Pretoria in A Day: Voortrekker Monument and Union Buildings

June 30

We endeavored to get an early start today, but sadly our journey back from Graskop and Mpumalanga in the evening had been quite strenuous (for me at least) and our late arrival meant that starting early the next day was always going to be hard. Driving in South Africa is generally a breeze, and quite fun outside the major cities with a proper car. This is not so much at night, where a small percentage of the motorway is lit, and even though the roads are in proper condition, driving at the speeds on the motorway with the blinding light of the cars on the other side of the road as the main illumination means that your concentration is needed the entire time. Additionally, there is a general disregard for traffic signs and postings, more so than I noticed when we drove in 2007. This is our first significant experience in the Gauteng area, and I now understand the impatience that the rest of South Africa associates with the area. The general feel the Pretoria-Johannesburg Metro area is not as fast paced as Washington DC, but on the roads they drive with an irrational need to move along faster. Going 10 km over the speed limit on residential thoroughfares is not fast enough, and you will often be overtaken by the BMWs, Mercedes, Jaguars, etc. On the motorways if drifting along at 40 kms because of congestion on a two lane motorway and a space of more than two car lengths opens between you and the vehicle in front of you,
the car/truck behind you often feels you are not keeping pace and hits the accelerator to move in front of you. The same goes when there is a yellow/red light in 100-200 metres. At home, I take my foot off the accelerator and drift to the red light, trying to limit my gasoline consumption. Here, irritated at you speed, cars/trucks will pass you and then hit the breaks once around you. Same type of thing happens when exiting the motorways. For the price of gasoline (the government mandated R8.27 per litre (around 4.4 USD per gallon)) you would think people would be more concerned about gasoline consumption, if not for the ‘green’ aspect, at least for their wallets.

We made our way north after the morning commute to Pretoria and arrived just after 1100 at the Voortrekker Monument park grounds after being turned around by Ndrive, after she (Mary, an English woman is the only english language it is equipped with) believed that there was some special road on the complete opposite end of the park entrance. If you’re headed there, simply take a left from your exit off the motorway as there is a small ‘Hollywood Sign-esque’ directional sign pointing you the right way.

Arriving at the gate, we parted with our R90 for the fee for the Chevy and the two of us, and we drove up the well decorated path to the parking lot situated just beneath the entrance to the Monument. We snacked on our Debonairs pizza from the night before and I read to Alisa Lonely Planet’s description of the Monument, as I had very much wanted to visit this in 2007 but never had the chance. Here’s a brief description:

Build between 1938 and 1949 the Monument was constructed during the upswing in Afrikaner nationalism that culminated in the election of the National Party in 1948, and the institutionalizing of Apartheid.

The cornerstone’s were laid by the direct descendants of the great leaders of the Trek, Andries Pretorius, Piet Retief, and Hendrik Potgieter. These are also the figures that stand at the corners of the Monument. The fourth guard of honor is symbolic of all the other trekkers who contributed to the cause.

At the front of the Monument is a statue of a forlorn looking woman, with a boy and girl huddled around her, this “honors the courage of the Voortrekker women and families who ultimately made settlement in the interior possible” ( On the sides of the statue are two wildebeest that portray the dangers of the African interior, but are in a fleeing posture that show that the woman, the bearer of western civilization, has prevailed.

Inside is a massive frieze that wraps around the entire lower part of the monument. It traces Afrikaner history from first settlement in the Cape, to the Trek, to fighting the Zulus, to forming their own Republic in the Transvaal. Having read quite extensively on their history it was quite easy to follow along, and I talked Alisa through what each section meant and gave her the background to each depiction. A walkthrough sheet or audio cassette could have been helpful for those not as familiar with the details.

We took the spiral staircase up to the terrace 3/4s of the way up the monument where we had our first view of downtown Pretoria and also Loftus Versfeld, the site of one of the most important USMNT victories in recent years. Snapping photos of the skyline, we proceeded up into the internal rotunda of the monument where one could look down on the central chamber, as well as the basement which housed a cenotaph, that was very much in the same symbolic nature as the United States’ Tomb of the Unknown Solider, as originally the Voortrekker leader(s) was supposed to interred, but instead it was decided that it would symbolize all those who lost their lives in defense of independence and the Afrikaner culture. Playing a part in the significance of the Monument is the anniversary of the Battle of Blood River, a famous battle that took place after the murder of Piet Retief by the Zulu King Dingane, right after they had signed a treaty. Let by the Pretorius, the Afrikaners defeated a Zulu Army of 10-12k with 470 Afrikaners inside the Laager, a defensive position made by lashing all the wagons together in a circle (one made out of stone circles the Monument). I have seen estimated losses for the Zulus number anywhere between 4-6k (thus the river was filled with blood as this took place on the river’s edge), while the Afrikaners did not have a single fatality. This occurred after the Afrikaners had made a vow to God that should they prove to be triumphant that they would honor the day like the Sabbath and make sure their children did the same. This battle fed into the already rooted belief that much like the Israelites feeling Egypt, the Afrikaners were a chosen people by God settling the dark African continent fleeing the oppressive British. You can see how these staunch religious beliefs in both cultures led to some not so nice times for the inhabitants of the ‘Promised Land’. However, every 16 December is still honored, and at noon on that date, the light from the top of the rotunda shines directly on the words inscribed on the cenotaph, Ons vir jou Suid Afrika (We for thee, South Africa).

