October 17, 2011

In the Footsteps of Paul Kruger and the Voortrekkers


I have a confession to make: We’ve lived in South Africa for almost two years, and until last week I had never set foot in Pretoria, its administrative capital, even though it is only 40 minutes from where we live. But two things conspired to make us finally explore it – a visitor from Germany interested in new sights, and the fact that the Jacarandas are beginning to bloom. It was a very educational trip, so much so that I feel like my head is going to explode if I don’t write it all down.

The first bit of learning occurred before we had even left the garage. I wanted to read up on the history and locales before we got there, and searched our travel guide’s index for Pretoria – in vain. It was not to be found. I finally stumbled across it under “Tshwane,” to which Pretoria apparently had been rechristened in 2002. Really? I had no idea! It’s still known and talked about as Pretoria by everybody I’ve ever come across, and incidentally our NAVI also knows it as Pretoria. So that’s what I will keep calling it for the purpose of this post.

We – Zax, Noisette, my sister-in-law, and myself – started our day at Church Square. It’s a beautiful spot, for the very reason that one doesn’t find that type of square here in Joburg (I now imagine loud protests from the people who have ventured into Joburg more than I have). Pretoria strikes you more like a European city, with older buildings, wide tree-lined avenues, monuments galore. In fact, I pointed out the trash-littered sidewalks to Zax and remarked “just like Paris,” at which he was aghast and insisted that Paris (which he has never been to), being a “proper” European city surely must be absolutely clean and orderly. Ha!


The Jacaranda City
It's hard to do Pretoria's spectacular jacarandas justice in pictures; they are much
more impressive in real life, but coming about a week later and capturing the early
morning or late afternoon late would have yielded better pictures than these

With my new friend Photoshop (and thanks to some awesome tutorials on a friend's 
blog here), I was able to improve it a bit. When I have time, 
I'll figure out how to remove the lamp post!

Around Church Square you will find the Ou Raadsaal, the Palace of Justice (where I thought the Rivonia Trial took place*, an event I’ll get to in my post about Lilieslief Farm), the Main Post Office, and in the middle a giant monument of Paul Kruger, if you can see it amongst all the pigeons.


Paul Kruger's statue on Church Square with Ou Raadsaal in the background to the right

Before I go on, I should try to briefly summarize South Africa’s history (its white history, for Pretoria is very much a monument to its Afrikaans heritage – I will have to get to all the other fascinating history elsewhere on this blog).

Europeans first settled in South Africa in 1652 at the Cape of Good Hope, establishing an outpost of the Dutch East India Company under Jan van Riebeeck. This colony subsequently changed hands several times between the Dutch and the British, and after the abolition of slavery in 1834 a number of discontented Afrikaner farmers or Boers set out in what is called the Great Trek, angered by the British declaration of race equality, and searching for new land to settle in the interior. These so-called Voortrekkers initially believed to have found the promised land of abundant pastures for their cattle, but this land had only been abandoned due to a destructive war, also called mfecane, between the aggressively expanding Zulu kingdom led by the legendary king Shaka, and other black tribes. New conflicts arose, one of which was the infamous Battle of Blood River in Natal (today’s Kwa-Zulu Natal), where the Voortrekkers defeated a Zulu army far superior in numbers. While Natal was soon annexed by the British, the other two Boer republics of Orange Free State and Transvaal (literally “across the Vaal” meaning to the North of the Vaal River, also called Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek or ZAR) remained in Afrikaner hands, with the latter becoming more or less independent in 1884 under the leadership of Paul Kruger, who is revered as the father of South Africa. The discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand shortly thereafter reignited the simmering conflict between British and Afrikaner rule, eventually leading to the Anglo-Boer war in 1899. Kruger fled to Europe, guerilla tactics were adopted by the Boer general Jan Smuts, the British retaliated with a scorched-earth policy and the use of concentration camps in which many civilians died, and by 1902 the Boers were defeated and the peace of Vereeniging was signed. It led to the incorporation of the Cape Colony, Natal, the Orange Free State, and the Transvaal into the Union of South Africa in 1909, which remained a British territory but gave home-rule to the Afrikaners. Under this Union and the leadership of Jan Smuts, South Africans fought alongside the British in both World Wars, although some Afrikaner nationalist elements sympathized with the Nazis, and it is in part from these elements that the National Party eventually rose to establish the system of apartheid.

