INSIDE AN ALL-WHITE TOWN’S DIVISIVE EXPERIMENT WITH CRYPTOCURRENCY
IT’S A BRIGHT Sunday in November—perfect weather for a braai, South Africa’s cherished barbecue tradition—and in the hot stillness of the afternoon even the skittish, deerlike duikers that roam the backyard have paused their grazing to lounge. Yet despite the soothing influence of brandy and grilled lamb liver, Roodt’s intensity is palpable. His jaw, half shaded by a leather safari hat, appears spring-loaded, as though ready to snap into argument. “The state is collapsing,” he says with a glint in his eye, “and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
Roodt is the chief economist at a midsize financial firm in Pretoria, but he’s better known to his compatriots as a rabble-rousing pundit. A ninth-generation Afrikaner, he tells me he especially enjoys going on TV and debating communists, who are, in his opinion, the very people running his country into the ground. Roodt reserves special ire for South Africa’s dominant party, the African National Congress, which is presently engulfed in yet another high-level corruption scandal as the economy teeters on the brink of recession.
As Roodt sees it, this political dysfunction presents both a menace and an opportunity. “South Africa is a very exciting place for us libertarians,” he says. “People are forced to do what the government is supposed to do for them.”
Take, for instance, Roodt’s neighborhood. It has the sprawling, denuded character of a Phoenix exurb, with a few important differences: The homes here are equipped with high perimeter walls, a private water system and sanitation facility, and a rapid-response security team. (A few years ago, armed burglars invaded Roodt’s estate, took his family hostage, and left him with a stitched-up scar on his left bicep.) Roodt plans to install solar panels that will buffer against power cuts triggered by scavengers digging up buried copper lines for scrap, as they do from time to time.
But all of this is just a preamble. Eventually, Roodt says, there will be self-sufficient communities like his across South Africa, maybe even the world. He draws an analogy to feudal Europe, before the kings got too powerful and started reining in individual freedom. In certain ways, people were better off under that system, he says.
The key to Roodt’s vision—a “state-proof” existence untainted by government interference—is blockchain technology, a secure database that runs on a decentralized network of computers. It’s the same technology that underlies cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, and enthusiasts say it could not only free our bank accounts from nosy regulators but also assume some of the core functions of government, from issuing driver’s licenses to recording real estate transactions.
For that reason, blockchain—banal, technical, deeply unsexy—has become an ideological rallying point, especially among those looking to subvert the reigning order. From Catalonia to Venezuela, dissenting groups have at times wondered whether, their options for a political uncoupling exhausted, they could settle for a digital one instead.
Roodt, however, imagines something more diffuse. With the right tech platform, he says, like-minded people could be linked together, regardless of national identity. Individual rights would remain inviolable; if one network was no longer to your liking, you could simply ditch it for a new one. Your economic community might have nothing to do with physical geography. Commerce would continue, with state-backed currencies swapped for crypto alternatives that float freely on an open market.
After polishing off a skewer of lamb, Roodt invites me into his living room, a cavernous space dominated by chiaroscuro paintings of doll-like children in pastoral scenes. One wall holds a fish tank stocked with cichlidsfrom Lake Tanganyika. (He likes cichlids, he says, because they evolve quickly to fill every competitive niche.)
Roodt wants me to see a 100-trillion-dollar bill from Zimbabwe issued in 2009, during the peak of that country’s hyperinflation crisis. Part of what triggered Zimbabwe’s financial collapse was the state’s seizure of white-owned farms, which makes it a potent touchstone among some white South Africans, who make up less than a tenth of the population but control nearly three-quarters of private farmland. Should the South African rand head in the same direction as the Zimbabwe dollar, Roodt says, the blockchain’s tamper-proof record of ownership and commerce could provide protection from such a “predatory state.”
Roodt’s idea isn’t as crazy as it might seem—at least if South Africa’s interest in cryptocurrency is any measure. When I first met him, in late 2017, his country was in the midst of a crypto bonanza. South Africans Googled “Bitcoin” more than any other people in the world. On the drive up to Roodt’s estate, I passed Vegas-style billboards advertising a Bitcoin lottery, and the hosts of radio advice shows were telling listeners that their kids wanted crypto for Christmas.
