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Voortrekker Monument changes with the times

Published May 7, 2003


The Voortrekker Monument was once the great temple of apartheid, a towering tribute in granite to the divine right of the Afrikaner people to rule over South Africa that stood symbolic watch over the nation's capital.

Now the mausoleum-like edifice has a snack bar, a souvenir shop and a trove of ambitious plans to attract foreign tourists, blacks, even the dead, in a bold effort to stay in business and ensure it does not become a forgotten relic of an embarrassing past.

"We had to become legitimate," said Gert Opperman, a retired South African general who is now chief executive officer of the monument. "Mere emotion will not let this facility survive."

Conflicting emotions swirl around the 41-metre-high monolith perched on a hill outside Pretoria. Conservative Afrikaners long revered the monument that commemorates their ancestors' pioneering Great Trek into South Africa's interior and their lopsided, some claim divinely assisted, defeat of their Zulu enemies.

Blacks loathed the monument's implication that God gave Afrikaners the right to rule the nation and its lure as a rallying place for militant racists. Liberal whites were simply ashamed of it.

Rumours spread after the fall of the white, racist regime in 1994 that the monument would be demolished or perhaps painted pink and turned into a gay nightclub, Opperman said.

Yet while the other symbols of apartheid - the old flag, the anthem -were quickly discarded, the Voortrekker Monument is thriving, according to Opperman.

Since taking over as CEO in 1999, Opperman has worked furiously to demythologise the site and turn it from a shrine into a more mundane museum of Afrikaner culture and history, "a professional, hospitable organisation that welcomes everybody."

He invited former President Nelson Mandela, the nation's first black leader, to visit and greeted him with an honor guard, an unthinkable accolade just a few years before.

He hired black guides to give tours in local African languages. He began busing in school children, many from predominantly black schools. He presented jazz concerts where solemn religious services were once held.

Though Opperman received death threats when he invited Mandela - an invitation one right-wing Afrikaner called "morbid humour" - his changes have caused little controversy among Afrikaners.

Coen Vermaak, leader of the far-rightwing Boerestaat Party, said he was only concerned that the monument itself remain untouched.

"It is part of our heritage, and we will see that it stays like that," he said.

If Opperman goes too far, however, it will draw battle lines within the Afrikaner community and "the Boerestaat Party will never stand for it," he said.

The building's roots stretch to the 19th century, when Afrikaners, or Boers, the descendants of Dutch settlers, hitched up their wagons and left the Cape Colony on the tip of Africa to find new farmland and freedom from British rule.

A party of the Voortrekkers, or pioneers, met with Zulu King Dingaan to seek a peace treaty, but his warriors attacked them and then went after their families camped nearby, killing 281 Boer and 200 of their servants.

The survivors made a vow to God that if they defeated their enemies, they would consecrate that day as an annual thanksgiving.

At the Battle of Blood River, on December 16, 1838, roughly 500 Boers armed with guns circled their wagons into a defensive laager and fought off 15 000 spear-wielding Zulus. More than 3 000 Zulus were killed. Three Boers were slightly wounded.

A century later - to reignite their people's pride - Boer leaders sent wagons travelling around the country in a five-month celebration of the trek that culminated with the laying of a cornerstone on December 16, the Day of the Vow. In 1949, a year after the Afrikaner nationalist apartheid government gained power, the monument rife with symbolism was completed.

The imposing brown building, reminiscent of 1930s fascist-style architecture, looms high atop a hill, surrounded by a wall depicting the wagon laager. A statue of mother and child represents culture and Christianity. A 180 metric ton frieze in white marble on the inside walls tells the story of the trek, the Zulu King Dingaan's "treachery" and the Boers' divine victory.

The monument sent a message that "the whites have a right to be here. It is their land," said Andries Breytenbach, a theology professor at the University of Pretoria.

In the early days of apartheid, government proclamation were made before the monument, Later, right-wing militants held rallies at the site, telling the story of the trek as immutable scripture.

The country has changed since then.

The Day of the Vow is now Reconciliation Day, celebrated to foster racial harmony. White extremists have been largely marginalised, and the crowds that once came to the monument for the Dec. 16 religious service have thinned considerably.

Waving at pie charts, spread sheets and satellite photographs to illustrate his grand plans, Opperman says the changes in South Africa have shaken the monument free from its past.

"People think this is an apartheid museum. It is not," he said. "It has nothing to do with the apartheid period."

He wants to build a "bush camp" for youth groups. He's planning a "Garden of Remembrance," with a mausoleum to hold thousands of cremated remains. He hopes to open a cultural village with displays on how Afrikaner settlers built wagon wheels and baked bread in termite mound ovens.

The monument, no longer fully funded by the government, has managed to raise enough revenue on its own to survive by appealing to children, blacks and foreign tourists.

On a recent morning, a handful of blacks wandered around the frieze that depicted Zulus as untrustworthy and whites as brave and honourable - a view disputed by many black historians.

"I know it's part of Afrikaner history and culture, but it's still a part of South African history, and it's important for people to know what happened in the past," said Wilson Honu, a 44-year-old black land surveyor who brought out-of-town visitors here.

"It would be a good idea if black cultures also preserved their history like this for people to come and see," he said.

The black-led government believes Opperman has done "an admirable job," said Themba Wakashe, deputy director general of the department of arts and culture, and recently decided to nearly double its annual subsidy to R825 000.

"It is part of our history, part of our heritage," he said.

With the government in control of the capital - and the country - it can afford to be gracious about the building that towers over the city, said Albert Grundlingh, a history professor at the University of Stellenbosch.

"That's where the real power is," he said. "The monument represents symbolic power, and that of a bygone era." - Sapa-AP

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