DAY 3: Pretoria, Voortrekker Monument, Freedom Park


The Voortrekker Monument is momentous in its role, both as a part of the Pretoria skyline and within the South African consciousness, and its deliberate continued existence can be seen as representative of the post-apartheid rhetoric of the acceptance of all cultures within South Africa. To have torn it down, or to have denounced the historic Afrikaan ideals it exposes would have been tantamount to the same level of cultural destruction the the ANC and like-minded individuals had fought so hard against under apartheid rule. However, despite this logical understanding, I remain uneasy with its remaining status as a South African tourist site.

 The monument itself evokes visions of fascist architecture, and is littered with presumably unintentional symbolism of the Afrikaaner identity during the apartheid era. One of the most striking aspects of this, for me, was the windows within the monument which has a faint yellow glow, only allowing a small amount of light through the stained glass, and through which you could not see outside. This made me think of Angelique’s story of her childhood as a privileged Afrikaaner, and how separate and ‘protected’ she was from the outside world ensconced within the comfort of her own family’s cultural identity. The images represented inside the Voortrekker Monument continue to be afforded that sense of comfort and protection from the outside world post apartheid.

 Apartheid history is often presented in absolute terms with the Afrikaaners as racists, the English as cowardly bystanders, and the ‘non-whites’ as brave victims. However, the story told by the Voortrekker monument really confronted this simplistic view, highlighting the victim status of the Afrikaans through the Anglo-Boer War (especially the concentration camps) albeit within a perceivably fascist spectacle. It is easy to see how such an enormous monument, within a time of relative uncertainty about the fate of Afrikaans, could have had such a powerful impact on the development of an invented Afrikaaner tradition. However, the Voortrekker monument was essentially a fierce, self-conscious display of this invented nationalism, as a nation sought to grapple with their own insecurities and the perceived threat of the British and the African natives. I was challenged by the monuments sculptures surrounding battles with the Zulu nation, which depicted Zulus as strong warriors ‘murdering’ white women and children, while white men only killed black men through ‘battles’ or ‘protection of others’.

 The monument contained no level of objectivity, and while I recognise its power within a course on apartheid, particularly by students with a critical eye, its continued use by a relative minority seeking validation for their xenophobic views is indicative of its inherent racism, which is not covered by any pretence of historic value. I was heartened to hear that the nearby Freedom Park (a memorial to those who lost their lives during fights for freedom in South Africa from the Boer war to mass movements and political assassinations) resonates far more with the general Afrikaaner populace that the Voortrekker Monument, but it is clear that the violent and symbolically racist elements of the Afrikaaner tradition will continue to haunt the monument so long as it continues in its present form. 


Afrikaner Nationalism, like many forms of nationalism, was intentionally invented and zealously promoted in South Africa for a political purpose in the 20th Century. As Anne McClintock writes, “Nationalism both invents and performs social difference,” and indeed, the emphasis on difference was at the very heart of Afrikaner nationalism and its most fervent aspirations. These aspirations of purity and being ‘set apart’ as a ‘chosen people’ inspired Afrikaners with a strong sense of pride and national identity, but also manifested themselves in the policies of apartheid.

 Today (Friday 5 July) we hit the road for Pretoria and spent the morning at the symbolic stronghold of Afrikaner nationalism – the Voortrekker Monument. The first plaque even describes the monument as the very “epitome of Afrikaner nationalism”. The site was inaugurated by Nationalist political icon and Apartheid mastermind Prime Minister Malan on 16 December 1949 in a historic spectacle with 250,000 passionate Afrikaner people. I won’t deny that while I found the site intellectually fascinating, I also felt somewhat disturbed there. Many others said they felt it was creepy, unsettling, even evil. It reminded many in our group of German Nazism, and unsurprisingly given the Afrikaner nationalists’ Nazi ties. The stark architecture of the Voortrekker Monument asserts its ominous dominance and intimidating imposition on the landscape – to some, a tangible metaphor for violent colonialism.