South Africa, in other words, may be uniquely primed for Roodt’s blockchain-based revolution. And here, he explains, people are seeking not just riches but alternatives. The most unequal country in the world, South Africa is already home to barricaded islands of wealth no different from his own estate, Roodt notes; a state-proof economic system that connects those islands is inevitable. “The rest of South Africa is not going to do very well, I’m afraid,” he says.
(Not long after the braai, he would appear as the rock star headliner at a conference called Blockchain for Beginners, where he proclaimed, to the thunderous applause of a nearly all-white audience, “I don’t think the bureaucrats and politicians realize the shit storm that’s about to hit them.”)
Roodt and a few other Afrikaner movers and shakers had already settled on a location for a proof of concept. It was a town called Orania, which sits on the edge of the Great Karoo, the vast stretch of scrubby quasi-desert that dominates the South African interior. Orania was established in 1991 by a band of Afrikaner right-wingers, including the widow of Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid. The settlers purchased an abandoned dam workers’ town on a bend in the Orange River, hoping to plant the seed of an independent Afrikaner state, or Volkstaat.
Orania is managed as a private company, and the town council retains a tight grip on who can move in. Each prospective resident is carefully screened—not by race, the council claims, but by avowed devotion to Afrikaner culture. Either way, the end result is the same: All of the town’s 1,500 or so residents are white.
“The perception is that it’s a frightening, conservative, in-the-sticks sort of place,” Roodt admits, and says there were accusations that he was “getting in bed with a bunch of racists.” But he maintains that his interest in Orania is purely academic—that the little town is the closest thing an economist can get to a petri dish, a big economy in miniature where the effects of digital money can be studied. For one thing, it already has its own paper note, the ora, which is issued by the local community bank. (Each ora is backed by one rand.) What better place to beta-test the future of digital feudalism?
Back on the patio, Roodt introduces me to Piet Le Roux, his co-conspirator in this venture. Lanky and bespectacled, Le Roux spent part of his childhood in Orania. He moved away but keeps in regular contact with the Oranians, including his mother, who still works for the town.
Le Roux is now the CEO of a business association called Sakeliga. The group is part of a varied landscape of “civil society” organizations involved in lobbying mainly around issues seen as important to Afrikaners, like taxes and land ownership, and which often advocate for forms of self-reliance. Sakeliga emerged with the help of AfriForum, a political organization known for peddling the misleading narrative, since picked up and amplified by Fox News and Donald Trump, that the South African government is complicit in the large-scale killings of white farmers.
A week from now, the people of Orania will begin testing a beta version of their new crypto token, the e-Ora. It will be issued, to start, on Quorum, an open source, private blockchain developed by J. P. Morgan and based on Ethereum. Roodt and Le Roux worked with Andile Solutions, a tech firm based in a Johannesburg suburb, to develop a mobile wallet, so that the Oranians can actually use e-Ora around town. During the beta test, Andile will also manage the nodes, where blockchain transactions are stored and cryptographically verified, using cloud servers rented out from companies like Amazon.
If none of this sounds particularly in keeping with Roodt’s antiestablishment dream—government laws swapped for corporate terms of service—that’s true. A homegrown wallet and a privately managed token are the exact opposite of decentralization. But Roodt is looking beyond the beta. The idea, if residents will go along with it, is that the e-Ora could one day move onto a public blockchain, accessible to all.
In a couple days, I will visit Orania to see the rollout of the new currency. For now, though, Roodt leads us in a toast to “freedom,” a tall glass of karate water—cheap brandy and Coke—in his hand. The conversation around the table quickly turns into a litany of complaints about the ANC, with its affirmative action policies, its inaction as English replaces Afrikaans as the language of education, and its alleged failure to adequately protect white farmers from crime.
