Visiting the Voortrekker Monument on the Day of Reconciliation

by | Dec 18, 2020 | Museums and Buildings, Pretoria | 31 comments

Two days ago, on December 16th, I went with Thorsten of Dagwood sandwich fame to visit the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria.

The Voortrekker Monument
The Voortrekker Monument.

I’ve been thinking hard over the past 48 hours about how to frame this post. The Voortrekker Monument is controversial, to put it mildly, and it’s more controversial on December 16th than on any other day. December 16th is the Day of Reconciliation, a public holiday that used to be called “The Day of the Vow” during the apartheid era. On this day in 1838, the Voortrekkers (white Afrikaans settlers who migrated from the Cape Colony to South Africa’s interior during the Great Trek) defeated the Zulus at the Battle of Blood River.

The Voortrekkers believed — and many Afrikaans people continue to believe today — that their victory against the Zulus on December 16th was ordained by God. The Voortrekker Monument, a massive stone cube that looms at the top of a hill overlooking the N1 Highway, was built specifically to commemorate that victory. The monument took ten years to build and opened on December 16th, 1948 — the year the apartheid government took power in South Africa.

Masked family in front of the monument
A masked family in front of the monument on December 16th, 2020.

Every year since 1948, Afrikaners have gathered at the Voortrekker Monument on December 16th to remember the Day of the Vow. The monument was constructed in a particular way so at exactly noon on December 16th, a ray of light shines down through a hole in the ceiling dome and illuminates a cenotaph (empty tomb honoring those who died in the Great Trek) in an eery, fluorescent-lit room in the monument’s basement. The cenotaph is ringed with flags from the old Voortrekker republics. The ray of light shines over the words, “Ons vir Jou, Suid-Afrika” (“We’re for you, South Africa”), carved into the middle of the cenotaph.

I’ve always had a vague desire to check out the Voortrekker Monument on December 16th and blog about it. But I was nervous for obvious reasons. The entire premise of this building’s existence, and the Day of the Vow in particular, gets right to the heart of the cruelest, most painful parts of South Africa’s history. I know lots of people who feel the Voortrekker Monument — and especially the events that take place there on December 16th — shouldn’t exist anymore and I totally empathize with that sentiment. I don’t want to condone or romanticize the mythology behind the Voortrekker Monument, or minimize the pain and anger its existence causes to millions of South Africans.

But this is a fascinating building, and the strange events that happen there on December 16th sounded worth documenting to me. I wrote about the Voortrekker Monument before, nine years ago, and looking back I’m not happy with the uncritical tone I struck in that post. I needed a do-over. Also Thorsten is researching the Voortrekker Monument as part of a project on South African architecture and wanted to observe the happenings on December 16th.

So, off we went.

The Voortrekker Monument on December 16th

After the initial decision, we almost changed our minds again the night before. Rain was predicted and we weren’t sure if this legendary ray of light would even make it through the clouds. Also, it’s a pandemic. We were obviously aware that mingling with a large group inside an indoor monument might be unwise.

But Wednesday dawned unexpectedly clear. In the end we put our masks on and took a chance.

Thorsten at Voortrekker Monument
Masked Thorsten, observed by a creepy stranger, in front of the monument.

We arrived at around 10:30. There was a food market set up in the parking lot, where we enjoyed a brunch of very tasty boerewors rolls and chicken pregos before going inside.

I felt more or less okay about the social distancing measures at the monument. The staff were pretty strict about only allowing 100 people inside the building at a time, and it’s a really huge building. Once the initial 100 visitors went in, the staff member at the door would only let people in as others came out.

There were a couple of key spots where people were gathered together too closely but we were mostly able to avoid them. The vast majority of people wore their masks.

People waiting to get into the Voortrekker Monument on December 16th, 2020.
A crowd waits to be let into the monument at around 10:30. People were actually more spread out than they appear in this photo.

I had heard people sometimes show up on December 16th decked out in traditional Voortrekker attire, like Civil War re-enactors in the U.S. But alas, most everyone wore modern clothes. I did see a lot of two-tone farm shirts, biker jackets, and khaki and green shorts paired with high socks (one guy had a comb stuck into his sock, which Thorsten told me is super traditional Afrikaans) and Veldskoen shoes.

Comb in the sock
Comb in the sock.