 The monument commemorates and re-casts the story of the Great Trek of 1835 to 1854 with up to 15,000 Voortrekker (Dutch-origin pioneers) who founded the Boer republics including Transvaal (1852) and Orange Free State (1854). The story is told as a Biblical-style exodus of Afrikaners journey to claim their divine entitlement to the promised land of South Africa. One central glorified event was the Battle of Blood River, where Zulu people were slaughtered by incoming Voortrekkers. A torch from 1938 symbolises the “light of civilisation carried forth by the Voortrekker movement”. Some of our Monash South Africa students experienced racism in the monument when an Afrikaner man expected them to make way for him in the stairway then muttered about their skin colour under his breath. A Monash Australia student also spoke to another Afrikaner visitor who seemed to say that apartheid was a “great period in history”. Unlike some other historical sites we have visited, the Voortrekker Monument did not contain plaques critiquing itself, and was inaccurate in the sense that it failed to represent other sides of the story or black experience – it seemed to quite clearly and unashamedly glorify the Voortrekker narrative solely through the eyes of the Afrikaner nationalists. However, the names “Groot Trek” and “Voortrekker” were only used after the 1870s as proponents of Afrikaner nationalism began to craft their own history and identity. While the Great Trek is portrayed as a unifying moment of mass Afrikaner exodus, in fact only one tenth of Cape Afrikaners took part.

 We heard from Karen, a former Monash student who was born into a family line of conservative white Afrikaners and had a sheltered upbringing in the pro-apartheid stronghold of the Free State. Karen courageously shared how she felt an “aversion” to seeing the Voortrekker Monument, which she described as a “monstrosity”. For Karen, a modern young woman now living in the new South Africa, the struggle with inherited guilt and historical shame is very real for her, as she navigates her way through life trying to avoid being interpreted as racist. Like so many others in this nation, Karen is on the journey of stepping beyond her ancestral identity as a white Afrikaner into the fledgling new identity of inclusive South Africa.

 Some in our group reacted to the Voortrekker Monument with similar sentiment to Karen’s “aversion” to the “monstrosity”, and questioned why it had not been taken down for being a offensive symbol of apartheid and white supremacism. I spoke to a staff member wearing a Voortrekker Monument uniform, and hinted at this very question. The guide, who was black, acknowledged that the Voortrekker Monument is ‘controversial’ and ‘one-sided’, and some ask why it is still standing, but explained that in order to move forward as one South Africa, we need to understand the mistakes of the past and the stories of every part of this nation. She said white Afrikaners were not just whites, but an essential part of the new South Africa, and needed to be both critiqued and understood.


On arrival, Voortrekker Monument was this overbearing communist style building that almost seemed like a Big Brother surveying who comes in and out of Pretoria. The repressive architecture, a building that looms overbearingly in the sky and dominates the eye, is a symbol of Afrikaner nationalism that advocated white supremacy and oppression. Further, I found that it was a telling embodiment of how Afrikaners (not all) saw themselves; a masculine dominated patriarchal culture that found glory and divine authority through the conquest of “savages” represented by the Great Trek. Symbolically the Monument lies atop a hill and you climb the numerous steps to the entryway, maybe representing the trials and tribulations that Afrikaners endured to reach this point in time. One of the first things you come across is a bronze statue of a woman comforting two children. Placed at the foot of the Monument, mimicking a woman’s position and “place” within Afrikaners society; the mother of the next generation. Within the Monument this theme of the soft and vulnerable woman is sometimes contradicted as the marble carvings that cover the walls depicting the Great Trek show women holding arms and plowing fields. However, as Anne McClintock (in our reading) observed, women’s role as fighters and farmers was purposefully replaced and cultivated as the figure of motherhood. To portray them as begging for mercy and weeping, as it did in places in the Monument, male embarrassment could be ignored in the face of black savagery “murdering” innocent women and children as Afrikaner males were not there to protect them. This male-dominated narrative is further encouraged as women, in the carvings, are always placed at a lower level than males, whether the man was black or white, enforcing the notion that women are merely there at the whim of men. The marble carvings provide an alarming portrayal of how Afrikaners view the Great Trek, the triumph of the Afrikaner man beating the black Zulu savages with the divine authority from God in an almost David and Goliath type scenario.