At Le Roux’s urging, Roodt puts on some Afrikaans music. He pulls up a video of “De la Rey,” a ballad about the Anglo-Boer Wars, a time you might call the last low point for the Afrikaners, before now. When it was released, in 2006, the song stirred controversy because of its message that its listeners should not let apartheid guilt stifle their Afrikaner pride. Everyone stands, patriotically, and someone places an iPhone in front of me. I watch as the singer, Bok van Blerk, braves bullets for Afrikaner freedom, playing the part of the valiant General Koos de la Rey:
And my house and my farm burned to ashes
so that they could catch us,
But those flames and that fire
burn now deep, deep within me.
FOR THE AVERAGE South African, the name Orania conjures images of wizened old racists wasting away in the hot and lonesome Karoo. Most of the people I speak with outside the town are surprised to hear that it hasn’t yet dissolved into the desert entirely, much less that it is embracing a crypto scheme. “Ah, they’re still up to that foolishness?” asks one black business owner in Johannesburg. She shakes her head and smiles. “You’ll hear a lot about swaart gevaar out there—black danger.”
Most Afrikaners, even on the far right, have largely dismissed the idea of a Volkstaat, says Christi van der Westhuizen, a sociologist and professor at Nelson Mandela University. But for some, the town remains “important as a cornerstone for their dreams of white self-determinism.” Many Afrikaners are increasingly looking inward, she says, settling in communities saturated with Afrikaans media and private schools and businesses. South Africa’s staggering inequality, largely along racial lines, makes that separation all too easy. “If you’re living in your Pretoria East suburb and only consuming these products, you could imagine yourself living in apartheid South Africa,” she says. “It’s this mirage of a white society.”
Cryptocurrency, she says, seems like a natural tool to further that economic independence—a potential way to bind together those scattered Afrikaner enclaves and their interest groups. Indeed, when I mention e-Ora to an Afrikaner crypto developer in Pretoria, he just chuckles and says, “Oh, Whitecoin!”
I depart for Orania in a last-generation Corolla. (At the rental office, a white British tourist at the adjacent counter rejects a Volkswagen Polo, the middle-class striver’s car, because she’s heard they’re the most likely to be jacked.) The eight-hour drive passes first through the golden fields of South Africa’s big-sky country. The land gradually reddens where it’s been tilled, but in a few hours nobody’s tilling anymore and the surface is all brown scrub, with an occasional mesa, or koppie, floating against the horizon. It looks, as Roodt told me, a lot like West Texas.
Finally, there is an eruption of green and a single stop sign. On one side, behind a white picket fence, is a manicured strip mall. In the coming days, I will get to know its offerings well: a café where cigarette-pinching families eat fried-chicken wraps smothered in sweet chili sauce; a gift shop stocked with self-published fiction invoking a future South African race war; an OK MiniMark grocery store where the women at the till implore you to understand how safe they feel in their “beautiful little town”; and a gas station where many a journalist has recorded the South African novelty of a white man filling up the cars of black families passing through.
Outside, ATVs commanded by preteen boys in cowboy hats occupy parking spaces beside full-sized pickups. Emblazoned on just about everything in town is the Orania boy, a white silhouette of a child in overalls on a Creamsicle-orange background. He’s rolling up his sleeves, ready to get things done.
The first e-Ora won’t be minted until the next day, so I wander over to the Orania Cultural History Museum, where the curator, Jan Joubert, is happy to give me an abridged tour of Afrikaner hardship. Our circuit of the dank and windowless space begins with the Voortrekkers, the Afrikaners who, in the early 19th century, drove deep into the South African interior, seeking to escape British colonial interference (and to protest Britain’s ban on holding slaves). They founded the first independent Boer republics, sparking conflict with the Zulu and the Bantu.
Next, Joubert steers me to a display of store mannequins in petticoats. He describes how, during the Anglo-Boer Wars, the British held women and children in concentration camps, forcing them to eat food spiked with glass. It was during this time, Joubert says, that a British officer shot a hole in his great-grandmother’s bonnet as she ran to scoop up his 5-year-old grandfather.
It’s hard to fact-check these stories, though it’s true that many thousands died in the British camps. The atrocities were partly responsible for spawning the bittereinders (“bitter-enders”), the Boer militiamen who refused to lay down arms when their leaders conceded defeat. It’s a term now often applied to Oranians.
