By GENE MUSTAIN and MICHAEL O. ALLEN, Daily News Staff Writers | Wednesday, April 13, 1994
PRETORIA—The prospect of black majority rule has resulted in the privatization of this country’s most famous monument.
In a move akin to turning the Statute of Liberty over to the Manhattan Institute, the departing white minority government has transferred ownership of the Voortrekker Monument to a conservative citizens group.
The monument, a huge stone monolith atop a hill overlooking this capital city, celebrates the Afrikaners—whites of Dutch, German and French descent who “trekked” into the interior and defeated black Zulus 150 years ago.
Several Afrikaner treks are heroically depicted in a beautifully sculpted frieze on the 10-story monument’s interior walls, but the frieze tells a one-sided story of white conquest and superiority that blacks find offensive.
“The monument is a sensitive issue with blacks,” an earnest young Afrikaner tour guide said yesterday, “but you must realize it is only one stone of South African history, and there are many stones.”
The black politicians set to take control of the government at the end of this month say the Voortrekker (“fore-trekker”) Monument is not a Berlin Wall and won’t be torn down, but Afrikaners are nonetheless worried.
For that reason, the lame-duck government recently turned over ownership of the monument to an alliance of Afrikaner cultural groups—even though it still continues to subsidize the annual maintenance cost.
While the monument’s superintendent, Luther Begwidenhout, deferred questions about the matter to others, he did offer a newspaper clipping in which black leaders expressed only a desire to add “context” to the monument’s version of a particularly bloody history.
“They also say there’s room for everyone in this country, and I accept that,” he said. “I have got white skin. I can’t change that. If they don’t want me in this country, they will have to forcibly remove me.”
The gate to the monument was guarded yesterday by a sleepy-eyed black youth thumbing a copy of Penthouse Magazine.
Inside, another black showed how, once a year precisely on Dec. 16, the sun rotates in such a way it shines a beam of light through a hole in the ceiling onto a crypt containing the symbolic remains of trek heroes.
Until 1992, Dec. 16 was known as the Day of the Vow—after the day in 1838 when a group of trekkers swore to God they would forever celebrate it as a day of thanksgiving if only he would help them defeat the Zulus.
“Some people now think it is unfair to ask God’s help against another people,” said the tour guide, Helene Heymans, who added that Dec. 16 is now known as the Day of the Heroes and celebrates black Africans as well.
The meaning of the day may have changed, but the frieze remains. It shows that after making the vow, some 530 trekkers circled their oxen-driven wagons and engaged some 12,000 Zulus in a battle known as Blood River.
About 3,000 Zulus died; only three trekkers were wounded.