Once inside, we took a walk around the entire monument. On the main level, the only crowded part was the circular opening in the floor where people gather to look down onto the cenotaph.

Main hall of the monument
The main hall of the monument at about 11:30. I didn’t take time to photograph the marble frieze around the outside of the room, but you can find pictures of that in my 2011 post.

We decided to skip the lift and take the stairs to the top, which was a mistake because you could take the lift alone but it was impossible to social-distance on the stairs. The circular opening at the top of the monument was far too crowded. We pushed in briefly to have a very quick look, then retreated.

Looking down from the top of the 
Voortrekker Monument
Looking down on the cenotaph from the very top.
People waiting to get inside the Voortrekker Monument
Looking down on the line from the outdoor walkway at the top of the monument.
Thorsten in the archways on the outside of the monument
These archways are great for portraits.
Heather at the Voortrekker Monument
Photo: Thorsten Deckler

For fear of crowds, I wasn’t sure we should even go down into Cenotaph Hall. But it was actually one of the least crowded places in the monument. We stayed down there until the ceremony ended.

Inside Cenotaph Hall on December 16th
People gather around the cenotaph, waiting for the light to hit.
Cenotaph
A better look at the cenotaph.
Waiting for the light to hit the cenotaph
5-10 minutes before the ray of light moved into place — it’s currently on the first step.
Crowd in Voortrekker Monument
I was happy not to be part of that crowd.
People looking down on the cenotaph
In this shot you can barely see people looking down from the circle at the very top of the monument.
Thorsten sketching the scene
Thorsten sketches the scene.

We couldn’t actually see the light when it moved to the middle of the cenotaph, since the pedestal the cenotaph sits on is so high. But the moment it happened, we knew. Music started to play on the loudspeaker and the people in the room got up, many standing on top of their plastic chairs, craning necks and holding phones aloft. Then everyone in the room (except Thorsten and me) sang Die Stem, the old South African national anthem.

I was fascinated and electrified and horrified.

In cenotaph hall with the ray of light over the cenotaph
The moment.
Thorsten sketch of Voortrekker Monument
Thorsten’s sketch does a good job illustrating the whole phenomenon in one image.

Just like that, it was over.

As we were leaving the monument, Thorsten and I decided we wanted to visit Freedom Park. Freedom Park, opened in 2007, is a monument to every person who died in South Africa’s struggle for democracy. It is literally right next to the Voortrekker Monument, which I’m sure is not an accident, and the two monuments would be perfect to visit in tandem — an example of real reconciliation.

At the edge of the Voortrekker Monument’s overflow parking lot there is a sign pointing to Freedom Park, which we followed. But alas, the road was a dead end — leading to a locked gate overgrown with weeds. (Unfortunately I forgot to photograph the gate.)

To get to Freedom Park from the Voortrekker Monument, you have to drive all the way out through the Voortrekker Monument’s main entrance, get back on the highway, and loop several kilometers around Pretoria. Google Maps, by the way, is not aware of this problem and persistently tried to send us through the overgrown gate, which would have been a distance of 2.4 kilometers.

In the end, we didn’t go to Freedom Park.

I’m not sure what I think should happen to the Voortrekker Monument, or how the current December 16th events should be changed. But opening up that locked gate and encouraging people to drive (or walk) through it would be a great first step. Who can I lobby about this?

Sign to Freedom Park
The end.

31 Comments

  1. Bridget Kelly

    You must go to Freedom Park…best done after the visit to Voortrekker, to restore your soul again. Freedom Park is food for the soul. Extremely moving, interesting and spiritual.
    Very brave to have gone to Voortrekker on 16th dec…fascinating and disturbing that people sang the Stem. I find that they have done whatever they can to de-apartheid the Voortrekker monument by putting the Groot Trek in context of world migrations. But on 16th Dec…a whole different world I am sure!

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Yes, I did go to Freedom Park once but need to go again…Thus was certainly quite an experience!

      Reply
  2. dizzylexa

    OMW the comb in the sock, have not seen that in years. Great photos and I agree about the gate.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Hahaha yeah that comb is something else.

      Reply
  3. urbanjozi

    Like many monuments, it only reflects one side, but it is a super impressive piece of Architecture!

