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.
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