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Image: Boer
  Photo: Jan Stürmann
Image: Boer
  Photo: Jan Stürmann

New 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 their own.

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 lifetime.”

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 their future.

“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 at tug-of-war.

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 Verwoerd”

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 a bear.

I accidentally refer to them as Afrikaners. “We’re Boer,” he corrects, “not Afrikaners.”


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