I ask Joubert what he thinks about the ora going digital. “I’m not against it,” he says. “I’ve seen where the Zim dollar went.” He has little hope that the ANC government learned from its northern neighbor. “They inherited this economy for free—can they keep it going?” he asks, challenging me to name a country where “blacks have gotten it right.”
Perhaps the e-Ora will make the town more attractive to the young people, like his daughter, who emigrated to the United States. “I want my children to be here,” Joubert says. “They are educated, but they can’t get jobs here in South Africa. Only the blacks can get jobs.” Suddenly, he realizes he’s late for a meeting of Freedom Front Plus, a right-wing party active in national politics. He ushers me to the door and warns me not to print lies about Orania.
A few hours later, I meet Piet Le Roux at the town’s newest craft brewery (there are two). Orania is a work in progress, Le Roux says. There are signs of a blooming economy—the highly mechanized pecan-farming operation, the new dog-food factory, the row of eco-friendly houses built with plastered hay bales. But roads are still unpaved, construction is slow, and residents often cycle out, leaving behind the hardliners, the retirees, and the destitute.
Orania has seen some success as a family tourist destination, hence the gift shops and cafés and the constant invitations I receive to go “power rafting” on the Orange River. But the greater ambition, Le Roux says, is to grow Orania into a small city that’s attractive to young cosmopolitans in Pretoria and Cape Town. The e-Ora could eventually help Orania forge real economic links with the outside world. But for now, he says, he just wants to get the e-Ora up and running in town.
So far, the first business outside Orania that has agreed to accept the cryptocurrency is the owner of a restaurant and beard-oil shop in Pretoria called Buffelsfontein. Located in a neighborhood called Menlo Park, the shop advertises itself as suitable to the kind of man who would drink beer out of a honey badger’s scrotum. The burly, bearded manager had told me he couldn’t imagine moving to Orania, so accepting e-Ora, and ora before it, was the best he could do. But maybe he’d buy a vacation home there someday.
The town leader, Carel Boshoff—who happens to be the grandson of Betsie and Hendrik Verwoerd—sees the e-Ora as crucial to building a virtual community of Afrikaners. I meet him and his son, Willem, at a family resort on the banks of the Orange River. It’s a Sunday, and they’re both dressed for church.
Boshoff’s vision goes something like this: In Orania, the e-Ora will be a cheaper, easier-to-use replacement for the ora. Elsewhere, sympathetic Afrikaners will take it up as an “act of patriotism.” They will trade among themselves using the e-Ora, and perhaps start investing in Orania, allowing the town to pave more roads and build more houses and craft breweries. As more Afrikaners feel marginalized and eventually give up on South Africa, they will find a budding city waiting for them in the Karoo.
Boshoff worries a little about the e-Ora’s “Whitecoin” reputation. The town is careful to frame its policies not as racial exclusion but as in the interest of preserving an Afrikaner “cultural” homeland. It’s already enough of a battle, he says, to scrub the town’s Facebook page of explicitly racist posts. He says he didn’t know much about the blockchain before Roodt and Le Roux approached him, but he was immediately encouraged by the involvement of Roodt, a “mainstream” Afrikaner celebrity.
“Do you know the Asterix comics?” Boshoff asks. I confess that I don’t, and Willem looks up, appalled. The series, father and son explain, tells the story of a tiny rebel village in Roman-occupied Gaul whose warriors have been rendered invincible by a magic potion. No matter what the Romans do, no matter what dirty schemes they employ, they can’t seem to quash this valiant community of bitter-enders.
Willem pulls up a comic on his father’s iPhone—a “parody” version of Asterix, Boshoff hastily explains. Instead of a map of Gaul, there is a map of South Africa, with a magnifying glass hovering over Orania. The village is surrounded by spear-bearing Africans and huts emblazoned with ANC flags. The introduction reads: “The year is 2017 AD. South Africa is entirely occupied by the blacks. Well, not entirely … One small town of indomitable Afrikaners still holds out against the invaders.”
