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Voortrekkers and Heroism: History Lesson in South Africa

It is what must be one of the most ugly buildings in existence: Massive, forbidding, fortress like – neither the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria itself nor the exhibition of the to my mind mostly pathetic art and artifacts it houses really awakes my sympathies for the Boers. But it serves well to exemplify where the challenge lies in feeling South Africa, how identity is shaped by overcoming common challenges – and how important it is to understand that history is always a narrative.

The Monument in all its grotesque splendor. Looks Nazi, feels eerie.

Stopover on my way to Madagascar in Pretoria, South Africa. I am not a good tourist in the way of sightseeing and ticking off the must-sees, but the gigantomanic, tomblike hall erected in memory of the Great Trek, the most important single event to Boer identity, is definitely worth a visit. Located on a hill overlooking South Africa's capitol, it was erected in 1938, and houses not only a coffin-altar unto which the sun only shines once a year at midday in memory of the Battle of Blood River, but also a marble frieze depicting the hardships and plight of some 15,000 Boers who trekked across eastern South Africa in the 1840-50s, after not feeling welcome anymore in the British dominated Cape colony.

Mama Boer knows best.

Facing an unforgiving nature and natives who were strangely and rather aggressively opposed to the taking of their land by the stern bible-clutching Calvinists (in drastic opposition to the strange belief that the land 'was unpopulated', as the Afrikaner story had it) the successful nomadic operation became an event of unifying force – producing martyrs for the cause of Boer independence along the way. Blood and guts, God and martyrs, a shrine – and a common enemy that is easily identified: there you have it, all the ingredients to make up a common myth that still today influences the way many Boers see themselves today.

Is that what happened? Darkies on a hunt for those innocent white Girls.

The feat of conquering Southern Africa's harshest parts is of course heroic – the men and women did prove themselves to be extremely brave. Yet from a modern perspective, one feels a little ashamed of the naive simplicity with which the fight of white against black is portrayed as a figth of good aganist evil, and how the legends woven around it warp historic understanding. Even the accompanying exhibition that is trying to shift weight a little bit to a neutral view-point remains but a foot-note against the racist-religious fervour present throughout the monument – and the reverence for those Voortrekkers shining in the eyes mostly Afrikaner visitors. That you can buy coffee mugs smugly adorned with the old apartheid flag in the adjoining souvenier shop doen't really help that either.

The sarcophagus in the monument. The inscriptopn reads: Ons vir jou Suid Afrika (We [die] for you, South Africa)

All of this points right down to the dominant question of South African identity – how can one feel to be one nation, if the codes of identity are mainly those of opposition? Seeing the cultural differences as a benefit is a message most South Africans may have heard, but whether a majority is experiencing it from the heart, remains doubtful. Afrikaners and Brits share the common beginning of the Union of South Africa after burying the hatchet following their bloody war, at least, and the common profit from apartheid years. But what are unifying events for all South Africans, moments that are remembered as common victories, instead of one ethnicity winning over another? The release of Nelson Mandela may come to mind, but even there minds may differ. And of course winning the Rugby Title of 1995 in their own country, even though the hopeful jubilation of those days for most South Africans seems to have been fading fast in the face of reality. The TRC is hailed from an international perspective as ground-breaking concept for dealing with racial enmitiy and conflicts in one nation. But even though standing role-model for other conflicts on an international level it sems mostly underestimated in its contribution by the majority of South Africans.
The Soccer World Cup 2010 may be another great chance to experience togetherness bar all divisions. Let's wish that it will do what in some ways it has done for Germany in 2006 – releasing, or at least relieving, a nation from a common trauma. Ons vir jou, South Africa - we can't wait.

Pretoria dresses up for 2010.


Anonymous said...

Sie Boeren sind eine einzigartige volk.Ihre sprache und kultur sind vieleicht europaisch aber sie sind AFRIKANER!Du solst mehr respekt haben,diese menschen haben die EINZIGE funktionaele staat in GANZE Afrika gebaut!!

Ulf Iskender Kaschl said...

Dear anonymous,

thank you for your comment and for delivering it so beautifully. For sake of my English speaking readers, I shall answer in that Language.
Of course Afrikaners are Africans. Of course they deserve respect for a feat that requires strength, faith, and blunt determination. But the Groot Trek is over. And respect for a system that grew out of this culture, which right down into the twenty-first century demanded this very value, respect, based on skin color? Sorry. South Africa as of old could function because of economic benefits for a slice of the population, and near-slavery conditions for the majority. South Africa today deserves respect for making a transformation from worse to bad to slightly below European standards and in some cases lighthousing value trends.

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