The Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria and Afrikaner nationalism in the 1930s

Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon 1907

Most creatives like to claim complete originality. In later life Picasso famously denied being influenced by African art when painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907, even though there was ample source material in what was then the Musée du Trocadéro in Paris.

So Moerdijk, the architect of the Voortrekker Monument, was not alone in denying architectural precedents. However, as the images below indicate, his design was heavily reliant on the late 19th Century/early 20th Century building, the Volkerschlachtdenkmal in Liepzig.   (To be pedantic.. this post arises out of original research I did and was then published as an academic article: “The Voortrekker Monument: Monolith to Myth” South African Historical Journal November 1993.) 

Voortrekker Monument Pretoria Foundation stone laid 1938 to commemorate the centenary of the so-called great trek and completed post WWII and opened on 16th December 1949. The building as a rallying point was very significant in sweeping the Nationalists to power in 1948.
Volkerschlachtdenkmal Liepzig started 1898 completed 1913 on the centenary of the 1813 Battle of Liepzig when Napoleon was defeated

This building (like the Voortrekker Monument) was overtly nationalistic in its intent. Commissioned at the end of the nineteenth century by the founder of the Deutschen Patrioten Bundes (German Patriotic Movement), Clemens Thieme, it had the support of Kaiser Wilhelm II. It was built to commemorate the 1813 Battle of Nations at Liepzig where Napoleon was defeated by a combined allied army including Polish, Prussian, Russian, Austrian and Swedish troops.  While doing my research in the early 1990s, (this was the days before ease of access to internet!) I was fortunate enough to come across a book devoted entirely to the Volkershlachtdenkmal (no author no date) entitled: Deutschlands Denkmal der Volkerschlacht das Ehrenmal seiner Befreing unde nationalem Wiedergeburt (Germany’s monument to the people’s war in honour of liberation and national rebirth).  

The visual imagery of the Volkerschlachtdenkmal communicates quite clearly the conscious programme of building a nation of heroes.  It was therefore the perfect prototype for Moerdijck to draw on and one which would have taken on added significance during the revival of nation-building in the 1930s in Germany. In addition, it was appropriate that a fiercely anti-imperialistic group on South Africa should symbolically ally itself with Germany, which was also mobilizing anti-British sentiments during the 1930s.

The Voortrekker Monument is a centralized building with one entrance which leads directly into an open space. This open space forms the upper hall which is covered in the inside with a vast dome supported on pendentives rising from four short barrel vaults and in centre of the dome is an oculus. (Pendentives are those 3 dimensional triangles which transition the space from a square to a circular dome and support the rim of the dome.)

Architect’s drawing of the Voortrekker Monument with section showing the internal structure
On the 16th December (the anniversary of the Battle of Blood River) at midday, the sun shines directly through the oculus into the lower hall onto the cenotaph/altar with the words “ONS VIR JOU SUID AFRIKA” the last words of the old South African anthem. No prizes for guessing the heavy handed symbolism redolent with nationalism, patriotism, exclusionary racism, and divine sanction – a cocktail of powerful propaganda
In the upper hall: at the outer end of each barrel vault is  a large arched window; running from left to right around the wall  is the so-called historic frieze depicting carefully selected events from the four treks. In the centre of the upper hall directly below the oculus in the dome, is a large opening, surrounded by a waist-high marble balustrade.
The opening reveals a hall below with the cenotaph of Piet Retief placed in the middle and the “eternal’ flame contained behind glass in a niche in the north wall. In Moerdijk’s writing on the monument he conflates the cenotaph with an altar.

Like the Voortrekker Monument, the Volkershlachtdenkmal is a vast blocklike rectangular structure with four huge arched windows, one on each face of the building.  

St, Michael at the entrance to the Volkerschlachtdenkmal
Anton Van Wouw’s Mother and Children

A towering statue of St Michael stands outside against the wall in front of a flight of stairs leading to the entrance door, a position equivalent to the Van Wouw Mother and Children in the Voortrekker Monument. The words “Got mi tuns” are carved on the parapet above the statue of St Michael paralleling the Voortrekker Monument’s religious references.  

Whereas in the Volkershlachtdenkmal, 16 sculpted figures encircle the top of the building, in the Voortrekker Monument these were reduced to four figures of so-called “national” heroes lower down on each corner of the building.

The similarities of the interior are obvious.

The interior of the German monument is covered by an enormous dome with an oculus at the top and has a vast opening in the floor of the main hall revealing a lower hall
Around the wall of this lower hall in Liepzig are sculpted figures of warriors weeping for the dead heroes commemorated in the monument.
In the upper hall there are four colossal figures symbolizing sacrifice, religion, bravery and national strength

Much has been written about the fostering of an Afrikaner identity and the mobilization of Afrikaner power through the covert activities of the Broederbond and its cultural wing the Federasie van Afrikaanse Kulturvereniginge (FAK) in the late 1920s and ’30s.  And the centenary re-enactment in 1938 of the Great Trek (which in fact comprised at least 4 separate disparate treks) was an incredibly powerful rallying symbol as various groups in ox wagons and Voortrekker dress made their way across South Africa gathering followers and momentum as they went through cities and small towns. 

In 1938 with the reenactment of the Great Trek Groups from all over South Africa moved through small towns to join the main trek which ended in Pretoria
The eternal flame in the Voortrekker Monument was lit from the sun’s rays at the foot of the Van Riebeeck statue in Cape Town and was carried from Cape Town to Pretoria by torch bearers arriving on the eve of the laying of the foundation stone in 1938. It is now housed in a niche in the lower hall.

The heroic connotations (and much else!) are communicated through the association of the flame’s journey through South Africa with the ancient Olympic torch-carrying tradition.  And who can argue with the symbolic connotations of a flame which has been lit by none other than the sun’s rays and is kept in a hallowed shrine-like space?    

And I haven’t even started on the frieze!!  

The changing meaning of the Voortrekker Monument: heritage gain or heritage loss?

No easy road between Voortrekker Monument and Freedom Park

Forty-three percent of all Chinese tourists who visit South Africa, for instance, visit the monument, a figure that runs into tens of thousands.

Recent Posts Categories