THE ORANIA SPAAR en Krediet Kooperatiewe Bank, or OSK, is what you might call Orania’s equivalent of the US Treasury, responsible for issuing ora and keeping track of its circulation. The town borrowed the concept of private money from communities in the US and Europe—places populated mostly by leftists who believed that local values could be furthered with local currency. In the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts, for instance, buying with BerkSharesrather than dollars signals a commitment to local labor and a screw-you to the moral failings of globalization and the Fed. For Orania, marooned in a country seen as antithetical to its values, that concept held great appeal.
The OSK is presently divided in two. There’s the original bank, a squat white holdover from the dam-worker days paneled with curling, mildewed clapboard, and the half-constructed new bank, a soaring metal skeleton that vaults directly over the old structure.
I enter through a screen door hung with lace curtains. The interior is dim and hot and busy. The walls are mostly bare, save for a few giant printouts of pastel-colored ora bills and a framed sketch of the finished building, with tall walls of glass and the swirling green suggestion of office park landscaping. It looks ready to go before a zoning board in New Jersey.
I trade the teller 30 rand, worth two US dollars and change, for 30 ora. The paper is a thick, slippery plastic that mimics the texture of the rand. It glows blue under UV light, to prevent counterfeits. The green 10-ora note features a Voortrekker mother crying out at some unseen malice, her limp son draped in her arms. Advertisements for local businesses grace the back, and each bill is hand-signed by two town officials, a ritual that takes days whenever a new series of notes is printed. “Their hands get very tired,” the teller says.
The town spends about 3 percent of the ora’s value on printing, but earns that and more in interest from the rand that backs it. The growing number of tourists seeking a quiet river holiday—some 30,000 of them last year, mostly Afrikaner families, according to one tour guide—has been a boon. Some head home with ora as souvenirs, leaving rand behind.
The bank’s general manager is a 78-year-old man named Lukas Taljaard, but around town he’s simply called Oom, or “Uncle.” He arrives at the bank in a battered pickup, having spent the morning tending his sheep and cattle. Hunched and thin, he has hooked white sideburns and elvish ears that droop at the tips, giving him the look of a Victorian clerk lost in the desert. But his dress is all farmer—a button-up in a shade of almost translucent pearl, oversized jeans cinched tight around his waist, and a camo hat that he promptly doffs when I ask to take his photo. We cower from the hot Karoo sun in the shadow of the new bank, and he rests a hand against a pylon. I worry he should be sitting down.
Taljaard came to Orania in 1993 from the Vaal Triangle, south of Johannesburg, where he taught math. To make the move, he took an early pension offered as part of reforms to make room for black South Africans in the public workforce. He started what would become the OSK in his auto garage in 1999, letting his neighbors cash their paychecks with money he made selling gas. It was a side hustle built on trust—a small fee of five rand to avoid the long drive to the nearest sizable town. Eventually, he straightened up and got the place a banking license.
The OSK is one of the only community-owned banks in South Africa. It filled the void left by outside financial institutions, which Taljaard says often refuse to issue loans to Oranians. Here, bank transfers are occasionally made over the phone without a passcode or signature, the familiar sound of a neighbor’s voice security enough.
Taljaard frames the ora as an extension of the bank, a symbol of independence that binds the town together more closely with each transaction. But fear is the more practical day-to-day motivator. As Taljaard puts it, the benefit of a wallet full of pseudo-cash, worthless in the neighboring towns, is that no outsider would bother stealing it. That few people seem to have much ora on hand these days, favoring their credit cards, seems beside the point. He’d been sold on the e-Ora, he tells me, as an additional security upgrade from the printed version.
Earlier in the day, Taljaard “minted” the first e-Ora, which involved depositing 300 rand in an account at the OSK and then pressing a button on Andile’s app to issue 300 tokens on the Quorum blockchain. He gives me directions to a restaurant across town, where Le Roux and an engineer from Andile are leading a workshop for the beta testers, many of whom are members of the Orania Technology Club.
I sit between a former ambulance driver, now an enthusiastic member of the Orania IT club, and a former government employee. She tells me that her children, now living in Australia, were initially skeptical of her move to Orania. But they got used to the idea. “It’s very safe here,” she tells me. “No blacks.”