    Worth noting that ‘Die Stem’ is actually incorporated into the new National Anthem as well, so singing it isn’t as rebellious as it might sound (though it is a pity to ONLY sing that). I honestly can’t even remember the words of the old English version (there were 2, and we used to sing both interchangeably at primary school assemblies…but they were super long!).

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Yes, agreed, although I do still think it’s quite intentional to sing only that part of the anthem.

      Reply
      • urbanjozi

        Oh, I’m sure it is! But it just doesn’t seem as intentionally divisive or repulsive as, say, waving the old flag around. (perhaps celebrating one’s own heritage/language rather than degrading anyone else’s specifically?)

        Do you know there is a Afrikaans Taalmonument (Afrikaans Language monument) in Paarl? It is also a very impressive piece of Architecture and, legend has it, the only monument to a language in the world (I have not verified this 😉 ). So, the language itself is taken VERY seriously!

        Reply
        • 2summers

          Oh yes, I’ve seen pictures of that. I was actually planning to pass through Paarl over Christmas and was looking forward to seeing it, but cancelled the trip due to covid.

          Reply
    • 2summers

      Thank you so much for posting this! It answers a lot of questions.

      Reply
  4. AutumnAshbough

    As always, I learn a lot from your blog. It’s a little early, but the Vortrekker looks like brutalist architecture. How appropriate.

    Also, whitest crowd I’ve seen (including Trump rallies).

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Yep it has a brutalist vibe for sure.

      I noticed maybe a dozen non-white people throughout the day — mostly children and a few mixed-race couples, and a guy who I thought looked like a social media influencer.

      Reply
  5. Albert

    Nicely written..this monument has always left me in two minds as it has with most Afrikaans people. I think it is the dichotomy of trying to reconcile the uncomfortable element of our past with our place in South Africa. What I wouldn’t agree with is applying a “cancel culture” policy against all these old monuments. Similarly I believe they intend dismantling the Pioneer Monument in Denver, CO. I am more in favor of the attitude in Russia….where every town square still has a Lenin statue on it, even though no one wants a return to communism, its symbol just shrugged off as a fact of history and a barometer of how far a nation has traveled since then. I think it can be dangerous to delete history….since you risk repeating it. I do think one needs to add to history and build new monuments and statues. Although woefully most countries devote almost zero budget to it. That bridge between the Voortrekker Monument and the Freedom Monument is such a brilliant idea although it seems as of it is the victim of a bureaucratic nightmare

    Reply
    • 2summers

      I definitely don’t believe in cancel culture, either. But I also don’t agree that dismantling statues/monuments necessarily equates to “deleting history”. Oftentimes the monuments themselves were erected to perpetuate/create false historical narratives in the first place — like so many of the Confederate monuments in the American South that were erected many decades after the Civil War and portrayed the war in a romanticized, totally inaccurate way that did not reflect reality at all.

      That said, I don’t necessarily feel like the Voortrekker Monument should be destroyed. But I also felt very uncomfortable on more than one occasion during that event and don’t necessarily feel like it should continue on this way either. It’s all super complicated! Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

      Reply
      • Albert

        I saw this on the internet, not sure if this Opperman guy is still in charge there. I like the way he thinks and contextuallize the narrative…”Since taking over as CEO in 1999, Opperman has worked to demythologize the site and turn it from a shrine to white rule into a more mundane museum of Afrikaner culture and history — “a professional, hospitable organization that welcomes everybody.”

        He invited Nelson Mandela, the nation’s first black president, to visit and greeted him with an honor guard, which would have been an unthinkable accolade just a few years before.

        He hired black guides to give tours in native languages. He began busing in children, many from predominantly black schools. He put on jazz concerts where solemn religious services were once held.”

        Reply
        • 2summers

          This is in reference to the Voortrekker Monument?

          Reply
          • Albert

            Yes. Will message you the link to the article

  6. Nancy McDaniel

    On my first or 2nd trip to South Africa, close to 20 years ago now I think, we had a guided tour of the Voortrekker monument including detailed explanations of the beautiful friezes and the history they commemorate. I was amazed by the explanation of the way the building was deigned to allow for that Dec 16 light. It is such an eerie thought. I think I would like to see it one day too. This is all such a tragic part of South Africa’s history but so important to learn more about I think. Is Freedom Park the place with the amazing sculptures of People Important to the Struggle? I really want to go there one day – as well as the spot in the Eastern Cape (I think) with that cool sculpture of Madiba made out of the steel rods. Actually (I just looked it up), it is in Howick (where I have been) in the Midlands. A question: I thought that Afrikaans was the language and Afrikaaners were the people.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Hi Nancy, unfortunately the sculpture exhibit you mentioned has moved around several times and is now in Century City outside Cape Town. I had hoped it would go to Freedom Park but sadly it didn’t — it would be so perfect there. The Howick sculpture by Marco Cianfanelli is also great. In answer to your question about Afrikaans, I think that is technically true but Afrikaners (interestingly that word only has one A at the end, not two) frequently refer to themselves as Afrikaans.

