South Africa 2004

The Vootrekker Monument in Pretoria

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The Voortrekker Monument is the grandiose sanctuary of Afrikaner culture. It sits atop a hill overlooking Pretoria, a colossal, bunker-like structure that is visible from miles away. The inside is a cathedral-like marble and stone hall where tourists gawk and Afrikaners with hushed voices contemplate their heritage. The monument commemorates the defeats and victories of the Afrikaner pioneers, the voortrekkers. Its symbolism is meant to glorify Afrikaner heritage and to instill a sense of fear in those who were not chosen to be part of the Afrikaner's "promised land."

In 1835/36 groups of frontier farmers (boer) left the British Cape town colony in huge columns of ox wagons, headed for the hinterlands of southern Africa in search of their own "promised land." These "voortrekkers" - the boer pioneers - were mostly Dutch, French and German farmers who were disgruntled with the British colonial authorities, and so they decided to leave the colony. The brutal conditions on these treks are legendary and an important part of Afrikaner lore. Warfare, starvation and disease ravaged the groups of pioneers. The monument was built in 1938 - 1949 as a testament to the endurance and faith of these voortrekkers. In particular, the monument commemorates the Blood River battle of Dec. 16, 1838, where 420 voortrekkers defeated a Zulu impi of 10,000 warriors. Every Dec. 16, the sun shines through a hole in the roof and illuminates the cenotaph inside the monument.


Between the Hotel 224 and the Voortrekker Monument, we had some interesting experiences with Afrikaner culture. I was amazed by the defensive nature of the Voortrekker Monument. Not only does it look like like a bunker, it is surrounded by the laager wall - a symbolic wagon circle in the form of a 10-foot-high concrete wall (photo). The symbolism of the laager wall is clear: it protects the monument. The defensive quality and the sense of besiegement of this place is quite astounding, considering that this monument belongs to a people who considered themselves the masters of the land at the time.

But the Voortrekker Monument is also an expression of the general defensiveness that appears to permeate Afrikaner culture. The voortrekkers circled the wagons, and many Afrikaners today still live with a laager mentality. This sense of besiegement was the breeding ground for apartheid. During the apartheid era, the white South African elite exploited this sense of besiegement among the Afrikaner population for their own economic benefit of keeping a captive, cheap labor pool of black workers. Today, this engrained laager mentality appears to be the single greatest obstacle for many Afrikaners, to be able to move on and embrace the new South Africa.

That is not to say that there are not already many progressive Afrikaner people, who are eager to work side by side with all other South Africans to turn their beautiful country into a nation built on mutual respect, fairness and equality.

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