I think this trip may be generating more questions than answers.

One of the fundamental questions that we came to South Africa with was about how people remember history, specifically in the form of memorials. So, we went to a memorial called the Voortrekker Monument.

This monument sits atop a massive hill just outside of Pretoria, one of South Africa’s three capitals. As we approached, its rectangular beige facade jutted out amongst the trees.

There were relatively few people walking the grounds when we arrived. A couple here and there. Certainly nothing like the fanfare around monuments in D.C.

At the base of the monument there is a very odd golden, gleaming sculpture spinning on an axis, with the latin words below it: “Quo vadis?” It means, “Where are you going?”

We walked up dozens of steps to reach the top where entered the monument and began to read a story told in a series of scenes carved into massive white Italian granite slabs, made in Italy and shipped back to South Africa.

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It is a story of bravery, determination, suffering, loss, survival, resilience and ultimately, triumph. It is the story of the Boer people, the Dutch-descended settlers, who chose to leave the homes they had established at the Cape Colony in South Africa rather than be subject to British rule. (As I understand, the British arrived after the Dutch had settled and forcefully annexed the land.) It is the story of an long and uncertain journey further into the interior of the continent in search of a new home. It is the story of overcoming many challenges.

It is the story of colonization, entirely told from the perspective of colonizers.

This was known as the “Great Trek.”

Part of the “challenges” the Boers faced were the African people who had been living on the land that the Boers were now invading for thousands of years. The scenes depict the settlers warring with Africans, in particular, the Battle of Blood River, in which an estimated 3,000 Zulu people were killed.

Th Boers are the same people who would eventually rise to power in the government of South Africa and subject non-white people to decades of oppression.

Questions remain:

Why does this monument to what we know now led to crimes against humanity still exist?

Not only exist, but why is it being kept up, maintained and pushed as a historical site for all the world to come and see?

What do the people who visit this place understand about its significance without the benefit of having knowledgeable guides?

Who built this monument and who funds its upkeep today?

Why do we even build memorials? It seems like the task of remembering with nuance is difficult to do in the form of sculptures.

2 thoughts on “Day 4: How do we remember?

  1. Good questions. Maybe that’s why monuments exits, to learn about the pass and ask the questions you are asking. If this monument was not there today, from where would your questions sprout? Just a thought. Keep asking!

    1. Very interesting point. However, we know that the monument was built out of nationalistic pride and only tells one side of the story. So it’s unlikely that it was built to prompt questions, rather to assert one self-serving historical narrative. There is no context at the monument, we only knew this because we had a professor with is to give that context. I wonder what other visitors understand and take away without that context. I think there is a way to make sure this part of history is told but without glorifying it.

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