The Voortrekker Monument was designed by architect Gerard Moerdijk, the son of a Dutch teacher and the first South African to be an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA).
The idea to build a monument in honour of the Voortrekkers was mooted as early as 1888, but building didn’t start until 1937. With a pause due to the Second World War, the monument was finally opened in 1949 on the Day of the Vow (16 December, now known as the Day of Reconciliation).
The monument was built to celebrate liberation of the Afrikaners from the British colonial government, and to commemorate the Great Trek and the Battle of Blood River – events imprinted in the mindset of many Afrikaners. In that sense it is an icon to Afrikaner nationalism, not in a political sense but in a cultural sense.
In 2002 Nelson Mandela visited the monument, one of nearly 200,000 visitors every year.
A new heritage centre is planned for the monument site which will be a permanent exhibition concentrating on the evolution of the Afrikaner. ‘Neglecting history or selectively remembering it does an injustice to the country as a whole. In the future when all the political dust has settled, someone will be looking for these heritage resources and they’ll be gone, unless people look for and care for them now’ said the monument’s Director.
The Voortrekker Monument stands 41m high with its floor plan measuring 40m by 40m. The frieze in the Hall of Heroes comprises 27 panels carved from Italian marble and depicts scenes from the Great Trek.
The Cenotaph, situated in the centre of the Cenotaph Hall, is the central focus of the monument. Through an opening in the dome the sun shines at twelve o’clock on 16 December each year onto the middle of the Cenotaph and the words ‘Ons vir Jou, Suid-Afrika’ (‘We for Thee, South Africa’). The ray of sunshine is said to symbolise God’s blessing on the lives and endeavours of the Voortrekkers. December 16 was chosen as it was on this date in 1838 that the Battle of Blood River was fought.
Outside, at the base of the Monument, is a bronze sculpture of a Voortrekker woman and her two children, paying homage to their strength and courage on the Great Trek. Pretoria; Gauteng
Kruger House Museum; Pretoria Church Square; Pretoria Church Square; Pretoria Station; Union Buildings
Tswaing Meteorite Crater
On each corner of the Monument there are statues of Piet Retief, Andries Pretorius, Andries Hendrik Potgieter and an ‘unknown’ leader who is representative of all the other Voortrekker leaders.
Jackie Grobler, lecturer in history at the University of Pretoria, says that architecturally the monument is unique. ‘The usual custom was to build either in the Greek or 19th century European style under a strong German influence, but the Voortrekker Monument is quite different to anything else in the country.’
Grobler is insistent it is not an apartheid monument. ‘I don’t see it as a political monument at all but it was exploited and hijacked by the right wing who tried to use it as a venue for their struggle. It’s not meant to be against anybody, except possibly the British, but rather to commemorate the endurance and stamina of a group of people who were not, in a world context, very unique.’
One thing that does bother Grobler is the panel in the marble frieze that depicts the murder of Dingane. ‘I don’t like that scene at all; it strikes me as a sort of vengeance. And he’s portrayed in other places so I think they should have left it out. But it’s the only thing that makes me a bit uncomfortable. However, almost all monuments around the world are considered controversial in some way.’
Melinda Silverman, lecturer in South African architectural history at Wits University says ‘It is almost impossible to separate politics from its design. The entire design was intended as a political statement, from its position on the skyline to its harnessing natural phenomenon, sunlight, to fall on a certain point on a certain day.’
However, Silverman is also clear on it not being an apartheid monument. ‘It was very much about constructing an Afrikaner identity which may have some later resonance with apartheid. However, now it needs to be seen as a monument to Afrikaner nationalism. We have to acknowledge all aspects of our history and we don’t want to be revisionist. The events depicted at the monument reflect a really important moment in our history, whether seen as good or bad.’

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