 This idealized and almost mythological history of the Great Trek is constantly represented around the Monument. The sacred feeling that permeated the Monument promotes the myth of the Vow of Afrikaner people; that they were God’s people as God ensured victory at Blood River. The Church or Cathedral similarities, from the coloured windows that light the interior like stained-glass windows to the huge and cavernous space where surprisingly no pulpit stands, is somewhat alarming. One can see through the extreme symbolism and the narrative that is represented at Voortrekker, why Afrikaner nationalism took on such huge proportions. It is almost as if Voortrekker is the pulpit, holy ground and place for Afrikaner ideology and nationalism. I was personally slightly repulsed by what it represents, both towards gender and race. Disconcerting even further was the fact that the gift shop sold Apartheid memorabilia, including the old Apartheid flag. Throughout the day the question remained as to why Voortrekker was not torn down. I believe that despite it being an aberration and representing the abhorrent racial values of Afrikaner nationalism, it is still part of South Africa’s history and should be a reminder of how the invention of identity that has racial bias can be so dangerous as Afrikaner nationalism came to be. It was interesting the discussion that followed around Mandela, the mythical status that was given to him. This idealization (feel free to disagree), I believe, of Mandela could be as dangerous as Afrikaner nationalism. The myth that was perpetrated at Voortrekker must not be replicated, as the extremism Voortrekker represents became a reality in South Africa. 


As a group, we visited two very contrastable sites – the Voortrekker Monument and Freedom Park. Today I will focus on our experience at Freedom Park, both on Leon’s thought-provoking lecture and the site itself.

 I think most Monash students would agree that Leon’s lecture really challenged us to think critically about how Apartheid came to an end, how we can understand the reactions of all different groups in South Africa in the 1990s and what reconciliation really entails in the context of nation-building and moving forward. For me, the most intriguing point in the discussion was whether reconciliation and forgiveness are synonymous or completely separate concepts with different outcomes for society.

 Leon suggested that a certain level of forgiveness must have occurred because, he argues, the early 1990s would have otherwise been characterized by violent attacks on each other in retaliation for the injustices of the past. I am inclined to hold the view that rather than forgiveness, a level of reconciliation was achieved whereby people from different groups and ethnicities were able to tolerate one another in order to prevent an outbreak of war. Indeed it seems to me unlikely, if not impossible, that in the space of a few short years people would have forgiven each other for their incredible suffering and struggle in the recent past. In fact, asking those who fought for justice and humanity to forgive their oppressors may be an unreasonable request, but searching for tolerance on the other hand seems a more achievable and also vital step in South Africa’s attempts to build a new identity.

 If reconciliation has therefore occurred, in the sense of toleration, but forgiveness has not, then it raises the question of whether reconciliation can be a successful process without the outcome of forgiveness. What I took away from the discussion was that reconciliation might be better understood as a means of answering previously unanswered questions about the past, acknowledging those events that occurred and finding a way to live side by side despite that knowledge of what has occurred, in order to move forward in the nation-building process.

 What really helped to give this discussion some perspective was the Freedom Park site itself. The peace, quietness and calmness of Freedom Park was incredibly poignant because of the fact that it commemorates all those who have fought, often in the face of extreme violence, against injustice. The peaceful atmosphere, devoid of any depictions of South Africa’s violent struggles, really encourages visitors to reflect quietly on the past, but perhaps even more importantly, to focus on the task of forming new identities for South Africa’s future. This message of reconciliation being about moving forward is echoed in architectural symbolism such as the poles representing reeds of new life and a conscious effort to bring all South Africa’s provinces together as is represented by the 9 trees and rocks. There is nothing about Freedom Park which suggests reconciliation and forgiveness are related concepts. The site does not suggest that the past has been forgiven. Instead it seems to be a way of remembering the past and concentrating on building a peaceful, non-violent future for South Africa.

 This day excursion certainly broadened my perspective on the meanings and importance of forgiveness and reconciliation in the context of creating a new South African identity. The visit to Freedom Park was an invaluable experience, triggering many questions and points of contention which have augmented our study of Apartheid in South Africa. 