      Reply
      • Albert

        Referring to oneself as “afrikaans” is quite normal i think, like someone saying “I’m spanish” instead of saying “I am a Spaniard”.

        Reply
  7. David Bristow

    For Nancy (HIi Nancy), the collection of “lost wax” bronzes is the Heritage Park but, because of landlord issues, keeps on moving. from Kliptown in Soweto, to Fountains Park in Pretoria, to Cradle of Humankind, to Century City in Cape Town … but it’s also growing all the time. A most wonderful thing. The metal Madiba installation is outside Howick in KwaZulu-Natal, about 50 mi inland from Durbs. It marks the spot where Mandela aka the Black Pimpernel, was first arrested while on the run and then tried for lesser crimes against the Starship, a few years before the more famous Rivonia Trials.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Two of my favorite monuments, for sure.

      Reply
  8. Steve

    Curious:
    “I’m not sure what I think should happen to the Voortrekker Monument”
    It’s a huge part of our shared history. Why should anything “happen” to it? Eager to understand what you mean by this?

    I love comb in sock photo. What a cool symbol.
    These rugged men who keep combs in their socks! You don’t get more salt of the earth than that.

    I think it’s a little bit unfair to only ever associate Apartheid with Afrikaaner history. Especially since their story is so rich and so full of suffering.

    Here’s how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle summed up the Boer volk:
    https://adventuresinhistoryland.com/2013/03/05/an-excerpt-about-the-boers-from-conan-doyles-history/

    Reply
    • 2summers

      I’m note sure “shared history” is a good way to characterize the story that’s currently told at the Voortrekker Monument. There are many aspects of that era in South African history that are left out. That’s exactly what I was musing about at the end of the post — I don’t know exactly WHAT should happen, but I think there are definitely ways that the monument could be made more welcoming and inclusive to all South Africans. Starting, first and foremost, with an open road between it and Freedom Park.

      Reply
  9. SA Guided ToursPeter Joseph

    What an inspirational piece of writing. Tie in Fort Klapperkop next to Freedom square and you have our Rainbow Nation highlighted in a potential World Heritage Site.

    Reply
  10. Maarten

    Voortrekker Monument and Freedom Park is a combination that I visit when we have overseas visitors at home. It is a must see and I’m surprised the gate was closed as it wasn’t in the beginning of this year. But check the story behind this gate and the endless discussions between the city of Pretoria and the Voortrekker Monument Foundation. Very sad and almost hilarious to read the way these two groups try to come together to sort this problem of opening a gate or not. The Monument is a discussion item, but I don’t think we should brake it down as also this is our history. Read also about the bridge over the blood river that was opened by Puma some years ago. Also a very sad and at the same time hilarious story. The whole reason for building this monument and the history behind it is worth a study.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Oh really, the gate was open in 2020? I read that it’s been closed for many years.

      Reply
  11. Gerhard

    I really enjoy your posts and your experience of South Africa — seeing the familiar through a new lens is refreshing and you often reframe things in a very sensitive and intelligent way.

    In this post, your references to Afrikaners and to traditional Afrikaans did not sit well with me and I’ve read it a couple of times to check whether I am being overly sensitive. I am Afrikaans speaking and the most logical thing would be to refer to me as an Afrikaner, but it is such a loaded term that I always refer to myself (somewhat awkwardly) as Afrikaans speaking. This is not about trying to shirk responsibility for the past, but there seems to a convenient assumption that responsibility for all South Africa’s past injustices can be assigned neatly based on mother tongue.

