunting men compete
Those who can, make the pilgrimage
to the top of Majuba. In air thinner than my coast-bound
lungs are used to, I huff up the steep path. At the
summit, a group of eight Pretoria University students
sit with a large, fluttering flag. They discuss the
123-year old battle—attack tactics, weapons used,
numbers killed -- as if each has lived it.
“This flag,” Ebert Myburgh, 21,
explains, “is one we created by combining the old
Boer Republics of Transvaal and Orange Free State
flags. “There are too many flags. What’s needed is
one under which all Boers can unite. We hope this
will be the one.”
These ordinary university students
-- joking, holding hands, trying to outsmart each
other -- then circle the summit like pilgrims. I talk
with a young man named Andries van der Berg, walking
barefoot over the stones and grass. He is studying
theater and TV production and wants to use his skills
to help further the Boer culture. Already he’s produced
two CD’s of Volk songs. “It’s in my blood,” he says.
“My great-grandfather was former Prime Minister Hendrik
They plant their flag on top of
a beacon, link arms in a circle, and sing about their
history and people and dreams. A young woman sings
a solo, her voice clear and strong and haunting. I
walk away, an outsider, witnessing something too private.
Later that afternoon, under an eucalyptus
tree alight with the setting sun, five young men tend
to their horses. One measures grain into feedbags;
another rubs ointment on cracked hooves; the third
fixes a broken bridle. Chores done, they sit amongst
their feeding horses and talk.
They are part of a commando of forty-five who rode
in from Pretoria, a two-day hard trek. Most make their
living off the land, tend cattle, grow corn. Pride
in their toughness, their horsemanship, their culture,
clings to their skin like two days of sweat and grime.
They are shy and awkward around
me. Pieter Grobler does most of the talking; he’s
a little older, with a full beard and a body like
I accidentally refer to them as
Afrikaners. “We’re Boer,” he corrects, “not Afrikaners.”
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