A wave of unease engulfed me the moment the Voortrekker Monument came into view. Imposing and cold, this hilltop shrine is a remnant of the fierce Afrikaner nationalism that gave rise to the Apartheid regime. As we approached the Monument, I was conflicted as to why I felt so uneasy. While the Monument is widely seen as a reminder of the Afrikaner ideology that provided a foundation for Apartheid, I questioned whether I should be more open-minded about the Voortrekker Monument as a history of the Afrikaner people, who, like all cultural groups, have a right to preserve their own history (and this is the purpose of the Monument, especially through its depiction of the Great Trek). Throughout the day I reflected on how these two conflicting ideas can be reconciled, and did so through questioning both the context in which it was built, and its current usages.

 Whilst the Voortrekker Monument was built to commemorate the Great Trek, a historic event for Afrikaners, it is important to consider the context in which it was built, as this reveals other motivations. I had learnt before arriving at the Monument that it was built during an era where disparate Afrikaner groups were unified by a structured campaign to harness nationalism, a collective sentiment that would allow the election of the National Party and the implementation of Apartheid. I feel that the aim of harnessing Afrikaner nationalism was blatant at the Monument, through the contrasting depiction of Afrikaners and black South Africans in words and images. The marble impressions of the Great Trek often showed battles between the Afrikaners and native South Africans. In one striking panel, a Zulu man is shown striking a child, a seemingly lifeless woman below him. This depiction of a strong warrior injuring woman and children contrasts with the depiction of Afrikaner men fighting only men. In panels where both Afrikaner and African men are shown, the Afrikaners are always physically elevated, a subtle indication of superiority. Finally, this depiction of the noble Afrikaner warriors in contrast with the uncivilized representation of the black South Africans is reinforced through the words that describe the images. In one picture a Zulu man “murders” an Afrikaner, yet when Afrikaners are shown killing someone, they are “protecting” their people. While I left the monument feeling as though it is extremely important for the Afrikaner culture that defining moments such as the Great Trek be historically documented, the deep-seated unease about the context in which this monument was built, and its blatant depiction of black South Africans as inferior, remained.

 Another idea that I struggled with throughout the day was the purpose that the Voortrekker Monument currently serves and how this is aligned with the values of the post-Apartheid society. Whilst visiting the Monument, I gained the impression that for some, although few, this Monument remains an icon of Afrikaner superiority, as the information inside did not really include anything about society post-Apartheid. I was particularly saddened to note a cabinet that contained a flame, which read: “Torch flame. Symbol of light of civilization carried forth by Voortrekker movement”. The flame continues to burn as brightly as the day it was installed in the museum, which to me indicated that there are some who still feel that this is indeed the case.

 We then travelled to Freedom Park, where another flame burns eternally. This one, however, commemorates unnamed South African heroes who have died for the country, many of them during the “civilizing” missions. At Freedom Park, I gained a whole new perspective on the current uses of the Voortrekker Monument. Freedom Park sits opposite the Monument, joined by a road that our tour guide told us “connects the past with the present”. At one point in our tour, we stopped at a lookout across to the Voortrekker Monument. From here, the imposing architecture seemed distant, yet remained a principle point on the landscape. It was here that I understood two current purposes of the Monument. First, its visibility on the landscape reminded me of the importance of truth, and understanding the past, which has been so important post-Apartheid. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, this Monument serves as a reminder: never again.


The Voortrekker Monument stands tall on a hill overlooking Pretoria. The architecture of the building reminds me of ancient Egyptian buildings while the interior reminded me of the ancient Roman and Greek buildings. I interpreted the decision to design the building reflecting the ancient and powerful Egyptian, Greek, and Roman empires as a way of highlighting to people who saw it that they were the owners of the land, for they believed God had given them this land and they were to one day become powerful as the ancient empires before them.

 Before we entered the Monument we were spoken to by an Afrikaans woman named Karen, who shared her opinions of this building and what it means to her. This woman has an aversion to this building, it serves as a painful reminder of her people’s history and what they had done to the black and coloured people. She informed us that there are people who still come to this monument to understand their history and to remember it. There is a small group of people who do not regret the actions of the past and do not feel saddened by the memories that this building holds. This was evident in the monument, there was a white couple who said ‘it was a great time in history’ referring to Apartheid, the girl they said it to thought they were joking, but sadly they were not. Another couple moved out of the way for one of the white Australian students yet blocked the black South African student from passing through. It was this highly obvious racism that led to this Monument’s construction.

