On my last trip to South Africa, I took my children to a monument I had last seen when I was a little older than them: the Voortrekker Monument found just outside of Pretoria. It was just as I had remembered; but as an adult I was more impressed by the architecture than I had been as a pre-adolescent.
The building was designed by Gerard Moerdijk as a reminder of the experiences of the early voortrekkers (pioneers) who left the safety of the Cape colony for the unknown lands of the interior between 1835 and 1854. This unusual building was completed and inaugurated by D.F.Malan, the then South African president, on 16 December 1949. The date for the inauguration was chosen as December 16 was the Day of Covenant: a day that used to commemorate the day on which the Afrikaner triumphed over the Zulu in the Battle of the Blood River.
The Voortrekker Monument looks like a huge cube. It is 40 meters high and its base is 40m x 40m. It does not look like a regular square, though, as pictures have been carved into the stone, and statues adorn each corner. The statues are of the leaders of the early Voortrekkers: Piet Retief, Andries Pretorius, Hendrik Potgieter, and an unknown leader who represents all other Voortrekker leaders.
The monument has four huge arched windows, one on each face of the cube-like building, made from Belgian glass. I liked the way the sunlight filtered through the windows to light up the interior of the building.
To reach the dome of the building, we had to climb many stairways. Recently an elevator has been installed for those unable to climb the steep and narrow stairs.
From the top landing we could see the ground floor as well as the cenotaph in the basement.
The Cenotaph, which can be found in the basement, is the focus of the building (it can be seen from different points in the monument). This stone is the symbolic resting place of Piet Retief and his men; and serves to remind the world and the descendants that the voortrekkers made the ultimate sacrifice of their lives for their ideals and freedom. On December the 16th at 12 noon, a ray of sunlight shines through the opening of the dome onto the cenotaph, lighting up the words “Ons vir jou, Suid Afrika” (We for thee, South Africa). The ray of light is believed to be a symbol of God’s blessing on the lives and aspirations of the voortrekkers.
The historical marble frieze which is placed on the four walls of the building distinguishes the Voortrekker Monument from other monuments. Consisting of 27 bas-relief panels, it is the biggest marble frieze in the world. The panels depict scenes of everyday life and work of the voortrekkers, their religious beliefs, and the story of The Great Trek.
The scenes begin with the start of the journey from the Cape colony, show the trials they faced while travelling, and depict the fighting between the Voortrekkers and the Zulus. The signing of the Sand River Convention in 1852 is shown in the last panel .
One panel shows the signing of the treaty between the Voortrekkers and Dingaan, the leader of the Zulus.
The turning of the Zulus against the Voortrekkers in their own laager is depicted; as well as the historic consequent battle between the Zulus and the Afrikaners in the Battle of the Blood River. The battle was so named because with the death of so many people the water in the river turned red.
The outside of the monument was as cleverly designed as the interior. From outside on the top of the monument you can see the wall that surrounds the monument. Wagons have been carved into the stone and they symbolise the laager that the voortrekkers used when they set up camp. These laagers were placed in a circle to protect themselves from wild animals and from the African tribes living in the interior.
From the balcony outside the dome, one also has a view of the city, Pretoria.
Walking along the exterior wall, you can clearly see how the wagons have been carved into the stone of the wall.
Gardens of indigenous plants abound on the outside of the exterior wall – a perfect place for a picnic lunch!
I enjoyed my visit to the Voortrekker Monument and was surprised by how much history I had remembered from my school days. We ended our visit with a picnic lunch in the gardens listening to the sound of the trees and birds.
Would you take a trip to see this monument?
© Colline Kook-Chun, 2012