A couple of years ago, in Maputo, I interviewed Gert Opperman, a retired South African general major who until recently headed the Voortrekker Monument and Nature Reserve, in Pretoria. The Voortrekker Monument is a memorial to an epic moment in Afrikaner history: the migration in the 1830s and 1840s of thousands of white Dutch-speaking farmers into the southern African hinterland. That, at least, is one version of what the monument represents. More than a decade in the making, it opened its doors in 1949, a year after the coming to power of the Afrikaner-led National Party, the party of apartheid, and for almost five decades the apartheid regime used the monument as a symbol of Afrikaner dominance. Many South Africans see it as a relic of dark times. And if you live in Pretoria you can’t help but see it. The granite monument commands a hill above the southern route into the city, a stern redoubt.
Every detail of the monument is infused with special, sometimes arcane significance. The chevron pattern worked into the floor tiles is intended to represent white civilization rippling into the darkness of Africa. The circular perimeter wall is modeled after the protective circle of wagons that the Boers would form whenever attacked as they made their way into the African interior. Every December 16, the Day of the Covenant—the day in 1838 when the Boers prayed for victory over the Zulus at Blood River—sunlight comes through a hole in the dome and falls on a cenotaph that reads Ons vir Jou, Suid-Afrika—We for Thee, South Africa. (The Boers won, and to fulfill their vow they built a church.)
Opperman told me that he and his staff were doing what they could to change how the monument is perceived. The institution was dedicated to history and heritage, he said, not ideology. There are now black tour guides at the monument and a majority of the schoolchildren who visit are black. I later saw for myself that a number of historical displays had been given a more contemporary slant. But there’s no changing the tenor of the monument’s centerpiece: a historical frieze, composed of 27 marble reliefs, that depicts the Afrikaners on their sacred Trek, fulfilling their version of Manifest Destiny. In the panels, Zulus are generally portrayed as a savage horde.
As an aside, Opperman told me about a part of the monument grounds that visitors never see. In 1994, after Nelson Mandela and the ANC moved into Pretoria’s Union Buildings—the offices of the country’s executive branch—they had little use for the apartheid-era figures glaring down at them from the walls. Opperman was informed that unless he fetched the official portraits and bronze busts of Malan, Verwoerd, P.W. Botha, and other apartheid leaders and Afrikaner icons, they would be disposed of. (Some of the bronzes had been commissioned for the Union Buildings in the early 1990s and never installed.) Opperman found a place for them in a storage room at the administration building at the Voortrekker Monument, along with paintings and objects removed from other government buildings, where they will remain mothballed until the indeterminate day when they can come out again without giving offense. When I visited Pretoria, the monument’s Cecilia Kruger kindly offered me a look inside.
Here’s what I saw:
Christiaan de Wet. (Or at least I think it’s him.) The bronze version has the look of a prophet. The real de Wet was a Boer War commander whose famed resourcefulness and tenacity against British forces as a guerrilla fighter Mandela hoped to emulate, against the apartheid regime, a half century later. “Fearless, proud, and shrewd, he would have been one of my heroes had he been fighting for the rights of all South Africans, not just Afrikaners,” he wrote. After the defeat of the Boer republics in 1902, de Wet refused to accommodate himself to life in the British dominions–to “winning the peace,” as some of his fellow generals did. In 1914, following South Africa’s entry into the Great War alongside the British, he raised a rebellion against the South African government–then led by another Boer War hero, Louis Botha.
I don’t know the story of this figure, but it should be noted that well before the groundbreaking of the Voortrekker Monument, a Women’s Monument was built, in Bloemfontein, to memorialize the more than 26,000 Afrikaner women and children who died of disease and malnutrition in British concentration camps during the Boer War. Nearly forgotten are the roughly equivalent number of black South Africans–some 80 percent of them children–who also died in British camps. The term “concentration camp,” which took on a new significance a few decades later, probably originates with this war.
Jan Smuts, yet another hero of the losing effort against the British, was Prime Minister for two stretches in the 1920s and 1940s. Following the creation of the Union of South Africa, in 1910, Smuts became a committed internationalist, and was one of the founders of the League of Nations and, later, the United Nations. But to many whites he was not sufficiently committed to racial segregation. When he led South Africa into World War II, again on the side of the reviled British, he lost the faith of a fair share of Afrikanerdom, and his Union Party was defeated by the Nats in 1948. Apocrypha: Einstein said Smuts was one of a handful of people in the world–the only non-physicist–who understood his Theory of Relativity. He certainly looked highbrow.
Smuts was Prime Minister as the Voortrekker Monument was being built, and he found something not to like. In one of the climactic panels of the giant marble frieze, a Zulu attack on white women and children, a Zulu warrior was shown raising a white baby above his head, prelude to smashing the baby against a wagon wheel. Smuts deemed the image too extreme. He ordered the detail cut from the panel. The censored fragment survives, and it’s pictured above. In the sanitized version on public view, the warrior grips a spear rather than a baby.
It was Hendrik Verwoerd, first as Minister of Native Affairs, later as Prime Minister, who most robustly articulated to Afrikaners that their survival depended on the separate development of white and black, whatever the cost. There was always segregation in South Africa; Verwoerd, often called the architect of apartheid, turned segregation into the state’s principal object. He was assassinated in 1966, stabbed to death on the floor of Parliament by an insane page. Not a few Afrikaners cherish his memory. Some years ago, Orania, an Afrikaner-only enclave founded by Verwoerd’s son-in-law, asked the Voortrekker Monument if it could use one of the many Verwoerd statues in the monument’s possession. Its request was granted.
P.W. Botha, the Big Crocodile, was another in an unbroken series of hardline heads of state. Beginning in 1979, he directed his security apparatus to neutralize threats to apartheid radiating from South Africa’s neighbors. Mozambique, which sheltered elements of the ANC, paid dearly; South Africa bankrolled and gave logistical support to the Renamo insurgency, with devastating consequences for millions of Mozambicans. In 1984, under pressure from Pretoria’s Washington allies to de-escalate, South Africa agreed to halt its backing for Renamo in exchange for the expulsion of the ANC from Mozambique. To celebrate the accord, Botha distributed 600 tons of South African apples to Mozambican schoolkids, the first apples many had seen in their lives. Renamo, however, continued to receive clandestine South African support. The unspectacled bust in the picture is F.W. de Klerk, Botha’s successor, the first from the so-called enlightened wing of the National Party to take power, and the last apartheid leader. He released Mandela from prison and entered into the negotiations with the ANC that led to South Africa’s first fully democratic elections, in 1994.