Kruger House Museum in Pretoria

Did I thoroughly confuse you?  There is so much more to tell but it will have to wait until another time. All I wanted to really get into your head is the name of Paul Kruger and the historical significance of the Voortrekkers, who in many ways were similar to the pioneers setting out for the American West in their wagon trains. A short distance from Church Square you will find Kruger House Museum, which is where we headed next. It is the house Paul Kruger lived in as president of the South African Republic until he went into exile in 1901, and I would say it’s definitely worth a visit. It will not only give you a chance to see this historic residence but also what life in this particular era was like, what with all the artifacts exhibited there. Zax – who had not been particularly keen to join us, in fact it is still a bit of a mystery to me why he did although of course I was very pleased – immediately perked up and entertained himself trying to translate everything from Afrikaans. I don’t know if this is because we are German, but we can amuse ourselves endlessly with words like slaapkamer (bedroom) and motorhuis (garage), trying to best each other with our pronunciation (which Zax, having recently switched his language from Zulu to Afrikaans, won hands-down). 

Old light switch in Kruger House, one of the first buildings with electricity in Pretoria

The whole place actually reminded me of my grandparents’ house in Southern Germany, even though that wasn’t built until the 1930s, and I was hopping from room to room like a little child, excitedly pointing at things like an old coffee mill, a food processor (the kind you strap to the edge of the kitchen table and crank), a washing tin, a rolling pin – all of which I could swear were identical to those living in my childhood memories. There is a pretty garden in the back, a separate “saal” exhibiting all the presents and honors Paul Kruger received from other countries over the years, and an entire railway (“spoorweg” – do you know what I mean?) car that was used as a state carriage and later housed Kruger’s government-in-exile before he fled across the border into present-day Mozambique to embark for Europe. In short, lots and lots of history to soak up (and breathe in, literally, as you can’t escape that distinctive old house smell throughout those rooms).

Paul Kruger's presidential railway car in which he left Pretoria to go into exile

Back at Church Square, we needed a break and settled for Cokes and sandwiches at Café Riche, which apparently is another well-known fixture in Pretoria. The food was okay, not great, but the location on the corner of Church Square with a view of the Palace of Justice and the big lawn with its pigeons in front can’t be beat.

Cafe Riche on Church Square

Our next stop, after we felt sufficiently refreshed, was the hill with the Union Buildings. Those were built in when the South African Union came into existence and the two lovely towers are meant to symbolize the two cultures or rather languages this union was built upon (the existence of the black tribes and multitude of languages was conveniently left out at that time). It is here where Nelson Mandela was sworn in and gave his historical inauguration speech as the first democratically elected president of South Africa in 1994. You can go crazy here with your camera – there is so much beautiful architecture, the gardens below are a spectacle of color to behold, and the view of Pretoria down below is breathtaking. One interesting tidbit: The statue of Nelson Mandela that now graces Mandela Square in Sandton was originally meant to stand in the courtyard of the Union Buildings. I'm not sure why the location was changed. Another fact I found interesting is that Pretoria boasts the second largest number of foreign embassies in the world, after Washington DC, and many of those can be found in the vicinity of the Union Buildings.


Lovely view of Pretoria from the site of the Union Buildings
The Union Buildings, designed by Sir Herbert Baker, are the
official seat of South African government

I couldn't get enough of the Union Buildings from every single angle

Our final destination of the day could not have stood in more contrast to the graceful architecture of the Union Buildings. The Voortrekkermonument is probably one of the ugliest structures ever built, but nonetheless imposing with its own strange beauty. In fact, those two architectural opposites in many ways represent the divide still present to this day between the Afrikaans- and English speaking population of South Africa. People with English heritage are often considered more refined, educated, and cosmopolitan, whereas one associates Afrikaners with the land, the old days, farming, and a disdain for the outside world (boy am I getting into hot water with that comment!).

Voortrekker Monument

But look at the pictures for yourself and you'll understand what I mean. There is a lot of symbolism built into the Voortrekker monument that glorifies not only their quest but Afrikaner supremacy, which I, given my German heritage, cannot help but feel very uncomfortable with, as it cuts very close to the symbols of our own dirty past. I have much admiration for the new South African government for having left this monument intact and open for future generations to visit and admire, but I suspect tearing it down might simply have been an insurmountable task, what with all this solid granite! I'm glad it's there, as all history is worth revisiting.

One of the Afrikaner symbols is the covered wagon (conveniently housing the toilet here)

Lots and lots of covered wagons surrounding the Voortrekker Monument

This marble shrine can be viewed from a balcony above. Every year on December 16th,
the date of the Battle of Blood River, a shard of light shines on it from the top of the
monument. One cannot help but think of Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol" when being
inundated with such symbolism. By the way, the 16th of December is now a public
holiday called "Day of Reconciliation" to promote unity between the races [this is
a correction from an earlier version].