 The most interesting aspect of the building to me was the carvings within the building and the tapestries. These pieces of artwork portrayed the journey of the Voortrekkers and their struggles with the native people. They were biased and could have an effect of coercing others towards the racist attitude towards black and coloured people. The artwork highlighted to me the brutality that the black people had suffered at the hands of the Afrikaans people on their great trek.

 While this building favours the Afrikaans perspective, it is important in understanding Apartheid, as it highlights to the visitors the views that the Afrikaans people held before, during and even in some cases post-Apartheid. This building stands adjacent to Freedom Park. From the Voortrekker Monument you can see Freedom Park, and from Freedom Park you can see the Voortrekker Monument. To me this represents the ability to look to the past mistakes being the Voortrekker Monument and the present and future being Freedom Park. Having the two adjacent is to remind people of their past and of the mistakes that need to be avoided into the future. It is a painful reminder to the coloured and black people and also to Afrikaans people like Karen who feel deep regret for what their parents, grandparents and great grandparents before them did. It is an important reminder, however, as humanity needs to remember their mistakes to ensure that they never occur again.


When I was standing in the Voortrekker monument Leon approached me and asked what I thought of the site. I told him I found it disturbing to which he replied, ‘What if you were Afrikaner, this is your history, after Apartheid was over their whole culture had been destroyed so what was left for Afrikaners’ to hold onto?’ The more I thought about this question the more conflicted I became as I couldn’t shake the feeling that Afrikaner culture had been built on oppression, and this monument represented the darkest years of South Africa’s past. When I voiced my confusion Leon replied – ‘It is very simple, don’t judge just absorb.’

 I realised I had been judging the situation, condemning people’s actions despite me being so far removed. Throughout the day I decided not to judge but instead to attempt to understand the various tensions and narratives. The more I thought about this I came to recognise two themes of Apartheid that I could not escape: identity and narrative. That is to say what is your identity and why is it so important? Secondly, which narrative have the survivors of Apartheid taken on an individual level – forgiveness, resentment, denial, or guilt? I found that these two ideas were inextricably linked in this context, as Apartheid, and even more so post-Apartheid, is a struggle to find your place in a society that so long denied you of a right to do so. Or in the reverse, an identity you thought you had which has been the constant source of modern ridicule and judgment. Therefore what path does one take? What do you chose your narrative or story to be in order to define your current self? An example of this is a fellow student who sat next to a middle-aged Afrikaner woman from Cape Town on the plane. When asked about Apartheid she replied, ‘I didn’t even know it was happening.’ She had chosen the path of denial in order to safeguard her life, her identity, for if she did not who would she then be? In contrast Karen had acknowledged the atrocities making her sense of self ambiguous in a way. She displayed a clear struggle with what she had been taught, who she was, and what she was representative of in South African society.

 The more I learn about Apartheid the more complex these issues become. Multi-facet pockets of perspectives, interpretations, mixed emotions, and seemingly permanent tensions of trying to define oneself within a stream of conflicting narratives. I don’t think that Leon believes that Mandela is ‘the last God’, but instead he is simply trying to make sense of what occurred, explaining the unexplainable, a shift in an entire nation – how else can one make sense of such a complex issue? Leon has chosen his own narrative to explain such things.

 I couldn’t help but see the irony in having the Voortrekker monument next to Freedom Park which to me seemed so representative of the divide in the nation, and to me symbolised a lack of cohesion. So how does one create cohesion? Do we seek historical justice, or is there a point of letting go? Can the younger generation of Afrikaners recreate their identity through connecting to the struggle? So I end where I started – not judging or trying to make sense of it all, but instead, just absorbing.


