September is Heritage Month in South Africa. The country’s colonial heritage has been at the forefront of much debate and discourse in recent years. More specifically, the legacy of historical monuments is a contentious issue in many countries, including South Africa and America.
The following interview encourages further discussion and debate regarding this complex and sensitive subject.
This interview is based on the 2017 LitNet Akademies Humanities article, “Die veranderende betekenis van die Voortrekkermonument: erfeniswins of erfenisverlies?” by Anton van Vollenhoven (read the English abstract here).
The Voortrekker Monument has various symbolic meanings for different people. How does one relate the monument as symbol of apartheid and Afrikaner nationalism with its historical value (namely the “contribution to knowledge”)?
What to do with historical monuments is a highly topical concern in all the former settler colonies, as the recent clashes at Charlottesville in the United States clearly demonstrate. Decolonisation is becoming a matter of urgency, and confrontation with historical white supremacy and continued white privilege is gaining momentum globally. Within this context, questions such as this deserve serious contemplation and demand uncomfortable self-reflection from those whose heritage is under scrutiny.
The Voortrekker Monument was conceived at a moment of crisis, after the British defeat of the Boer Republics, when there were compelling reasons to construct a proud nationalist identity to unify and mobilise a dispirited Afrikaner Volk. The plans for the monument were presented to the public in 1938, as part of the centenary celebrations of the Great Trek, and it was built in 1949, the year after the Nationalists came to power, to declare the triumph of Afrikaner nationalism. That the monument is of immense symbolic importance for Afrikaners is, therefore, beyond doubt. Perhaps no other cultural text so succinctly summarises the grand narratives, symbolic language and ideological underpinnings of Afrikaner power. But, there can be no question that it also represents the white supremacy and xenophobia at the heart of Afrikaner nationalism.
Any ideologically driven cultural self-representation necessarily constructs a debased and excluded other, and the marble reliefs recounting the narrative of the Trekkers are replete with brutal scenes of savages killing vulnerable Boer women and children. The history that is narrated here is of a brave and God-fearing community fleeing British oppression to seek independence, only to be repeatedly betrayed and savagely attacked by black hordes. The monument’s central symbolic event is the Day of the Vow, 16 December 1838, when a covenant was struck between the antecedents of the Afrikaner and God, which, according to the grand narrative, sealed and blessed Afrikaner rule over the indigenous peoples of the land. The Battle of Blood River reveals the Afrikaner as God’s chosen Volk, ordained to subdue, rule and civilise. The audience for whom this narrative was intended, young white Afrikaners, got the message loud and clear: black Africans were treacherous savages – the “Swart Gevaar”; God was on our side, and the blood and tears that our ancestors spilt to obtain sovereignty and autonomy sealed our rights to the land. The marble reliefs in the Hall of Heroes narrate a teleological narrative of the gradual conquering and possession of the interior of southern Africa and the founding of a white settler nation, in which the indigenous populations and exogenous others would be granted subsidiary and inferior roles.
Like the Confederate monuments in the United States, these self-glorifying narratives conceal stark historical truths that need to be remembered: both the Civil War in the States and the Great Trek were mobilised by the impending abolition of slavery. The wealth of both the United States and South Africa was built on the bowed backs of black labour. All settler colonies entailed the forcible dispossession and [often] virtual extermination of indigenous populations. It is, therefore, impossible to expect that this self-glorifying monument to Afrikaner power can go unchallenged.
Yet, properly understood, it is an exemplar of how nationalist identities are visually and symbolically constructed – it constitutes a kind of textbook example of the narcissism, chauvinism and dangerous ideology of nationalisms wherever they may be found. All nationalisms rest on grand narratives that distort history to justify possession of land, and all nationalisms depend on the creation of a debased and excluded other. If properly curated, the Voortrekker Monument could be used as an educational tool, but as long as white power is still naturalized and white privilege continues unabated, it must remain a provocation and a reminder that South Africa’s white populations came off scot-free. It helps to remember that this monument was conceived and planned at a time when Afrikaners were defeated, economically under threat, and objects of English cultural contempt. This fact – that extreme nationalisms emerge when peoples suffer systematic injustices – should bring home the desperate need for affirmative black self-representation, as well as explain the rage that motivates a student to hurl human effluence at a sculpture of Cecil John Rhodes. But, it is also a fact that the symbolism and power of the monument are still intact in the minds of right-wing Afrikaner nationalists, who revere it as a sacred site of Afrikaner culture and history. Unless a rigorous intervention is undertaken to contextualize and explain it and educate visitors, white and black, Afrikaner or not, this monument will remain a provocation.
