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The Voortrekker monument: Pivoting for relevance

The Voortrekker monument: Pivoting for relevance

This article was first published in our April 2011 issue. It is republished here as a historical reference. 

From afar, approaching Pretoria on the Ben Schoeman Highway, as from places around the capital city, the Voortrekker Monument looms on the horizon. But it is only when standing at the foot of the staircase funnelling up to it that you realise its formidable structure. And that can bring on a flurry of thoughts on the passage of history.

A sombre building, it’s somewhat reminiscent of Europe’s old cathedrals from which the monument’s architect Gerard Moerdijk took ideas, when he designed it more than seven decades ago. He did so to commemorate the Great Trek between 1835 and 1854, when Boer families left the Cape in their ox-wagons to find themselves a home in the African interior, away from British rule and the travails of colonial frontier life.

Voortrekker monumentAs with most monuments, it says much, too, about the mood at the time of its conception. It was first mooted when the Boers got their coveted Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek into full swing under the presidency of Paul Kruger in the late 1880s. The idea’s revival four decades later was inspired by sentiments shaped by the bitter legacies of the Anglo-Boer War and white society’s socio-economic class struggle that goes so much to the root of Afrikaner nationalism.

However, from whichever way you look at the monument, it represents a part of history that has left deep imprints on the country. The story it tells is one of hardship, heroism, fortitude and piety. It is also one about the hopes of a people.

But exulting as it does the role of one segment of the nation, and given the way history evolved after its inauguration by newly-elected Nationalist Prime Minister D. F. Malan in 1949, it was inevitable that when white rule ended in the early 1990s, it would come adrift in the new order taking shape around it. This has changed.

I noticed it when I first visited the monument for purposes of this article. It was a weekday, and although still cast in the monument’s morning shadow, the parking area rapidly filled with tourist vehicles. Crowds trooped up the stairs leading to the wrought-iron gate with its assegai pattern. It lends entry to the carved laager of 64 ox-wagons, representing the same number used when the Boers defeated King Dingane’s Zulu armies in the Battle of Blood River on 16 December 1838.

Most of the visitors were from the Far East. Cameras clicked as they posed in front of the ox-wagons and at the foot of Anton van Wouw’s bronze statue of a woman in a long dress and bonnet, resting her hands on two children as she stares from a niche below the stairs before the front entrance. Others gaped at the 5.5 metre granite statues of trekker leaders Andries Pretorius, Piet Retief and Hendrik Potgieter, and a fourth dedicated to the Unknown Voortrekker Leader, stationed at the monument’s four corners.

Voortrekker monumentInside the cavernous main Hall of Heroes, they moved slowly along the 2.3 metre high frieze that reaches for 92 metres around the room, depicting the trekkers’ life and tribulations. Down in Cenotaph Hall, some stood, heads bowed, in front of the bronze lamp in a marble niche that was lit when the symbolic Great Trek staged in 1938 ended at the site chosen for the future monument.

It was, however, when I went back there on 16 December that I experienced the meaning that the monument continues to hold for many compatriots. It was still dawn when cars started to line the street leading to the monument. And when the gates opened, crowds thronged onto the stairs.

The Hall of Heroes filled quickly. Everybody wanted to get close to the opening in its middle to see the sun shine exactly at noon through the gap in the dome high above, onto the cenotaph below that bears the words Ons vir jou Suid Africa. The yellow light seeping through four huge arched windows above the friezes contributed to the shrine-like atmosphere.

Many of the crowd of several thousand were seated outside on the terrace walls and lawns. They joined first in patriotic songs and then in Christmas carols. The chorus from thousands of voices lingered in the still air. Heads bowed, they listened to the sermon over the loudspeaker system and the predikant’s assurance based on a passage from the Old Testament:

‘Don’t cry. You do have a future in this land’.

Architecht Gerard MoerdijkThe covenant the Boers made before the Battle of Blood River is the central theme of the monument. Sonja Lombard, the complex’s managing director, tells me with wonderment in her eyes that even on cloudy days the sun has never failed to break through exactly at noon on the 16th.

She is a bundle of enthusiasm. “All people make mistakes,” she responds, when the apartheid issue arises momentarily. She wants the Voortrekker monument to secure its place in history, which is what seems to be happening.

It all started when Major-General Gert Opperman, a veteran from the old South African Defence Force, became the chief executive back in 2000. It was his idea to bring the monument to life. While celebrating the past, it should look at new ways of expanding its appeal, he argued.

For Sonja it even starts with giving newly arrived foreign tourists their first taste of South Africa’s wildlife, when they see the zebra, wildebeest, impala and such foraging on the hillsides and among the clumps of indigenous trees on the 270-hectare grounds.

While preferring visitors to behave with the decorum befitting a shrine, Sonya also wants it to be a happy gathering place. Thus people go there for jogging, hiking, horse-riding, skate-boarding and picnicking.

Garden walkways are lined with quotations from celebrated Afrikaans poets, and a farmers’ market on the first Saturday of every month has the proviso that handicrafts must be handmade. Four antique markets a year, on public holidays in March, June, August and September, attract stallholders from as far as the Cape.

A music concert usually staged in November in the sizeable amphitheatre now draws audiences of up to 30 000. Students, especially, troop to Park Acoustics music event on one Sunday a month. A conference venue with top facilities is in high demand, also from government departments. There is even an art gallery.

An elegant restaurant named Die Blikkantien has pancake and roosterkoek on its menu and serves a buffet lunch on Sundays. Another eatery offers light meals and drinks.

In a niche wall in the Garden of Remembrance people have their ashes installed. Funeral services are held in a quaint chapel set among the trees. The chapel has also become a favourite wedding venue. Even the monument’s Hall of Heroes is used for that purpose, provided ceremonies are conducted with appropriate piety.

But the bigger objective has been for the Voortrekker monument to regain its place in the bigger South African story. That, to Sonja, started to happen in 2011 when first Kgalema Motlanthe, as deputy president, described the monument as a proud part of South African history, and when, on 16 December, President Jacob Zuma opened Reconciliation Road that links the monument with Freedom Park on nearby Salvokop, which is dedicated to the liberation struggle.

There is now close co-operation between the two monuments, says Sonja. “Ours has come from being perceived as an apartheid monument to a national monument. It has come to epitomise cultural reconciliation.”

Pictures Leon Marshall, Drihan Bester and supplied

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