History is created by individuals, each with a personal and unique account of the events which, when retold or recorded, become part of the collective narrative of that history. Unfortunately some narratives, in light of the events and society’s changed prospective, are unjust and difficult to comprehend. However they are just as important to the collective narrative as they provide a holistic view of historical events. In the case of South Africa’s apartheid period, one such narrative is that of the eventually triumphant Afrikaans which is celebrated at the Voortrekker monument in Petroia.

 Having been a nation built from the recent crucible of colonial contradictions and invented traditions, the Afrikaan nationality strengthened exponentially with the Tweede Trek (Second Trek) or the Eeufees (Centenary) celebrations in 1938. This was a grand processional celebration of the Great Trek that occurred from 1835-1846. In commemoration of that first trek not only was there a full reenactment of the path took by the Afrikaans in their attempt to break free from British law and also create an individual identity that solidified their claim to the African land, but also the construction of the Voortrekker monument. The original trek concluded in Petoria and so did the reenactment a century later, this time at the entrance of the imposing monument that can be seen far into the horizon as one drives along the state freeway.

 The design of the monument reminded me of the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, Australia: with its artdeco style and the fact that every year, at noon on the 16th of December, sunlight hits the cenotaph on the lower floor of the monument, annually commemorating the day the Afrikaans arrived in the area in 1846; I found this similar to the light that shines annually on the unknown solider’s tomb stone at 11am on the 11th of November. The marble frieze that circles the inner walls of the monument are impressive in detail and depicts the events of the Great Trek as the Afrikaan’s wanted it to be remembered. The obvious bias in the story is their depiction of the battle scenes:  when the natives attack they are depicted as so immoral that they also killed women and children; this is contrary to the depicction of when the Afrikaners attacked, as they apparently only ever fought men. It is also gender biased as the women are either depicted on a lower level than the men, with the children, or organizing the weaponry. Depicting a patriarchal society where the role of the woman was to support the man.

 In the museum, situated on the lowest level of the monument, it seemed that they were trying to justify this trek by having a global timeline of other battles and conquering treks that occurred during this period. I found this interesting because it seemed that they wanted to show that this event occurred as part of a wider movement for other colonists in identifying themselves as nations and overcoming the natives of the land. I felt that they were trying to make excuses for why this occurred, however this is open for  interpretation.

 Though this monument is an unfair reminder of Apartheid power, especially for generations of Afrikaners who will try to separate themselves from this history, it also plays an important role in identifying the perpetrators, making them accountable for their actions and not allowing them to become hidden in history. 


The Voortrekker monument stands victorious over the land it occupies. Its haunting exterior asserts its dominance over the landscape with its harsh design, while its interior continues to make claims of its conquering of the South African land. 
Many question the existence of the monument, asserting that its presence attests to the continued existence of a dividing understanding of humanity and its inherent equality. To me, this conclusion is not unjustified. The presence of the Vow to God, made by the Voortrekker men, that they will continue to pass on the story of the first pioneers during the Great Trek attests to the value which is placed on those men who defeated the ‘savages’ portrayed in the stone carvings in the interior of the building. The presence of the apartheid flag in the gift shop, as well as the torch of civilisation which was carried forth by the Voortrekker movement and the limited information about the original inhabitants of the land – which is physically confined to the underground level of the building – carry with them a similar effect. 
Leaving the large structure, a sense of confused fury dominated my existence. I was amongst the many that questioned the existence of the monument. This was not because the history of the Afrikaner population is not one that should be remembered, but rather that the monument itself appeared to be continued to be used to further Afrikaner nationalism and by extension, any other dividing ideologies, which the country had seemingly committed to leave behind at its first democratic election of 1994. 
The Voortrekker monument demonstrated to me very clearly the tensions that exist between the need to commemorate history, with all its grievances and its joys, and the need to maintain a forward focus when considering the path of reconciliation. This is no way doubts the validity of the need for children to be taught the history of their people. This process no doubt would assist communities to overcome racist ideologies which were and arguably still are deeply engrained in South African society. 
However, the question remains, how would it be possible to reconcile as country, if a part of the population continues to commit to commemorating the history discriminatory acts which it performed for many decades? And does this commemoration result in the validation of a communities previous actions, especially through the recognition of the understanding that the defeat of a population was a manifestation of a divinely ordained purpose?