Johannesburg - 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.
It could be offensive, but strangely it isn’t. Instead it’s portrayed as an exercise in self-determination by a group of people who happened to be white and spoke Afrikaans.
It’s a depiction of one view of what happened after 1948 all the way to the present day, taking in everything from national service to a glorification of what was effectively a white socialist state for Afrikaners in Africa.
It is, paradoxically, the greatest proof of the old adage that history is written by the victors, subsuming other histories, which in turn just proves that history isn’t really a single truth, but a variety of competing truths, with your own truth lying somewhere between the two.
The same kind of ideological battle is under way down the road at Fort Schanskop, a truly beautifully restored Boer fort on another of the hills standing sentinel over Pretoria.
It was built as one of a defensive pattern of five forts in the wake of Rhodes’s perfidy and the asinine Jameson Raid and staffed by members of the Transvaal Staats Artillerie, the Boer Republic’s only regular military unit and completed just before the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War in earnest. It was never used in action.
It was constructed, though, to be totally self-sufficient, from water to electricity and is an incredible testament to the engineering nous of the day. It was due to have been armed with the Boers’ famous 155mm Long Tom cannon (not the Castle beer of the same name), Maxim machine guns and 37mm Maxim Nordenfeldt guns.
You’ll remember it for another reason. Willem Ratte, a former commandant (lieutenant-colonel) in the SADF’s notorious 32 Battalion led 30 right-wingers to occupy the fort in 1995.
General Constand Viljoen got them to give up, but Ratte escaped – and that’s a whole other story for another day.
The fort is fascinating, with a scale model of the Tanzania trek monument on the grounds and the old Danie Theron monument to the legendary boer scout which was moved there from Kimberley.
So look forward to a day’s outing of alternative, and competing, histories.
You might be fascinated, you might even be horrified, but you certainly won’t be bored. And you might even start wondering about what’s true and what’s not.
If you’re coming from Joburg, take the Ben Schoeman and then take the Eeufees Road turnoff. Once you’re on Eeufees Road, follow the signposts and you’ll see the entrance up on your right.
If you’re in the Pretoria CBD, take Potgieter Street, then the Jan Smuts slip road on the left on to the four-way crossing. Turn left in Eeufees Road and the entrance will be on your left.
Tickets cost: R45 for adults and R25 for children.
The monument is open from 8am to 6pm every day from spring (September 1), but only until 5pm during winter. - Saturday Star