The Voortrekker Monument as Memory Institution: Mediating Collective Memory, Tourism and Educational Programming for a Local and Global Audience

The Voortrekker Monument as Memory Institution: Mediating Collective Memory, Tourism and Educational Programming for a Local and Global Audience

Annie R. Antonites, Johan Nel
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-7429-3.ch019
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The Voortrekker Monument has been a central memory institution for Afrikaners since its conception in the 1930s. Built to commemorate 19th century white settlers moving into the interior, the Monument has for many years been appropriated by different groups for various purposes, including as an Afrikaner Nationalist symbol. Since the early 1990s, the Monument has made a concerted effort to change established perceptions and stigmas. The Monument's registration as a Section 21 Non-Profit Company in 1993 and declaration as National Heritage Site in 2011 were accompanied by a shift in focus from a political character to one where its aesthetic architectural heritage and tourism values are celebrated. These changes in character enabled and drove the expansion of the Voortrekker Monument heritage site as a memory institution. This chapter discusses the continued success of the Monument post-1994 as a national memory institution through the diversification of its visitors and programmes.
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The Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria is an iconic landmark, situated on a low hill, surrounded by a municipal nature reserve. The Monument was erected to commemorate the Voortrekkers (white emigrant farmers) and their role in shaping Afrikaner1 and South African history. The Battle of Blood River / Ncome, fought between a group of Voortrekkers and the Zulu King Dingane’s warriors on 16 December 1838, was the key event underlying the motivation for a commemorative monument.

Since its conception in the 1930s, the place it occupies in people’s experience as well as its physical space has changed. The Voortrekker Monument has special significance to Afrikaner’s social collective. Only in 1938, 36 years after the ravages of the 1899 to 1902 Anglo-Boer War (also referred to as the South African War), when a symbolic ox-wagon trek was organised to celebrate the centenary of the Great Trek, did an Afrikaner sense of national unity and belonging become apparent (Evaldsson & Wessels, 2003; Templin, 1999). The cornerstone laying ceremony in December 1938 was attended by more than 100 000 Afrikaners from all walks of life. In December 1949, a year after the National Party won power, 250 000 Afrikaners attended the inauguration, often regarded by historians as one of the most significant public events in the rise of Afrikaner Nationalism (Labuschagne, 2013; O’Brien, 2013; Templin, 1999; see also Ferreira, 1975).

The amphitheatre, which was specially constructed for the 1949 inauguration to seat around 30 000 people, became one of the most culturally significant Afrikaner sites, often used for ceremonies and events by the Nationalist government (see Labuschagne, 2013). This led to a perception that the Monument was National Party property. The place became an apartheid icon and many Afrikaners dissociated themselves from the Voortrekker Monument in the 1980s (Coombes, 2000; Kruger, 2002).

In 1999, new management actively sought to change the perception of the Voortrekker Monument as an Afrikaner Nationalist, apartheid beacon. This was and continues to be achieved through the adoption of an inclusive approach and aggressive marketing. The Vow service held annually on the Day of Reconciliation (16 December) continues to draw thousands of people and have become more inclusive in character. Events and ceremonies are still hosted at the site, but no longer by political parties or government.

In this chapter, we discuss the reasons for the continued success of the Voortrekker Monument, given its real and perceived historic and contemporary character. The Monument’s ‘survival’ lies in its adaptation from an exclusive place of memory into a memory institution, which caters for its original audience as well as a diverse 21st century global audience. Over the last five years, the Monument has received an average of 155 000 visitors per year (Voortrekker Monument Annual Reports, 2013–2017). International tourists and local school learners from diverse backgrounds represent a significant proportion of those visitors to the Monument.

We briefly contextualise the origins and history of the Monument, followed by a discussion of the significance of the Monument and those ‘elements of memory’ that have jointly contributed to its development into a complex memory institution over time. We characterise the different visitors and activities at the site and how the Monument mediates these diverse experiences and expectations in order to fulfil its responsibility as a memory institution in the transfer of knowledge.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Afrikaner Nationalism: Political ideology with origins in the late nineteenth century, particularly among white Afrikaans-speakers from the Orange Free State and Transvaal who held anti-British sentiments following the 1899 – 1902 South African War. Ideology refined in the 1930s and formed basis of National Party’s 1948 victory and subsequent policies.

National Heritage Site: A place declared in terms of the South African National Heritage Resources Act No. 25 of 1999 that has such exceptional qualities to be of national significance.

Great Trek: Nineteenth century vanguard movement of predominantly white emigrant farmers from the Cape Colony into the South African interior.

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