Racism has no place in the Afrikaner enclave, Hendrik Verwoerd’s grandson, Carel Boshoff jr, tells Johnny Masilela.
Johannesburg - Carel Boshoff jr has a beard trimmed perfectly. To a perceptive mind, the beard represents a reincarnation of Afrikanerdom’s great-grandfather, Oom Paul Kruger, the legendary leader of the old Transvaal Republic, who has pride of place among other Boer giants on Orania’s koppie of statues.
My breakfast interview with Boshoff, the Orania Movement president, is at the Oewerpark Hotel’s log cabin restaurant, along the banks of the Orange River, where a pink-cheeked waitress serves us what tastes like moerkoffie (ground coffee).
Beyond the raging waters is an endless good crop of mealies, with egrets dotting the blue sky of the Upper Karoo.
Boshoff smiles at my drawing comparisons between him and Kruger.
“I’ve actually never thought of my beard as looking like President Kruger’s.
“I grew a beard as a student in my early twenties because people kept perceiving me to be younger than I was. Although everybody likes to look younger, nobody wants to start too early!”
And then, inevitably, comparisons between Boshoff’s present-day Afrikanerdom and Kruger’s old Transvaal.
“Regarding the honourable President Kruger, who has been revered as a hero by my people, I never identified too closely with him,” Boshoff says, and then pauses, as if to search for a widening of my eyes.
There are a number of reasons why Boshoff cannot relate to Kruger.
One is that the Transvaal Republic strongman was a “traditional” figure, not too “easy” for a modern person like Boshoff to associate with.
“President Kruger did what he could to get the more liberal President (Thomas) Burgers – one of his predecessors – to fail. I feel closer to Burgers than to Kruger,” says Boshoff.
Could this be the reason why Orania’s “intentional” community model has come under fire from the overtly racist ultra-right?
“You see, when my father pioneered the Orania settlement, there were all sorts of perceptions about the place, but then he was outspoken against racism from the onset. That was who he was, a former (Dutch Reformed Church) missionary, fluent in Sepedi and Setswana,” Boshoff explains.
To emphasise Orania’s anti-racism stance, Boshoff gives another example.
“During the last census, a resident of Orania used derogatory language against a female black official who was on a walkabout.
“We hauled this particular resident to a disciplinary hearing where, fortunately, he agreed to apologise to the census lady.”
Is the Orania leadership winning – or losing – the battle against persistent perceptions that the Afrikaner enclave is racist?
“I think we are winning, because the truth is stronger than the opportunistic perceptions being created for ulterior motives.
“Although I hope not to underestimate the extent to which we are portrayed as racists, I can’t lose a night’s sleep for an untruth.”
The “truth” is that the present-day Afrikaner does not fit into the ANC’s picture of South Africa, Boshoff says.
He insists Orania’s “intentional” community model is aimed primarily at moving the Afrikaner’s mentality from that of “masters” and “madams”. This is evident from the Afrikaner labourers, faces darkened by the unforgiving heat of the sun, working on construction sites, the mealie fields and the pecan nut orchards.
Men like the down-and-out but dignified Seun Viljoen, whose “hart het in my skoene geval (heart dropped into my shoes)”, when he was offered work and accommodation by the townsfolk.
I put it to Boshoff that there is a buzz in Orania about a German who is planning to invest in and move to the town.
Would a black investor, such as mining magnate and dollar-millionaire Patrice Motsepe, be welcome in Orania too?
“What is important about the German guy is not his investment, but his moving into Orania and joining in the building of a new community. He is committed enough to adapt to Orania’s ways, to learn the Afrikaans language and do his own work.
“Do you think Motsepe will do all that?
“But let me hasten to say there is nothing formal to prohibit him from participating in Orania, due to his being a black South African.
“In a sense the answer lies with him. It is not just another investment opportunity but, broadly speaking, a cultural and political commitment as well. Would (Motsepe) be interested?”
In all fairness, on my recent guided tour, the Orania Movement’s communications and marketing director, James Kemp, pointed at a serene retirement home and suggested the place could be ideal for me, a black journalist, during my golden years.
The interview turns to Boshoff’s rather impressive collection of often anti-imperialist and apartheid African literature, including Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like.
“It did not begin or end with Biko in isolation.
“There are also Ngugi wa Thiongo (Kenya), Moeletsi Mbeki (younger brother of former president Thabo Mbeki) and Chinua Achebe (author of Africa’s all-time classic Things Fall Apart).
“These writers are, in a sense, participants in the Orania (doctrine) discourse, in the sense that they are read and discussed among us.”
His literary mind has also been fired – contrary to the thinking of granddad Hendrik Verwoerd – by yesteryear Afrikaner playwright NP Van Wyk Louw’s political drama, Die Pluimsaad Waai Ver (The Plum Seed Drifts Far).
Boshoff says Verwoerd interpreted the opening lines of the drama – “Wat is ’n volk (What is a people?)” – as a deliberate attempt to “deconstruct” Afrikaner heroism.
The fallout between Verwoerd the statesman and Van Wyk Louw the poet placed these two highly respected Afrikaners on a collision course.
Boshoff says he personally enjoyed Van Wyk Louw’s drama, and has written extensively about the playwright.
And then the bombshell, or so I think.
“You may be surprised that my grandfather, Dr Verwoerd, was chairman of the mainstream Afrikaanse Pers-Boekhandel when Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was translated into the Afrikaans, ’n Pad Loop Dood.”
My eyes widen.
There is another side to Verwoerd which Boshoff argues many who accuse him of having been a racist do not know.
Boshoff travels down memory lane, talking about how, as young DRC priests, his father, Professor Carel Boshoff, and Nationalist-turned-ANC activist Nico Smit had an engagement with Verwoerd with the view to setting up mission stations in black residential areas.
“At the time of Dr Verwoerd’s term as minister of native affairs, he received my father and Nico Smit at his official residence in Pretoria. The two were exploring black areas for the setting up of mission stations.
“As the relevant cabinet minister, Dr Verwoerd would naturally be involved in the administration aspects of the initiative.”
Boshoff says Verwoerd’s welcoming of such an initiative contradicts the stereotypical conclusions about his grandfather’s world view on race – all the “more so that his potential son-in-law (Boshoff sr) was directly involved”.
“And all this was with the potential of Dr Verwoerd’s grandchildren growing up among black kids.
“Indeed we, a bunch of Verwoerdjies, lived at the mission station that my father set up at Meetse a Bophelo (Water for Life) in the Sekoro region (of the old eastern Transvaal).”
Also, Verwoerd’s own son, Hendrik, and his family, served and lived at Meetse a Bophelo for a couple of years, says Boshoff.
And then, in his soft voice, he says: “I believe you will understand why I do not accept the polarised picture of my grandfather as a racist despot.”
Boshoff continues: “What my father told us about that night (with Verwoerd) was that Dr Verwoerd shared their enthusiasm as they rolled open the maps of the targeted region.
“It was within this context that Dr Verwoerd said the two priests should remember that the white church would have a limited opportunity, as such initiatives would (in the long run) be regarded as paternalistic and unwelcome.”
And so Dr Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid himself, prophesied some form of black resistance to white domination all those many years ago.
The Sunday Independent