Thus the whole monument carries a religious connection, and Lonely Planet claims that for Afrikaners visiting, it is very much a religious experience. However, on our day of visiting, a good number of Italians wandered the grounds, but then two large school groups arrived. It was very interesting to see black South African school children visiting such a holy site in Afrikanerdom, and I greatly wanted to ask them what they thought of this place, and what it meant to them, but I kept my questions to myself as they were not of the age to think of such things, as this was just a place to yell and mingle about looking at ‘old stuff’. But how odd it must be for the older Afrikaner South Africans who work at the site to see these bus loads of black South Africans come to the Voortrekker Monument. I doubt in their wildest dreams pre-1994 would they have thought this would come to pass, but that’s what the new South Africa is all about in the end.

Alisa, did not appreciate me dragging her to the top of the rotunda, as her fear of heights froze her halfway up the staircase to the top, and she could not bear to look over the side at the vast space beneath her. We have it all on film for her review at another date.

Descending down to the museum in the basement, Alisa was able to get her fill of Afrikaner history and the exhibits and text were very post-1994 in their wording and their perspective. While the frieze in the main hall is very ‘Afrikaner-centric’, the museum below did a reasonable job of portraying the African culture as it encountered the Voortrekkers. Much of it had obviously been updated, and while it could have been insightful to read what was written pre-1994, it was nice to see a comprehensive (still of course with a focus on the Afrikaner) history presented.

After the Voortrekker Monument we ventured over to Fort Schanskop, a fortified position constructed on one of the hills south of the center of the city to protect it from the inevitable invasion of the British Empire from the south in the late 1800s. It is now part-Boer War, part-South African Army museum and provided many facts and insights that I had never known. One being that over 350,000 horses died in the four year war. Horses were a hot commodity in the build up to the conflict, as South African horses were not found worthy for combat, and their small statures proved to be unsuitable as work horses. Thus war horses had to be imported from around the world, with 110,00 coming from the Americas. British soldiers were trained in proper horse care in stables and in camps, but not on the veld. This meant that improper and malnutrition plagued the horses employed by the Empire, and due to the constant stream of horses, British soldiers had no incentive to care for their horses once they were fatigued as they knew ‘fresh’ ones would be arriving soon.

Finishing up at the fort, we took off to the last part of the complex, Freedom Park. The road to that part was roped off with no sign posted as to why, so we decided that with the sun beginning to set, that we should head off to the Union Buildings. Driving through a different part of downtown Pretoria made it seem more like Maputo with the dirt on the side walks and the decor of the city blocks. Only when within 2 blocks of the Union Buildings was a change noted. It went from being a typically African capital to a 1970s US city downtown (which admittedly much of South Africa looks like as the early 1980s was when the country started to run out of money due to Apartheid and the movements against it). There was one sparkling emerald building that looked brand new however. It housed the Department of Education. Odd how it is the US’s DoE  has a 1970s design yet runs a fairly efficient education system by world standards, yet a tragically failing education system here in South Africa means their headquarters has a state of the art, beautiful building just blocks from the seat of power in the country. I wonder if they plan to use the same architect for all the new schools that are needed in the country….

We drove right onto the Union Buildings complex. While there was a wired fence, the gate was open, and traffic bustled back and forth through it and we drove up and parked just by where Matt Damon was dropped by his girlfriend to go visit Morgan Freeman in the horrible Invictus movie. We got out and wondered, now that we strolled right up to the seat of power for the most powerful country on the continent, where to now? We snapped the photos and proceeded to the only doors open at the complex, and asked about the tour that we knew did not exist (security reasons of course, they said), and asked about what else we could see. We were directed to pick up a World Cup Procure and DVD on the City of Tshwane (the ‘new’ name for Pretoria. ‘New’ South Africa has gone on a radical renaming campaign since 1994. Clearly because spending money on rebranding, renaming, and replacing all the street signs (though not 100%, which makes it all the worse), is more important than filling the potholes on rural roads, as one South African tourist publication in Mpumalanga put it).

Stepping back out to wander the ground’s gardens, and wondering how South Africa tries to make so much money off tourism from their cultural to natural to historical sites, yet ‘security reasons’ would restrict curious visitors from stepping on the grounds of the Executive Branch. This in comparison to a country in the northern hemisphere that went nuts on the need for 21st century security at all of its tourist attractions, yet still lets thousands of people into it’s two seats of power, for FREE. Surely a R70 tour could be arranged for when the President is out of town, or after close of business? This could be an interesting metaphor for the transparency of the country….

Consulting our Lonely Planet for other things to do in Pretoria, only the SA Mint stuck out as interesting, yet it was late afternoon and it was in the process of closing, so rather than head there, we decided to conserve our kms (we had gone over our free kms for our rental period) and head back to Elna’s, stopping to get groceries at Woolworths and settling in for the night spent reading, as another night of no football passed.

[Note our 3G data bundle was consumed on this night which caused the delay in this posting. We now have a new bundle that should see us to the end of our stay]


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