    My grandparents boycotted the opening ceremony of the Voortrekker Monument and my mother was not allowed to participate with the rest of her school. I have never considered visiting the monument on 16t December, as I wouldn’t want my presence to be coopted by the far right, who have claimed the term Afrikaner. That said, the fact is that I am Afrikaans and I don’t want to lose that part of my identity. In the same way that German is not a synonym for Nazi, we should take care that Afrikaner is not used as a synonym for Apartheid or racist.

    For me, the best way to preserve the Voortrekker Monument would be to integrate it with Freedom Park. Your photograph of the road sign is a great symbol of the challenge of keeping historical monuments/statues relevant. We can not change our history, but we can update the context by telling richer, more inclusive and nuanced stories of our past.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Thanks very much for your comment, Gerhard. It’s interesting…There’s a long comment chain on my Facebook about this, with a lot of debate about the terms “Voortrekker” and “apartheid” and “Afrikaner”, debating who/what the Voortrekker Monument is about. It’s certainly difficult to separate out these three terms and figure out how to write about them sensitively and thoughtfully. But I appreciate that all Afrikaans people/language/culture can’t be put into one box and I’m sorry if my writing suggests that. It’s such a tricky topic and I still don’t know how I feel about it all either.

      Reply
      • Theresa Maree

        My mom studied history and had to do a practical side by working in the museums of South Africa.

        Who was the Voortrekkers? To really understand this part of our history, like the pioneers that went to the West of the USA, you will have to read the individual stories. A lot of the Voortrekkers kept a diary. Old men marrying young girls. (My heart obviously feeling for the women and children) They accepted their marriage as a duty to God. To be a good wife and mother. To raise their children in a wild foreign country. They fled the English and being oppressed. (Some of these girls were orphans and was brought here for the exclusive reason to marry- like US history as well)

        My mom unpacked the Voortrekker clothing. The capes with holes from where zulu spears that killed the one wearing it. Babies’ heads were bashed against wheel wagons. (Almost like being scalped)

        We can’t just accept that colonists were not supposed to have been here. We have to understand the economy, politics and history of where these people came from. To emmigrate is a huge decision today but we can phone, send a mail etc. Those days when you left your parents you almost knew you were never going to see them again. Something drove these people away from home and the fear of the unknown, a wild country with malaria, natives who might want to kill you etc. were not even a detterent.

        I know my mom’s roots are french. They fled from France to the Netherlands for their religion. They were Protestant and in France you were killed if you did not convert to Catholic. From the Netherlands they left for a new life in a new country free from persecution.

        My great great grandfather was a wagon builder. He lived in the Paarl and never moved to the interior. My father’s family might have a different story to tell.

        I do however believe in my heart that I am African. I have a mixture of blood in me. And I try to understand where I come from, try to get in the head and heart of those who brought me here.

        It is intricate history and a sensitive subject.

        PS you should eat steak at Spur. It is better than Outback’s steaks. 😉

        Reply
  12. Anonimicus

    What peeves me is how easy terms such as “brutalist” us being thrown around in the comments. I guess the commentors don’t even have a basic understanding of factual history or even know who God really is. Having said that, I am told by fellow Afrikaners that the entire monument is a Freemasonry symbol.

    The sad thing is that very few realise a few things:

    1. Even with modern infantry weapons, a military victory would have been most likely impossible on that eventful day.

    2. Many of the people in that laager were not Afrikaners and not all were even white.

    3. God says in His Word: “Call upon Me in your day of need and I will deliver you.” And that is what had happend that day, nothing more, nothing less.

    4. Today, there are more evangelical Zulu Christians in SA than there are white people.

    I would so love to see people shelve their opinions, generally, and search for truth. What few people know is that, even in the 1960 Referendum, 1 in 2 whites voted against apartheid. That would imply more than half of the Afrikaners. In subsequent refernda, they repeated this but Mandela wanted war – go get the facts. It is all to easy to single out one minority for being racist while the racism of others happen on the la la shores of that African river called De Nial.

    A final fact: racial segregation was first introduced after the BRITISH invasion of 1806, as soon after, the wealthy English formed the communist party and its many cells, first to write that kind of apartheid into a constitution. It were the British that removed freedom of association and told people where to live while revoking suffrage. Rather ask who the real oppressors were…………..and Apartheid ONLY came after Karl Marx mobilised the very last settlers to Cape Town, the amaXhosa of N’Dabeni, into anarchy in Cape Town. And that is what had caused apartheid to happen, so who’s to blame? Once again, get the facts.

    Reply

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