The Voortrekker Monument

The history of South Africa, like the history of most places, is a bit of mess. Events happen, people are born and die, empires rise and fall. For most of the 20th century, the picture of South African history promoted by the government was very different than what we see through our 2011 lens. And a very concrete reminder of this picture of history is on a hill rising above the capital, Pretoria: The Voortrekker Monument.

What is the Voortrekker Monument? Depends who you ask. Stated as neutrally as possible, it is a monument made to honor the Voortrekkers, Afrikaner (white South African) pioneers who left the Cape for the interior of South Africa. The monument opened in 1949, right at the dawn of the Apartheid era.  Depending on your perspective, it can be a number of things. But it’s pretty much impossible to talk in depth about what the Voortrekker monument represents without running the risk making of making someone angry or upset. And this is precisely what made it so fascinating to me. It is possibly the most thought-provoking grand-scale monument I’ve ever seen, and I’ve traveled extensively through the former Soviet Bloc–I’m a connoisseur of grand scale monuments.

We were lucky enough to visit the Voortrekker Monument during our initial training. Thanks, Peace Corps South Africa!

Behold, the monument:

This picture does not really do the approach justice. It is on top of a hill, and there are no other structures nearby. It’s not especially big or tall, but the location makes it quite imposing.

When you enter the monument, the surrounding walls are a giant, 27 panel marble frieze depicting events of the Voortrekkers’ journeys (known as the great trek). The events, of course, are depicted from the perspective of the (white) South African government of the 1940s.

The bas-relief above depicts the slaughter of Voortrekker women and children at the hands of Zulu warriors.

The next panel depicts the Battle of Italeni, an unsuccessful counterstrike after the slaughter depicted above.

The frieze culminates with the Battle of Blood river, so named because the nearby river ran red with the blood of 3000 dead Zulu warriors (vs. 0 dead Voortrekkers). That was pretty much the end of Zulu resistance.

And it’s the Battle of Blood River that brings us to the next feature:

This is the symbolic tomb of the Voortrekker dead, reading “We for you, South Africa”. Every year, on December 16th, a ray of sunlight shines down onto this tomb.

Before the Battle of Blood River, the story goes that the Voortrekkers made an oath to keep a Sabbath if God granted them victory over the Zulus. The Voortrekkers won, and December 16th became the Day of the Covenant, a religious holiday. In 1994, after the end of Apartheid, Nelson Mandela made a genius political move and kept the holiday, but renamed it the Day of Reconciliation and changed the focus of the holiday.

The main chamber, viewed from the top of the monument. The tomb is visible in the center, and the marble frieze on the sides:

That’s the core of the monument. But in the basement is a museum. You can see the bicep-exploding Bibles the Voortrekkers carried with them:

And Voortrekker toys made out of bone:

The museum also features some folk art, like this needlepoint (I think also depicting the slaughter of women and children):

And this frosting diorama. I’m not kidding:

Last is this special fire:

I don’t have anything to say about the plaque above the flame (other than that I believe the lost word is “torch”):

Can you see why the Voortrekker Monument means very different things to different people?

4 Comments

Linda Tammen says:

I can certainly see why some people would be angered by this. Do many people visit it?

16 Jun 11 @ 4am

michaelwsherman says:

It’s a big place to go for Afrikaner people. They have events there and such, including a huge powwow on the Day on Reconciliation. I think there are also a lot of heritage/living history groups (think Williamsburg) that do stuff there. So it’s a must-see for a segment of the population. It’s not going to close down anytime soon.

It’s not a big destination for international tourists.

16 Jun 11 @ 8pm

Mary Jones says:

Yikes. I am super embarrassed for them. It reminds me of the mural in Parks and Recreation of the Pawney settlers massacring the local Indians. Only that was funny.

11 Aug 11 @ 6pm

Hank says:

The Voortrekker monument happens to attract the most tourists of any place of interest in South Africa – more than Robben Island, and more than visitors to the top of Table Mountain. I found it a non-offensive and objective portrayal of an important part of South Africa’s history that helped to make it the civilized country it is today. What I regret are the guesswork in the description of murals above.

27 Sep 12 @ 9am