View down from the top of Voortrekker monument; I hope you appreciate the fact that I
went up there, despite my phobia of heights, to take pictures for this blog; in fact, not only
did I GO up there, I RAN up there, challenged by Zax, who once raced me to the 21st story
of a hotel in Manhattan. I lost, then and now.

One of the Voortrekkers

We actually met up with fellow blogger Bing that day, who you can see here with her husband waving from the top of the monument:



Visit Bing's blog for her version and beautiful pictures of the Voortrekker monument, as well as this great story by 2Summers, who is also a fellow Joburg blogger.

* Thank you to Andrew, a reader of Joburg Expat, to make this correction: 
"Your remark on Pretoria (Palace of Justice where the Rivonia Trial took place,) is not correct. The trial took place at the Old Synagogue on the east side of Paul Kruger Street, in the third block, North of Church Square. Many articles on the web make this mistake. Look up the 'Old Synagogue Pretoria' on the web. The synagogue was refurbished as a court."

13 comments :

Conrad said...

1982 war ich auch am Voortrekker monument - mitten in der Apartheid. Das war so ziemlich das schrecklichste Symbol dieser Ära, zugleich aber auch das lächerlichste. So wie alle autoritären Regime neben ihrer schrecklichen Seite auch eine lächerliche Seite haben über die man sich herzlich amüsieren kann - wenn man nur zu Besuch ist und das Land alsbald wieder verlassen kann

Heather said...

Thanks for the link to my blog! Very nice and comprehensive post. Did you seriously do all of this in one day?! You must have been exhausted.

That's funny that you had never been to Pretoria before now. Joe has to go there all the time for work so I tag along all the time. It has a bad rap among lots of Joburgers but I actually think it's a fun place to visit.

Jeroen said...

Fascinating place hey. About the name: the municipality is called Tshwane, the city centre itself still is Pretoria.
Church Square really is South Africa's prettiest city square - all buildings surrounding it are beautiful in their own way (even the 1940s/50s Art Deco-ish bank buildings) and the park in the centre is always lively (Cape Town's Greenmarket square does not come close).
The Voortrekker Monument is weird indeed for us Europeans who have seen what damage extreme patriotism can do (like Germans, us Dutch are embarrassed about the flag-waving and chest-thumping that goes on elsewhere - except during sports matches). Always reminds me of Uncle Scrooge's money vault.
What most visitors don't know is that there is more to it; on the adjacent hill (same ticket) the old Fort Schanskop has an excellent exhibition about the Boer War, one of surprisingly few in SA actually seeing the importance of the war. Well worth looking up.

cat said...

Ai, you are really putting your foot into this! I do take offense that about the English Afrikaans thing. But that being said, today, there is very little divide depending on the circles you move in and it will be very short sighted to still make that distinction. (Just as thinking our black top level economic achievers are not sophisticated - Patrice Molepe will certainly be offended as the richest man in South Africa)

So firstly, let me react as an Afrikaner - I certainly do not associate with a lot of the symbolism in the Voortrekker monument, and it was also used as the logo (albeit tongue in cheek) for the alternative Afrikaans (Voëlvry) movement (a liberal anti apartheid movement in the 80's that I was part of a a student). But one must put the time and place into context. It was a time when the Afrikaner had to build some form of unity - they were hit hard by the English . BTW did you notice that the non white companions of the Boers are also depicted as fighting with them against the Zulus) . While both my grans are from old trekker families, there was even amongst them no animosity against the Zulus. It was the English that got to them - my was I in hot water when I brought home my first English boyfriend.

But my one gran was born in a concentration camp and the other barely escaped - her extended family was murdered there. To be honest, it is a forgotten genocide - one of the biggest the world has ever seen although the real figures are much debated - like the Jewish genocide and although our generation certainly holds no grudges any more, the reality is scary - do look out for books about the Anglo Boer War - with the centenary a lot of good ones were published. (and yes, do visit Ford Schanshop and the Woman's museum In Bloemfontein if you ever get the chance)

The Union buildings, although not as much in your face, was also designed with heaps of symbolism - although to the unifying etc type - between the English and Afrikaans - no one bothered about anyone not with a white skin. That in itself should be an issue.

Secondly, let me respond as an architect - the two building hail from to very distinct periods in architecture - and both are rather representative of their times and the styles then used. And although Moerdyk was born in South Africa, he was in essence Dutch (both his parents were) and he was trained in Britain as a British Royal Institute Architect. I think if you look at a lot of British and German buildings of that time (even American - come to think of it), you will see the connection.

