KLEINFONTEIN, South Africa — At the entrance to this rural settlement is a well-kept shrine to the primary architect of apartheid. Nearby rests an old wheelbarrow, a symbol of the white Afrikaners who once ruled the country. Inside the coffee shop, at the bank, everywhere, there are only white faces.
A white security guard, wearing gray camouflage, checks cars at a gate on the main road. Race is a key factor for entry. No blacks are allowed to buy or rent houses here.
Two decades after the end of apartheid, a system of brutally enforced segregation, this hamlet exemplifies the deep racial divides that still preoccupy South Africa. The existence of Kleinfontein and places like it has set off a debate about the type of country that South Africa should be today.
As Nelson Mandela, the country’s first black president, battles a serious lung infection, many South Africans are examining whether their nation has lived up to his vision of equality, engaging in conversations about race, politics and the economy. That has drawn new attention to all-white communities and the festering legacy of apartheid.
To blacks, Kleinfontein is a remnant of a painful past, a gated community of whites determined to perpetuate racist, apartheid-era practices. The several hundred whites who live here say they need to safeguard their Dutch-based Afrikaner culture and language and seek refuge from affirmative action policies and high crime rates that they blame on blacks. They insist that they are not racist, noting that they don’t welcome Jews, Catholics or any English speakers, either.
Under apartheid, the white Afrikaner-led government forced blacks to live in homelands to separate the races. Today, the residents of Kleinfontein say the creation of Afrikaner homelands is the best way for South Africa to progress under the black-led government of the ruling African National Congress party.
“I am here because outside there’s no place anymore for us. We don’t feel welcome,” said Dries Oncke, 57, a resident. “That’s why we start places like this and build them up. We know as Afrikaners we can be safe here. We have a place where we can be ourselves.”
There are three criteria for living in Kleinfontein: Residents must speak the Afrikaans language, be Protestants and be descendants of the Voortrekkers, the Dutch settlers who left the British Cape Colony in the early 1800s and migrated to the interior of what is now South Africa. They came to be known as Afrikaners.
The tension over Kleinfontein and other aspiring whites-only enclaves in a country that is nearly 80 percent black also reflects a broader societal conflict pitting individual rights against a community’s rights. South Africa’s constitution gives communities the right of cultural self-determination but also enshrines basic human rights that outlaw exclusionary practices.
“As Afrikaners, as a cultural group, we are basically a white people, a Caucasian people because of our history,” said Marisa Haasbroek, a spokeswomen for the cooperative that runs the settlement. “Culturally, we are different from other people in this country, and we just want to protect our identity, and that includes language.”
Local black leaders say Kleinfontein must be dismantled. Kgosientso Ramokgopa, the executive mayor of Tshwane, a municipality that includes Pretoria, the country’s administrative capital, Kleinfontein and other surrounding areas, said there are “remnants of the bigger population who still think apartheid was the best system of governance — separate development premised on race.”
“These are people who are still living in the past,” he said, referring to the residents of Kleinfontein. “It’s about time they begin to embrace the new South Africa.”
Yet he and other ANC leaders have shied away from sending bulldozers to raze the settlement, underscoring how race still shapes the nation’s political landscape. The mixed-income community of homes, shacks and tents is on 1,767 acres of private land zoned only for farming, Ramokgopa said. But he added that the government needs to avoid antagonizing South Africa’s white minority, which still largely controls the economy. Pretoria, just north of Kleinfontein, has the highest population of Afrikaners in the country. Being a seat of government under both black and white rule, racial tensions are more pronounced there.
“We don’t want a situation where we are going to polarize the city,” Ramokgopa said.
A sticker of an old South African flag is plastered on the window of the coffee shop in Kleinfontein. It is from the Transvaal Republic, a country ruled in the 19th-century by the Boers, commonly referred to as the ancestors of the Afrikaners, that formed part of what is now South Africa. The flag was later used by Boer rebels seeking to create their own republic at the start of World War I and remains a symbol of Afrikaner nationalism.
Outside the coffee shop, the stone bust of former South African prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd, who is widely considered the father of apartheid and was assassinated in 1966, sits in a manicured patch of shrubs and stone ringed by a fence. It was moved here from a nearby town whose residents no longer wanted to be reminded of the past.
The most well-known whites-only settlement is Orania, a remote town in Northern Cape province where Afrikaners have their own flag and currency. It was formed a few months after the repeal of apartheid in the early 1990s. In 1995, as president, Mandela visited Verwoerd’s widow, Betsie, in Orania as a gesture of racial reconciliation.
In 1992, shortly after Orania was formed, a group of 50 Afrikaners bought land that included the site of a battle between the Boers and British and commonwealth troops in the early 20th century. But unlike Orania, Kleinfontein, which means “Little Fountain” in Afrikaans, stayed under the radar until recently, when it petitioned the government to be recognized as a town with the right to run its own affairs.
A few months ago, local officials learned that Kleinfontein’s guards and residents had prevented black police officers from entering the settlement, Ramokgopa said. In May, the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s main opposition party, staged a protest outside Kleinfontein. Some of the demonstrators carried signs in Afrikaans that read “One nation. One future.”
Kleinfontein has survived largely without the help of the government. It has its own water pumps and a natural reservoir. The community buys electricity from the government and distributes it to residents, who have built their own homes and roads. There’s a shopping center, a bank, a school, a retirement center and small businesses that provide Internet and other services. Only Afrikaners work in these places.
All signs in the settlement are written in Afrikaans. All subjects in schools are taught in Afrikaans. Historically important days are celebrated with zest, such as the Battle of Blood River, when a small force of Voortrekkers defeated a much larger Zulu force on Dec. 16, 1838.
Kleinfontein’s residents include professors, engineers and other middle-class professionals, who pay fees to the cooperative board for use of the water and electricity. A sizable population of poor Afrikaners live in tents, shacks and motor homes. Many blame the black-led government for their inability to find work, saying they have lost jobs because they are white.
Dries Oncke and his wife, Annatjie, arrived here eight years ago after burglars broke into their home in a nearby town. “It was black persons,” said Annatjie, 49, who works as a maid and nanny. Last month, their daughter moved to Kleinfontein after a black man followed her as she took her child to school, Annatjie said.
“We’re not racist,” she said. “We speak nicely to them, and they speak to us. Racist means you do not do business with them, you don’t greet them. We are here for our culture, for our safety, for our people. Kids can walk around here freely. They do not have to worry about rape or being attacked.”
Andrew Shabalala tried to buy a house in Kleinfontein in May. The 50-year-old businessman and real estate speculator bid on a foreclosed property at an auction in a nearby town but later learned that the property was in an area where only whites could buy. Shabalala is black.
Shabalala declined to be interviewed for this article, but he told South Africa’s Sunday World newspaper that he wanted to move to Kleinfontein to “teach them a lesson.”
“We can’t sit back and say the government must do something about this place. It’s for us to do something,” he told the newspaper.
But before he even tried to visit the property, Kleinfontein’s cooperative board used a clause in the bylaws that allowed its bank to make a counteroffer within 21 days, preventing Shababala from buying.
“He’s not going to be happy in this community,” Haasbroek said, adding that Shabalala’s comment “just makes us feel more threatened and more closed.”
The nation’s Constitutional Court is expected to decide whether the settlement can survive in its current form, a ruling that could affect the legality of other whites-only settlements.
“There’s a good chance there are more Kleinfonteins out there,” Ramokgopa said. “The sooner you confront it, the better it is for South Africa.”