The Voortrekker Monument was designed by architect Gerard Moerdijk, the son of a Dutch teacher and the first
South African to be an Associate of the Royal
Institute of British Architects (RIBA).
The idea to build a monument in honour of the
Voortrekkers was mooted as early as 1888, but
building didn't start until 1937. With a pause due to the Second World War,
monument was finally opened in 1949 on the
Day of the Vow (16 December, now known
Day of Reconciliation).
The monument was built to celebrate liberation
of the Afrikaners from the British colonial
government, and to
Great Trek and the
Battle of Blood
River - events imprinted in the mindset of many
Afrikaners. In that sense it is an icon to Afrikaner
nationalism, not in a political sense but in a
Nelson Mandela visited the
monument, one of nearly 200,000 visitors every year.
A new heritage centre is planned for the
monument site which will be a permanent exhibition
concentrating on the evolution of the
'Neglecting history or selectively remembering it
does an injustice to the country as a whole. In the
future when all the political dust has settled,
someone will be looking for these heritage resources
and they'll be gone, unless people look for and care
for them now' said the monument's Director.
The Voortrekker Monument stands 41m high with its
floor plan measuring 40m by 40m. The frieze in
the Hall of Heroes comprises 27 panels carved from
Italian marble and depicts scenes from the Great
The Cenotaph, situated in the centre of the
Cenotaph Hall, is the central focus of the monument.
Through an opening in the dome the sun shines at
twelve o'clock on 16 December each year onto the
middle of the Cenotaph and the words 'Ons vir Jou,
Suid-Afrika' ('We for Thee, South Africa'). The ray
of sunshine is said to symbolise God's blessing on
the lives and endeavours of the Voortrekkers.
December 16 was chosen as it was on this date in
1838 that the
Battle of Blood River was fought.
at the base of the Monument, is a bronze sculpture
of a Voortrekker woman and her two children, paying
homage to their strength and courage on the
each corner of the Monument there are
statues of Piet Retief, Andries Pretorius,
Andries Hendrik Potgieter and an "unknown" leader
who is representative of all the other
Jackie Grobler, lecturer in history at the
University of Pretoria, says that architecturally the
monument is unique. 'The usual custom was to build
either in the Greek or 19th century European style
under a strong German influence, but the Voortrekker
Monument is quite different to anything else in the
Grobler is insistent it is not an
apartheid monument. 'I don't see it as a political
monument at all but it was exploited and hijacked by
the right wing who tried to use it as a venue for
their struggle. It's not meant to be against
anybody, except possibly the British, but rather to
commemorate the endurance and stamina of a group of
people who were not, in a world context, very
One thing that does bother Grobler is the panel in
the marble frieze that depicts the murder of Dingane.
'I don't like that scene at all; it strikes me as a
sort of vengeance. And he's portrayed in other
places so I think they should have left it out. But
it's the only thing that makes me a bit
uncomfortable. However, almost all monuments around
the world are considered controversial in some way.'
Silverman, lecturer in South African
architectural history at Wits University
says 'It is almost impossible to separate
politics from its design. The entire design
was intended as a political statement, from
its position on the skyline to its
harnessing natural phenomenon, sunlight, to
fall on a certain point on a certain day.'
However, Silverman is also clear on it not being an
apartheid monument. 'It was very much about
constructing an Afrikaner identity which may have
some later resonance with apartheid. However, now it
needs to be seen as a monument to Afrikaner nationalism. We have to acknowledge all aspects of
our history and we don't want to be revisionist. The
events depicted at the monument reflect a really
important moment in our history, whether seen as
good or bad.'