- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 14, 2003

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 ambitious plans to attract foreign tourists and even black South Africans to ensure 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 at 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 said 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 nightclub for homosexuals, said Gen. Opperman. Yet while the other symbols of apartheid, including South Africa’s old flag and anthem, were quickly discarded, the Voortrekker Monument is thriving, he said.

Since taking over as CEO in 1999, Gen. 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 country’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.

Though Gen. Opperman received death threats when he invited Mr. 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.

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

A party of Voortrekkers (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 religious vow 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-carrying Zulus. More than 3,000 Zulus died while only three Boers suffered slight wounds.

A century later, to reignite their people’s pride, Boer leaders sent wagons traveling around the country in a five-month celebration of the Great Trek. The journey culminated with the laying of a cornerstone for the monument on Dec. 16, 1938, 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 its hill, surrounded by a wall depicting the wagon laager. A statue of a 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 called 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.

Gen. Opperman says the new ways in South Africa have freed the monument from its past. “People think this is an apartheid museum. It is not,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the apartheid period.”

He wants to build a “bush camp” for youth groups. He’s planning a “Garden of Remembrance,” with a mausoleum to hold thousands of cremated remains. He hopes to open a cultural village with displays on how Afrikaner settlers built wagon wheels and baked bread in termite-mound ovens.

The monument, no longer fully financed by the government, earns money on its own by appealing to children, blacks and foreigners.

On a recent morning, a handful of blacks wandered around the frieze that depicts Zulus as untrustworthy and whites as brave and honorable — a view disputed by many historians.

“I know it’s part of Afrikaner history and culture, but it’s still a part of South African history, and it’s important for people to know what happened in the past,” said Wilson Honu, 44, a black land surveyor who brought out-of-town visitors to see the monument.

“It would be a good idea if black cultures also preserved their history like this for people to come and see,” he added.

South Africa’s black-led government believes Gen. Opperman has done “an admirable job,” said Themba Wakashe, deputy director-general of the Department of Arts and Culture.

The government recently decided to nearly double its annual subsidy for the monument to $100,000. “It is part of our history, part of our heritage,” Mr. Wakashe said.

The government, in control of the capital and country, can afford to be magnanimous about the monument looming over the city, said Albert Grundlingh, a history professor at the University of Stellenbosch.

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