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South Africa's Symbol of a Bygone Era

THE WORLD

Other signs of apartheid have vanished but the Voortrekker Monument thrives and is being made into an Afrikaner museum.

May 11, 2003|Ravi Nessman | Associated Press Writer

PRETORIA, South Afr — PRETORIA, South Africa -- The Voortrekker Monument was once the great temple of apartheid, standing watch over the capital as a towering tribute in granite to the right of the Afrikaner people to rule.

Now the mausoleum-like edifice has a snack bar, a souvenir shop and a trove of ambitious plans to attract foreign tourists and even black South Africans to ensure that it does not become a forgotten relic of an embarrassing past.

"We had to become legitimate," said Gert Opperman, a retired general who is chief executive officer of the monument. "Mere emotion will not let this facility survive."

Conflicting emotions swirl around the 135-foot-high monolith perched on a hill outside Pretoria.

Conservative Afrikaners long revered the monument that commemorates their ancestors' pioneering Great Trek into South Africa's interior and their lopsided -- some claimed divinely assisted -- defeat of the Zulus.

Blacks loathed the monument's implication that God gave Afrikaners the right to rule and its lure as a rallying place for militant racists. Liberal whites were simply ashamed of it.

Rumors spread after the end of the white racist regime in 1994 that the monument would be demolished or perhaps painted pink and turned into a gay nightclub, Opperman said.

Yet while the other symbols of apartheid -- the old flag, the anthem -- were quickly discarded, the Voortrekker Monument is thriving, he said.

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 former President Nelson Mandela, the nation's first black leader, 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.

Although Opperman received death threats when he invited Mandela, his changes have caused little controversy among Afrikaners.

Coen Vermaak, leader of the far-right Boerestaat Party, said he was only concerned that the monument itself remain untouched. "It is part of our heritage, and we will see that it stays like that," he said.

If Opperman went too far, Vermaak said, it would draw battle lines within the Afrikaner community and "the Boerestaat Party will never stand for it."

The building's roots stretch back to the 19th century, when Afrikaners, or Boers, the descendants of Dutch settlers, hitched up their wagons and left the Cape Colony on the tip of Africa to find new farmland and freedom from British rule.

A party of the Voortrekkers, or pioneers, met with Zulu King Dingaan to seek a peace treaty, but his warriors attacked them and then went after their families camped nearby, killing 281 Boers and 200 of their black servants.

The survivors made a vow to God that if they defeated their enemies, they would consecrate the day of victory with an annual thanksgiving.

At the Battle of Blood River on Dec. 16, 1838, roughly 500 Boers armed with guns circled their wagons into a defensive laager and fought off 15,000 spear-wielding Zulus. More than 3,000 Zulus died, while only three Boers suffered slight wounds.

A century later -- to re-ignite their people's pride -- Boer leaders sent wagons traveling around the country in a five-month celebration of the Great Trek that culminated with the laying of a cornerstone for the monument Dec. 16, the Day of the Vow. It was completed in 1949, a year after a nationalist Afrikaner government gained power.

The imposing brown building, reminiscent of 1930s fascist-style architecture, looms high atop a hill, surrounded by a wall depicting the wagon laager. A statue of mother and child represents culture and Christianity. A 198-ton frieze in white marble on the inside walls tells the story of the trek, the Zulu king's "treachery" and the Boers' victory.

The monument sent a message that "the whites have a right to be here -- it is their land," said Andries Breytenbach, a theology professor at the University of Pretoria.

In the early days of apartheid, government proclamations were issued at the monument. Later, right-wing whites held rallies at the site, telling the story of the trek as immutable scripture.

The country has changed since then.

The Day of the Vow is now known as Reconciliation Day, celebrated to foster racial harmony. White extremists have been largely marginalized, and the crowds that once came to the monument for the Dec. 16 religious service have thinned considerably.

Opperman says the new ways in South Africa have shaken the monument free from its past.

"People think this is an apartheid museum. It is not," he said. "It has nothing to do with the apartheid period."

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