Bobbejaan at the monument

2012-11-17 14:55

Like a condensed symbol of all that was ugly about Pretoria pre-1994, the Voortrekker Monument has stood watch over the city like a spiteful old hag no one dares to visit.

Every black boy in the neighbourhood hardly chances a visit to the old Afrikaner memorial, at least not in the greater Tshwane townships where I grew up.

Accordingly, my recent visit was naturally tinged with suspicions from friends and colleagues that I was up to mischief. So it made sense to commit to a balanced visit with a stopover at Freedom Park, which sits sprawling atop the adjacent hill.

The two structures seem to echo the divided nature of South Africa’s history.

On one side is a symbol of an old order fighting to remain intact and relevant.

On the other lies an ambitious experiment with healing and inclusiveness.

This makes my sojourns into a rainbow darkie’s adventure in Freedom – Boer semiotics

It starts with a jalopy scuttle along the purple mat of wild thyme and clover that flower on the broad southern back of Proclamation Hill.

The lush foliage blooms brightly as if in defiance  of the brilliant blue of the Pretorian sky.

The two guards at the Voortrekker Monument’s gate give an ambivalent greeting.

I am, after all, a black guy in a VW golf, a car commonly associated with the thuggish menace of Mamelodi, a township 35km to the east.

I shake off what is probably an imagined feeling of being stigmatised as an outsider and climb up the hill like an unavoidable nuisance in the old Afrikaner folk song: “Bobbejaan klim die berg, so haastig en so lastig; bobbejaan klim die berg om die Boere te vererg.”

The loose translation is: “The baboon climbs the mountain, so quickly and so annoyingly; baboon climbs the mountain to anger the Boers.”

Sticking out like a sore thumb, I’m saved from my alienation by Christo Rabie.

He’s my guide through the granite monolith inaugurated on December 16 1949.

Importantly, this was just a year after the Nats (National Party) took power in 1948 with a campaign ticket of separate development – apartheid.

The monument was designed by Gerard Moerdijk – the architect for whom the theatre in Sunnyside, central Pretoria, was named.

“The monument was built to honour the contributions and sacrifices of the Boer women during the Great Trek,” says Rabie as we enter the structure.

The theme is carried well by a bronze sculpture of a woman and her two children near the entrance.

We return to this topic while inspecting the marble relief in the interior.

Its 27 low-relief panels make it the biggest marble frieze in the world.

It depicts key historical moments of the Great Trek.

This includes the deadly clash between Zulu king Dingane and Piet Retief, the Boer leader who went to negotiate the rights to settle on a piece of land between the Tugela and Bushman’s rivers.

Dingane apparently signed the treaty on condition that Retief returned some stolen Zulu cattle.

A copy of the actual document is displayed in the monument, although it curiously doesn’t have Retief’s personal signature, but those of his comrades.

Dingane’s cursive was courtesy of missionary Francis Owen.

Two days after the signing though, Dingane is said to have invited Retief and his party for a farewell beer binge.

The trekkers were requested to surrender their muskets upon entering the king’s kraal – simple royal etiquette, surely.

Then, suddenly, as they all got merry, Dingane ordered his men to slaughter the party.

The event became known as the UmGungundlovu massacre.

Says Rabie: “We can’t know for sure why Dingane killed them.It may be that they disrespected him beyond tolerance, or transgressed some sacred traditional laws. We know they took to walking around the kraals at night, a taboo for strangers.”

He also points at the marble depiction of the signing ceremony. Retief and his men are shown standing higher than the king.

They also have their hats on while addressing Dingane.

These are clear offences and acts of disrespect.

Perhaps because they were committed in plain view of the combative king’s subjects, they could not go unpunished. Who knows, it may account for the subsequent murders.

We go through the many images depicting clashes between natives and settlers.

Rabie punctuates the illustrated conflicts with speeches about the monument as a symbol of nation-building in post-apartheid South Africa.

Meanwhile, I’m struggling with notions of neutrality in the war narrative.

Today’s dispossession of the people I call mine is, after all, connected to these very battles.

So I can’t help but feel that the route map of the five trekker groups displayed at the door speaks of the displacement of my people.

The establishment of the Boer republics – Natalia, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal – were an assault on African nation-building projects.

I read this exclusion into my guide’s invitation to see the Zulu hut. It is built in the bush enclave outside the main monument’s concrete wagon laager.

It’s also there in the idea of the British settlers of Grahamstown giving JJ Uys and his group a bible and blessings to bid them farewell as they were about to undertake their trek inland.

That very bible is actually on display near the symbolic grave at the heart of the monument.

The visit easily raises a complex set of emotions that battle to reconcile with new inclusive national ideals like President Jacob Zuma’s recently opened stretch of asphalt called “reconciliation road”.

It links the Boer monument to Freedom Park on Thaba Tshwane. It’s an attempt to make the rainbow span the great divide.

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