The past is a different countryComment on this story
THERE’S a brooding colossus on the left-hand side of the Ben Schoeman motorway after you’ve come off the N1 on the way to Pretoria from Joburg.
It’s ugly. It’s square. It’s the Voortrekker Monument.
I’ve only been there three times in the last 35 years.
The first time I was a kid. It was the ’70s and the family I was staying with had run out of ideas to entertain us out-of-towners. The monument might not have been the best option on a Sunday, but it was the only one. It was a definite talking point.
Cold, forbidding, with an exhausting walk to the top inside the building, it was foreign too, in more ways than just language.
Fast forward 10 years, I’m in Pretoria killing time during national service, so I pop in again. This time, I understand the language. I’m not as intimidated by the giant 3m friezes of Voortrekkers shooting Zulu warriors in among supersized ox wagons.
And that’s where I left it until a couple of months ago.
Maybe it was just nosiness, perhaps it was just a morbid curiosity. Whatever it was, I found myself heading back up the winding road, on the way to what is now Thaba Tshwane (the old Voortrekkerhoogte) to find out just how the last 20-odd years of fundamental political change had treated this massive phallic memorial to the temporary victory of one of Africa’s tribes.
If you’ve never been there, here’s what to expect in nutshell: the Voortrekker Monument sits atop one of the many ridges around Pretoria. It’s a cube, standing 40m high, 40m deep and 40m wide.
It was designed by architect Gerhard Moerdijk. Construction started in 1937 and it was completed 11 years later in 1949.
Students of history will note the significance: the National Party won its first election the year before, SA was on the cusp of legislated apartheid and what had been a monument to the grit and bloodymindedness of the Voortrekkers (who weren’t all white) escaping the colonial yoke to forge a new life for themselves in the southern African hinterland rapidly became a bastion for white supremacy.
Over the years, the monument and its nearby amphitheatre, which seats 20 000, have hosted everyone from presidents to fascist right-wing demagogues, normally on or around December 16 every year.
And that’s the focal point of the whole exercise. The frieze around the monument depicts the Voortrekkers’ successful defence of their laager at the Battle of Blood River in KwaZulu-Natal after Trekker leader Piet Retief and other members of his party were killed by Zulu king Dingaan at the royal kraal.
After the Boer victory at Blood River, the surviving trekkers made a covenant with God that they would remember the victory at noon on December 16 every year.
Which brings us back to the monument itself. Right at the top is a dome, with a hole on the side. At noon on December 16 every year, the sun shines through the aperture, lights up the dome and then shines a beam of light straight down the 40m to a basement in which lies a granite slab, which covers the cenotaph, inscribed “Ons vir Jou, Suid Afrika”.
For a bunch of serious fundamental fire and brimstone Protestants, there’s more than a touch of sungod worship and other pagan Egyptian practices bursting at the hinges of the cupboard door here.
Throw in 20 000 torch-carrying brown shirts – okay, make that a couple of hundred in two-tone Khaki, with the late Eugene Terre’ Blanche at the lectern and you’ve got your own Leni Riefenstahl set, SA-style.
Ironically, the monument has actually defied attempts to own it by the right wing. Yes, it’s about the Voortrekkers and there’s a fascinating little natural history exhibition even below the basement, but the signs and info boxes make it clear what the trek was about and who was involved – to the chagrin of all the rightwingers who might visit.
The fact that one of the biggest appears to be in Chinese, too, must be a real boot on the throat of ersatz race nationalism.
Likewise, the surroundings have changed too. There’s a decent-sized and equipped restaurant just below the steps to the monument, adjacent to a decent sized and stocked souvenir shop.
You can also hire a mountain bike and do a trail through the rolling hills of the reserve in among the buck.
Down the road, the politics intrudes again in a big way.
There’s a wall of remembrance for all the apartheid regime soldiers, sailors, airmen and police who died during the border war and the states of emergency, while Afriforum has built its own little museum, a modern exhibition complete with audiovisual clips of the old era.
To page 13