The Voortrekker Monument and “the many mistakes” of the Afrikaner past

Guest Post by Alex Lichtenstein

On a recent trip to South Africa, I managed to fit in a visit to the Voortrekker Monument, the enormous mausoleum on a hilltop just outside the capital Pretoria. The monument, which celebrates Afrikaner nationalism, was begun in 1938 on the centenary of the Great Trek, and inaugurated by the recently installed National Party eleven years later on December 16, 1949 (the anniversary of the Boers’ triumph over the Zulu at Blood River). During my visit, I was not surprised by the old-fashioned nature of the small museum in the monument’s basement. For example, the text describing the Great Trek observes that the Boers who decamped from the British cape Colony in the 1830s were accompanied by their “black and coloured employees.” The truth, of course, is that many of these “employees” were slaves or near-slaves, and one of the central grievances Boers had as British subjects was the abolition of slavery. 

As it turns out, the remnants of the Afrikaner cultural and political establishment no longer advance such a crude display of heritage. The Voortrekker Monument remains a hulking, if potent, reminder of a discredited past, and might even be considered kitsch at this point. But also astride that hilltop, and only a few hundred meters away from the old monument, one finds a spanking brand new “heritage center.” Inside, in addition to an archive and a small Afrikaans language bookshop, is a superb exhibit tracing the Afrikaner experience in the twentieth century.

I say “superb” in the sense that the exhibit—grandly entitled “Afrikaners in the 20th century: Pioneers. Beacons & Bridges”—brings the highest degree of professionalism to its narrative structure. Text is boldly presented, easily readable (in English and Afrikaans), and well-organized. The stunning visual imagery mixes photography, cartoons, graphic art, and historical facsimiles, and both enhances the text and tells a story on its own. The exhibit itself winds around a well laid-out space, clearly organized into sections on politics, culture, economics, warfare, social history, sports, and so on. Each section (or “theme”) is self-contained, and yet offers a coherent narrative flow, aided by numerous comprehensive timelines interspersed throughout. Finally, while the exhibit tells the story of a “people” in historical detail, with great sympathy and pride, and with a clear sense of evolution over time, it does so without reductionism—including, at least in the timelines, Afrikaner dissidents like Communist Bram Fischer and cleric Beyers Naude (both heroes in the ANC pantheon).

Nevertheless, the degree to which this “heritage center” rejects the current “liberation narrative” in South Africa and resurrects some of the most shopworn historical justifications for white supremacy left me stupefied. The extremely high quality of the exhibit disguises a nasty and treacherous undercurrent of unreconciled Afrikaner nationalism quite of a piece with the nearby Monument.

The first parts of the exhibit, beginning with a prelude to the twentieth century experience entitled “From European to Africander” lull one into complacency, for they seem accurate and even-handed enough. Unlike the museum inside the Monument itself, here the fact that the Boers left the British Empire for the African interior in the Great Trek of the 1830s as a reaction to slave emancipation is acknowledged. So too is the large numbers of Africans interned in concentration camps by the British during the Anglo-Boer War, a subject often neglected in accounts of the Afrikaner past. The narrative even refers to the birth of the ANC, noting that after Union in 1910 “African nationalism began to grow amongst literate black people” who were “increasingly critical of laws such as the Natives’ Land Act of 1913” (although the text fails to explain why, and does not link this act of land dispossession to the later Homelands policy of the apartheid state). Not surprisingly, however, apartheid is blamed on the British colonial legacy (with some justice, one must admit). After all, they were the ones who first recognized that “assimilation of the black majority was problematic because of the growing numbers of the black population and differences in civilization levels.” Characteristically, such colonial attitudes seem to be faulted and yet still go unchallenged by the “republican” tradition of the Boers and, later, Afrikaners.

