From a distance, on a dusty Winter’s afternoon in Pretoria, the Voortrekker Monument looks formidable. “Is that it?” I ask my travel companion, gawking at the granite hulk atop a hill as we drove to the wrought iron gates.
Hailing from Northern KwaZulu-Natal, I spent three wonderful years working at Talana Museum, in the heart of the Battlefields. The Battle of Blood River was fought in the area, and the Afrikaner victory over the Zulus was commemorated each year on the 16th of December, until the abolition of Apartheid and the subsequent political reform. The 16th is now a public holiday – South Africa’s Day of Reconciliation. Afrikaner history is still commemorated, however, and the Voortrekker monument particularly immortalizes the history of the Great Trek (1835-1854) in the world’s largest marble frieze – utterly awe-inspiring in size and detail.
A cursory glance at the exterior of the monument betrays, rather incongruently, Egyptian architectural influences. This is not a flawed perception; the architect, Gerhard Moerdijk, finalized the design of the monument after a research trip to Cairo. In fact, his initial design of the monument consisted of a causeway linking two Egyptian obelisks.
The interior is reminiscent of a cathedral, owing to the enormous stained-glass windows; entirely fitting given the religiousness of the Voortrekkers and the way in which Christianity shaped their lives. The focal feature, in the centre of the monument, is a cenotaph bearing the inscription “Ons Vir Jou Suid Afrika” [“Us For Your South Africa”]. The cenotaph can be viewed through the round floor opening or from the top of the 40-foot high dome (if you dare brave the steep ascent up a seemingly endless spiral staircase), or from inside the museum that surrounds it on the bottom floor.
The museum housed inside the monument is not the only museum on the property. Seized by the spirit of adventure, and without knowing what to expect, my friend and I took a drive past the gardens (lush and beautiful, even at this time of year) to the top of another hill. Not seeing very much, I got out the car and explored. After all, I thought, there couldn’t be only one unexpected surprise on the property. Indeed, there was the Schanskop amphitheatre embedded at the top of the hill, as well as another museum. Other attractions include a chapel, an art gallery, the heritage centre, a replica of the Tanganyika Monument, a picnic site and more.
I would not have gone out my way to view this heritage site had it not been for the GoUNESCO challenge. Being more of a culture-vulture, I planned to visit the Johannesburg Art Gallery for my first Campus Ambassador assignment. It was pure chance that led me to the Voortrekker Monument. Having stepped out of my comfort zone without any expectations, I felt like I had made an interesting discovery, learned a lot by putting history lessons into perspective and I’m happy that I made the trip.
You can learn more about the monument here: http://www.vtm.org.za/