Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Voortrekker Monument

I’ve been procrastinating putting together this blog post for weeks now. It’s going to chronicle where Kevin and I were on March 1st. It was our last day in South Africa – we’d driven up to Johannesburg from our idyllic week in Lesotho the night before, and our flight back to JFK was scheduled for early evening. So we had several hours to kill, and we decided to visit two vastly different, distinct public monuments to South Africa’s history.

You could say that we wanted to pay our respects. But in the case of the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria, those aren’t quite the right words. I can’t say that I respect the worldview and sentiments embodied in this shrine, as perfectly as they are embodied in its siting and design.


To back up: the Voortrekkers are the Afrikaner emigrants – so, Dutch settlers – who left the Cape Colony – which their ancestors had founded, but which the British were now running – ostensibly in search of freedom from oppression from said Brits. It was a series of movements spanning from 1835 to 1854, in which a handful of leaders led long caravans of families inland, over mountain passes, battling Zulu and Ndebele tribes along the way. The Voortrekker Monument was built during the 1930s and ‘40s and was inaugurated in 1949 after the Nationalist Party took power.

To give you an idea of the setting, we are in Pretoria, just north of Johannesburg, up on a hill, as shown in the painting below – which was printed in mass quantities on postcards at the monument’s inauguration.


Such drama. Already you get the feeling that God Is In His Heaven and All Is As It Should Be. Cue the trumpets.

We began by circling the building, working up the courage to enter. Courage, because knowing that these are the people being honored by the architects of apartheid was making both of us morally and physically nauseated. The monument is surrounded by frieze of wagons, arranged in a defensive perimeter, as the Voortrekkers themselves would have arranged their wagons on their rest stops. As Kevin pointed out, this circling of the wagons motif is both literal and metaphorical. The wagons keep out such pesky and dangerous ideas as “all human beings are worthy of respect”.


Three of the four exterior corners of the monument feature statues of prominent leaders, while the fourth commemorates an all-purpose leader.


We finally entered the monument, which is essentially one, huge domed chamber – the Hall of Heroes – with a hole in the floor. More on that in a minute. Huge marble friezes on all four walls illustrate the whole migration, from packing up the wagons, to day to day journey scenes, battling Zulus, signing peace treaties, battling Zulus again, and so forth.




Signing of a peace treaty with Zulu king Dingane.



Dingane changed his mind. Bloodshed ensued. Eventually the Voortrekkers, greatly outnumbered, whupped the Zulus at the Battle of Blood River on 16 December 1838.

In the center of the room is a giant circular opening that overlooks a cenotaph – an empty grave – on the lower level. A stairway off to one side led downstairs, so down we went.


Cenotaph Hall.


The atmosphere downstairs was potentially hushed and reverent, if you had drunk the Nationalist Party Kool-Aid, or stale and oppressive, if you hadn’t. There was a definite lack of oxygen, either way. The walls were lined with paintings and tapestries depicting the Voortrekkers’ migration, and display cases filled with their stuff: wagons, plows, smaller tools, interpretive panels, and naturally, Bibles.


Can’t have enough Bibles. This one was easily six inches thick. Piet Retief is one of the biggies, who signed the ill-fated treaty with Dingane.

The interpretive panels were... interesting. They offered context, but not perspective. We had noticed on the signage on our way in to the complex from the main road that the site is not under government control: after apartheid was dismantled, there was apparently a scramble to raise money and bring the monument into private ownership. Its worldview can thus remain blessedly untouched by revisionists.

The paintings were admittedly beautiful, perhaps because we had just spent the previous days driving in and out of similar valleys and passes in Lesotho.


And now for the tapestry version:


Loading up.


Just another day in paradise.

Over and over I was struck by an eerie similarity to the little I know of the Mormon trek to Utah. Minus the carnage.



Thank God We’re Here Embodying Civilized Values, Angels Sing From On High, Yay Us.

After a while we ascended to the main level and then up a small circular stone stairway in the corner, up up up, to the balcony view of the Hall of Heroes. This included a detour along the outside perimeter of the monument.


That’s Kevin.

We breathed in a view of the normal world.


And then re-entered the monument, went up an additional level to the inner rim of the dome, and peered down into the Hall of Heroes, through the hole in the floor, to the Cenotaph far below.



Looking up into the dome, we noticed small hole in the very top ceiling.


...and learned that it is placed just so: on the anniversary of the Battle of the Blood River, in which as noted above, the greatly outnumbered Voortrekkers defeated the Zulus, the sun will shine through and illuminate the center of the cenotaph. This is very Raiders of the Lost Ark-like, and deliberately so – the monument’s designer had imbibed the Nazis’ love of all things Egyptian.

Dome and ceiling hole as seen from the ground floor:


By now we were as full up as can be of the Voortrekkers and we went down a different circular stairway – they were too small to permit two-way traffic – to the ground level and out into the sun. There was a restaurant/cafe and we were hungry, but the thought of eating in that setting – it wasn’t going to happen. We did stop and use the restrooms, however.

I have been to four continents, four continents just in the last year, and this is the first time I have ever seen such a sign.


Yeah. Time to go. As it were.

Next up: a refreshing antidote to all of the above.




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