With the rise and triumph of Afrikaner nationalism after the 1930s, however, the exhibit becomes a bit unhinged. The fascist Afrikaner organization, the Ossewa Brandwag, is merely described as a “cultural organization” and dismissed as an “embarrassment” to many Afrikaners, without mention of the organization’s ardent pro-Nazi sympathies. In the section on rural Afrikaners’ legendary attachment to the “soil, his pride and his anchor”, the exhibit text resorts to time-honored paternalism: “the Afrikaans farmer…was ever ready to assist other cultural groups—chiefly labourers.” And in an extraordinarily unreconstructed turn of phrase, Apartheid is described merely as “the consequence of the Afrikaner’s political struggle to retain his independence.” Vis-à-vis English speakers? African nationalists? A hostile international community? The Red menace? All of the above? Not entirely clear.

Well, OK, maybe it was the Red Menace: by the time we get to the 1960s, the devilish role of Communism as the main enemy of white minority rule begins to loom ever larger in the exhibit’s text. “After becoming a Republic in 1961,” we are dutifully informed, “the onslaught against South Africa intensified from all sides” and “the ANC’s policy of urban and rural terror led to hundreds of casualties amongst innocent civilians.” No mention is made here of the ANC’s explicit policy of sabotage rather than the targeting of civilians, nor its decades of deliberate restraint in the face of torture, assassinations, infiltration, indefinite detention, bannings, and the rest. No hint of the South African police state breaks the complacent vision of a fair-minded white, Christian democracy under assault by terroristic communists and their international allies, especially the USSR; no reference to the ninety-day detention act, nor the hundreds of deaths in detention, need trouble the viewer in the face of the imminent Communist threat. After all, we are reminded, “almost the whole of the Executive Committee of the ANC were also members of the SACP.” Meanwhile, B.J. Vorster, the goodhearted and open-minded Prime Minister who succeeded H.F. Verwoerd in 1966, reached out to the rest of Africa, promoted the independence and development of the Homelands, and even legalized African trade unions!

It is true that the exhibit devotes a few panels to the Defiance Campaign and other non-violent ANC mobilizations of the 1950s. But, since no mention is made of the Sharpeville massacre (described, rather, as a “riot”), the visitor can only conclude that the ANC eventually resorted to armed struggle—excuse me, terrorism—at the behest of Soviet efforts to destabilize southern Africa. When it comes to the actions of Umkhonto we Sizwe (the military wing of the ANC, though the exhibit does not bother with this distinction), much is made of the infamous “Church Street bombing” in Pretoria in 1983, which killed a dozen civilians (even though it targeted a military installation). In the text appended to the enormous, blow-up  picture of this act of violence comes the reminder that “in the following year 193 acts of urban terror were committed.”

The final section of the political narrative gives undue credit to the “radical reforms” instituted by the National Party in the 1980s as instrumental to forging a peaceful transition to democratic rule, and at the same time complains of “new national symbols, affirmative action, place name changes and practical disregard for Afrikaans.” Indeed, the largely upbeat narrative of Afrikaner nationhood, achievement, and consolidation in economics, politics, culture, national defense, and even armament production concludes with a distinct downer, noting that in post-apartheid South Africa, “Afrikaners found themselves increasingly marginalized.” The more things change, the more they stay the same, I guess.

On my way out, I noticed a panel at the entrance to the exhibit that I had missed before. There, the museum-goer is invited to experience an honest assessment of the Afrikaner past. Yes, the curators admit, “many mistakes were made.” My only question after seeing the exhibit was: what were they?

* Alex Lichtenstein is a labor historian and associate professor of history at Indiana University-Bloomington. Most recently, he wrote for the Los Angeles Review of Books on Marikana.


9 thoughts on “The Voortrekker Monument and “the many mistakes” of the Afrikaner past

  1. It’s interesting that a reaction to colonialism is given a mention to being a partial reason for the Afrikaaners becoming dangerously nationalistic. Afrikaaners were almost wiped out in British concentration camps, their farms burned to the ground, possessions looted and livestock bayonetted. Many women were raped too, to add to the trauma they must have suffered from dispossession and then brutal treatment in the camps, such as lack of medicines, food, clean water, shelter, compassion from British soldiers who abused them and referred to the prisoners as inferior, and space. I wonder if this reaction towards racist separation for ‘preservation’ is what motivates some Jewish zionists who seem genuinely convinced that a homeland for Jews only will save them from the ‘menace’ of anti-semites and Arabs? I by no means condone it- please understand this. I’m just trying to get my head around what might be going through their heads to make them behave in such a paranoid, brutal and shameful way because the Afrikaans behaved like this too (and still do). Why do both peoples react like this and set up apartheid? Both also sought/seek direction from their holy books to try to justify their actions. It’s interesting to understand, because it may give a better understanding ultimately to the means of prevention of apartheid ever happening again.