Le Roux directs us to a private WhatsApp group where we download Andile’s mobile wallet. Once enough of us have the lime green interface glowing on our screens, he walks us through the process of making a payment. Everyone has a unique QR code that corresponds to a public key, which others can scan to “friend” them. From there, payments are simple—a matter of a few taps, akin to sending money via Venmo or PayPal. It looks, in sum, like a less-polished form of any other payments app. The cryptographic machinery of the blockchain is all but invisible to the user, handled in the cloud.
“Any questions?” Le Roux asks. A member of the town council wonders where these servers physically are, where his money will actually be. All over the world, Le Roux replies—Singapore, the United States, Europe. But what if the company running the servers goes belly-up? They’re decently confident in Amazon and Microsoft’s long-term viability, he says.
The gift shop owner chimes in: How will his employees check out customers with e-Ora? Will he need to give them his phone? For now, there aren’t any business accounts, so yes. A former engineer asks about two-factor authentication. They’re working on it, Le Roux says.
As people filter out, a few laggards remain in the restaurant, and we huddle around the leftover custard pie. I sense some skepticism—of the practicalities of this new technology, of what’s lost when the ora, a symbol of trust and community here, goes from physical to digital. But at least one man lacks any doubts. He thinks the e-Ora can do it all. He wants to be done with the rand, he tells me, and with South Africa’s banking system. He wants to invest with e-Ora, to buy a house with e-Ora. “Cryptocurrencies are taking over the world!” he says, gripping my arm in enthusiasm. “Which one is going to win?”
The man from the IT club picks up the phone and tells me he was the first to shop with e-Ora: He bought paint at the hardware store for his wife, who uses it for crafting projects. He sounds genuinely proud of his purchase, but also a little melancholy. Outside of his club friends, the e-Ora isn’t getting much buzz. “I don’t think many Oranians are thinking about Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies, because most of us are living a simple life,” he says. The town decided to move any future e-Ora operations to the local chamber of commerce, rather than the bank; it had grown worried the e-Ora could affect the OSK’s banking license.
Roodt and Le Roux, however, remain optimistic. Orania proved that the technology works, Roodt says. And South Africa, in his mind, is readier than ever for state-proofing. He tells me about plans for a new cryptocoin, using the e-Ora’s technology, that would serve a network of farmers’ markets.
For now, though, the crypto plans keep simmering on the back burner, displaced by more pressing realities. Boshoff resigned in May following allegations of corruption—accusations he denies. The debate about land ownership recently escalated when South Africa’s new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, raised the possibility of expropriating landwithout compensation. A recession came and went, and now another one looms. Roodt says he’s been busy with clients calling him for guidance during the tumult. He tells me the power has been out in his neighborhood for days, and that he’s grateful to have put up those solar panels. “It’s worrying, but it’s a bit exciting,” Roodt says.
The crypto world and the Afrikaner right share the rhetoric that the end is nigh: The financial system is fallible, the social contract unstable. When the power goes out or the banks go under, those who installed solar panels or parked their money in crypto will be the ones who thrive while everyone else suffers.
But it’s hard to build technology on a foundation of schadenfreude. It’s one thing to buy some bitcoin for yourself, quite another to set up a new financial system with others—to ask people to give up the convenience of their credit cards, their currency, their national identity. That requires a true disinvestment from the status quo and a belief in an alternative, whatever that may be. Right now, it’s hard to persuade people to take on that level of inconvenience just so they can buy some paint.
I think back to one of my last days in Orania, when I fell into conversation with a busboy at the local resort. He’d told me there was nothing for him out here in the Karoo, and he didn’t think an Orania-branded crypto would amount to anything. But he hoped his recent investment in Ethereum, a “real” cryptocurrency, would earn him passage to Dubai or New York, where he’d drink Starbucks in Times Square. He quizzed me for tips on how to beat the market.
I try in vain to track him down by phone, to find out whether his dreams of escape panned out. But I know the likely answer. Since the time we’d met at the height of the Bitcoin bubble, cryptocurrency prices had crashed. Ethereum, at least, hadn’t taken him anywhere.