So, after that mouthful (all meant in friendship etc - no hard feelings I hope), I am glad you made the trip to Pretoria. Do come again and then visit, firstly, the Sammy Marx Museum -just outside Pretoria on the way to Bronkhorstspruit. It is my favorite museum and was the house of the Jewish mining magnate and close friend of Paul Kruger. Fantastically preserved, a Victorian feast for the eye. Also worth the visit is Melrose house ( in town) where the Vereeniging peace treaty was signed. If you want to see more of the practical Voortrekker stuff - the Pioneers Museum is a good bet. They show candle making, soap making etc - the kids always enjoy it. The Smuts House Museum is also nice to visit, especially every second and last Saturday of the month when it hosts a great market. The Transvaal Musuem in town is a Natural History museum and the kids love the life size animals, dinosaur bones etc. And then there is Freedom park, close to the Voortrekker monument - one of our new museums.

cat said...

Oh yes, and I forgot - do yo know that the British actually implemented the first "apartheid" style legislation?

Anonymous said...

@sine: very succinct summary of SA history in the middle there
@cat: the gentlemen's last names are Motsepe and Marks respectively, ok ;)

Sine said...

Heather: Yes, we did do all of that in one day and were quite exhausted. But it is so hard to get anyone in my family to explore, so once we're out and about you have to take advantage of it!

Sine said...

Jeroen: thanks for your additions, as always they are very well put. You're absolutely right about the money vault, it looks exactly like that. And no, of course I didn't know about Fort Schanskop and now will have to invest into another ticket for that, as I think my boys would be interested in that. Interesting that you say few here see the importance of the Boer War, as for me that has always been a fascinating part of history and I'm not even South African. But maybe as a European one is predisposed to be fascinated by wars, since we're not that far removed from the one that took place on our own soil...

Sine said...

Cat: Thanks for taking the time for such a long comment. Some time back I was asked to write about my most controversial post, and had to admit I didn't have one, so since then I've been trying to sprinkle a bit of controversy into my writing - I'm glad to see it worked. Although I do think the divide still exists, not in actual achievement or "sophistication" for want of a better word, but in people's perceptions of each other. As you say yourself, an English boyfriend was more than frowned upon not too long ago (and of course the other way around as well) and I do think those sentiments are still present today, if not as strongly.

You're absolutely right about the Boer War and the concentration camps. That they were more or less invented by the British is not something that gets discussed. Actually, it did get discussed quite a bit in Germany, as of course one is always glad if someone else committed the same crime one is accused and guilty of. But it hasn't really gotten much attention elsewhere.

Thanks for the part about the Voelvry movement, I hadn't heard about that and will have to find out more. And thanks also for the architectural lesson, I do admit that I know pretty much nothing about architecture. I just know what I find pretty and what I find ugly. But like I said, the Voortrekker monument is not the kind of ugly that I'd rather have torn down (like some architecture from the 70s), it is the kind of ugly that is actually pretty cool to have there and be allowed to visit. The Sammy Marks museum and Melrose house had also been on my list, but as Heather pointed out, we already did way too much for one day and I would have been crucified had I even suggested as much as one more stop that day. I will definitely keep those and your other suggestion on my future Pretoria list. It's not like we ever seem to run out of visitors to take around...

Sine said...

@anonymous: thanks, I was actually quite please with that summary myself:-)

Anonymous said...

Hi Sine, thanks for the lovely post. There is so much to discover in Pretoria that often gets missed in the tour guides. I love the jacarandas in late October and early November. If you go early in the morning after a rain storm it looks like a purple carpet has been laid out! I also wanted to correct you that 16th December is actually Day of Reconciliation ("The Day of Reconciliation is a public holiday in South Africa held annually on 16 December. The holiday came into effect in 1994 after the end of apartheid, with the intention of fostering reconciliation and national unity. The day is also the de-facto start of the South African summer holiday period.
Before 1994, 16 December was commemorated as the Day of the Vow, also known as Day of the Covenant or Dingaan's Day. The Day of the Vow was a religious holiday commemorating the Voortrekker victory over the Zulus at the Battle of Blood River in 1838.
On the other side of the political spectrum, 16 December is also the anniversary of the 1961 founding of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the armed wing of the African National Congress." - from Wikipedia) Heritage Day is on 24th September.

Sine said...

Of course! I just wrote a post about Heritage Day not too long ago and should have known better. Thanks very much for correcting it, I will go and change it in the post. And I didn't know that the 16th was also the founding day of Umkhonto we Sizwe, what an interesting twist. I'm sure I would have found out about that soon though because one of my next posts will be about Lilieslief Farm and the Rivonia trial.

If I have time I will go back for the jacarandas before they are done blooming. We were still early when we were there.

W. A. Jeffrey said...

Great post. I think I read it once before back when I hadn't started reading clear from the beginning. Great photos and pretty good job on the history. I hope that all the renaming zeal and monument bashing will calm down before it is too late.