How do you feel about the removal of a statue like Rhodes (that symbolizes alienation, discrimination and oppression for many people)? Does it have to be completely destroyed, or should it be preserved somewhere?
I am all for its removal, though I have colleagues who cogently argue for its retention. I am not greatly concerned about whether it is destroyed or kept, to be honest – propaganda art about “Great Men” looks depressingly similar the world over and ultimately becomes pigeon perches. One could but hope that the time for these kinds of public sculptures is over, whether they’re produced to glorify new nations or old. Ideally, I suppose, they should be moved to historical theme parks, where they can educate about the transience of power and the mortality of Great Men, as well as how the social realist aesthetic is the international language of political propaganda. If it is decided to keep such sculptures, means must be found to explain why they are there, what they signified when they were erected, and what they might be seen to encode now.
The writer of the article states that the management of the Voortrekker Monument endeavours to highlight the monument’s cultural value, rather than its political meaning. Do you think this shift in emphasis is an idea that people will buy?
No. Absolutely not. It is naïve to think that cultural and political meanings can be unravelled. This monument was not primarily erected as a cultural object – it was always intensely political in its conception, timing and style. Public art and architecture must always be understood as political statements.
Therefore: can perceptions be broken down by, as mentioned in the article, offering an “alternative narrative” to visitors to encourage inclusivity and bridge building between communities?
It depends utterly on who writes the “alternative narrative” and how it is presented. If it is done with due self-reflexivity, and without defensiveness or a desire for absolution, it could be successful.
Can such an attempt (namely shift in emphasis) lead to a type of obliteration of historical symbolic meaning?
Historical symbolic meanings can be erased, but not easily, and certainly not in this context, in which there is a need for South Africa’s black populations to retrieve their own histories and construct their own heroic national narratives. There are myriad texts on Afrikaner cultural symbols, and the libraries are full of those historical narratives. There are ways of owning Afrikaner culture that is not sectarian and offensive. One does not have to hang the old South African flag in one’s house to teach one’s children love of their heritage. The flag is not neutral; it never can be. Any culture is much, much more encompassing than its pompous, official manifestations. Afrikaans culture is flourishing as never before – festivals abound, books are being published and poetry written, and the music market is booming. Historical symbolic meanings are being re-interpreted and excavated in wonderfully rich books, such as Marleen van Niekerk’s Agaat, which do not try to glorify or justify Afrikaner abuse of power. Afrikaans speakers of colour have risen to prominence to open out and air the stuffy laager of “official” white high culture, while many white Afrikaners now embrace a vibrant and colloquial “low” culture, which gives impetus to a lot of new writing and music. Though I loathe state-subsidised monuments, it is inevitable that new monuments will arise, new grand narrative be formulated. Afrikaner hegemonic power has come and gone; its symbols also need to be seen as transient.
In 2011, this monument was declared a national heritage site. The monument is, therefore, regarded as valuable for national heritage. Is this perspective insensitive?
I think so, yes. The fondness some people feel for the monument is not, to my mind, more important than the loathing felt by the majority. That loathing is there for good reasons that have not sufficiently been recognized and acknowledged by white South Africans. We have to prepare ourselves for the fact that the era of reconciliation and tolerance is over, as hard as that may be. And let’s be honest: white people did not use that window of opportunity to reach out and understand the pain and anger of their black fellow citizens. There is no place for white self-pity in this country at this time. If we want the possibility of forgiveness, we have to make sacrifices and show ourselves willing to understand why the majority of our countrymen and countrywomen feel the way they do about our symbols and narratives. I am not calling for the demolition of the Voortrekker Monument, but it is disingenuous to think that it can be redeemed by stripping it of its political codes. The political message must, if anything, be highlighted, deconstructed and explained, and interventions in the monument’s grand narratives must be invited and welcomed for the sake, also, of future Afrikaner generations.
- Also read: “Is alle verwysings na erfenis nou taboe?”