  2. Alex – I too was stupefied by the Heritage Center. But I wasn’t able to stomach it and promptly left somewhere around the 1980s. What further stupefied and discouraged me was how PACKED the monument was in comparison to its neighbor Freedom Park. I visited both on a weekend, about two years ago. There were many people inside the monument and the heritage center, in addition to those picnicking around its nature reserve. As I left, the employees at the gate shared directions to Freedom Park.

    I think entrance to each was R45 or R50 pp, but I remember wondering how many people who lived in the community you drive through to get to Freedom Park could afford to visit. The Park is exceptionally beautiful and conceptually innovative. The Skhumbuto section is particularly striking (but as I moved to the wall dedicated to the liberation struggle, we began to notice countless misspellings of names). In addition to honoring those who died in the liberation struggle, walls honor those killed in the South African and World Wars. But with the exception of two other foreign couples, my husband and I were the only visitors that afternoon.

    • Jill–Unfortunately, I did not have time to make it to Freedom Park. Next trip. But to put your mind at ease: no one else in the Heritage Center when I visited, despite many people at the nearby Monument itself. By the way, the Liliesleaf Farm site is also a fine antidote…in Rivonia, probably just 20 minutes away down the M-1.

  3. Humans ability to self-delude is only surpassed by their ability to be hideously savage towards each other. Regardless how one self-deludes, the fact remains that such a hideous history as the Afrikaner’s begets violence on the order as the trage-drama involving the young Afrikaner Olympian and countless others – despite their guarded, gilded existence…

  4. Fascinating piece, In terms of the most basic background macro-historic facts I’ve, almost alone among my politically aware, liberal friends, & deeply unfashionably- I’ve always maintained a certain cautious, highly qualified sympathy, for the historic position of the Africkaners, (although certainly not their brutal methods or their repulsive race-ideology) but some sympathy as i say for their simple basic position, as a European people from a more highly developed culture, and everything that entails, outnumbered by black africans who want to share the fruits of what they (the Boers) saw as their labour (in terms of political power, thus decisions over the allocation of resources etc) Not an easy position. As they saw it (and some still see it) they stood to loose practically everything. They may even, over time, be/have been right. Time will tell. Although I note 1 million white South Africans, from previously 5 million) have left since 1994, a 20% reduction in their numbers. I suppose all I am trying to say is, even when we abhor their brutal and disgusting behavior, such as murdering Steve Bilko or hundreds of other activists, let us not casually dismiss the fears or the logic that created such a horrible, repressive system. Having said all that, your piece is excellent and the museum does indeed sound like a myopic, highly selective, version of history. I was in SA in 2005/6 and 2008/9, but never made it to Pretoria or saw this monument near the museum. I was semi-amused, slightly appalled, yet somehow not surprised to see in your photo that the actual design of the monument is the last word in 1930 fascist/Nazi chic! If this piece of stone was in Germany – (one nation that has confronted its past, indeed has been forced to) – then it would have been torn down back in 1946 !

  5. yea the Voortrekker Monument is stunning. I remember taking students there in the 1990s and they were mesmerized by the curator’s explanation that the monument was built so that on December 16 the sun would shine through a hole in the top of the monument all the way onto a special stone in the basement of the building to commemorate the Boers’ victory at the battle of blood river. I continue to be astounded at the degree of forethought that went into the design of symbols and structures associated with white minority rule in SA.

  6. I do often encounter these apartheid apologetic attitudes during disussions with certain kind of people from the afrikaans-speaking community. It seems like these ideas are very deep rooted. I would like to see the establishment of a law which protects the victims of apartheid from being insulted by apologetics and denialists, similiar to the laws which make holocaust denialism a punishable crime in some countries. The victims of apartheid and the relatives of those who were tortured and murdered by the criminal white minority regime deserve to be protected from insulting distortions of historical facts.

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