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.
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.
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.