OK, I admit it: I learned most of what I know about the world by watching SportsCenter.
I learned, for example, that games aren’t played on paper, they’re played inside television sets. I learned that if a person is unfazed by pressure, he is as cool as the other side of the pillow. I learned that if a man is motivated enough, he Could. Go. All. The. Way.
I also learned that the legendary Lithuanian basketball giant is not Myvydas, not Yourvydas, but Arvydas Sabonis. Knowing this, it makes sense that the giant, toaster-looking shrine to Afrikaner history on Proclamation Hill, overlooking all of Pretoria, is not the Mytrekker, not the Yourtrekker, but the Voortrekker Monument.
At least, I think that’s how it goes. But, since all the photos below were shot with my iPhone, maybe we should call it the iTrekker.
Regardless, Jenny and I set out last Saturday morning to visit the Voortrekker Monument, as well as the newer Freedom Park, which was designed and built as a tribute to democracy and the South African and continental leaders who fought for independence and self-determination. Some say it is the yin to Voortrekker’s yang, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
First, a bike ride.
And, my first ride since I spilled at Nkomazi.
It wasn’t exactly the confidence booster I needed. See, the grounds around the Voortrekker Monument have three kinds of mountain bike trails: 4×4 track, the easiest; single track, for intermediate level riders; and black diamond, for crazy people. We tried to stick to the single track, but with the tall brush and minimal signage, I think we sometimes found ourselves on the wrong rock-hopping, ravine-spanning, cliff-jumping paths. And, did we mention that Voortrekker is on Proclamation Hill?
Knackered and sweaty from our ride, we set off to see what was so hot about the toaster. With tight hamstrings and burning quads, we faced the first of the Voortrekker’s many staircases.
The whole idea of the monument is – and I will quote the official website here so as not to incite the volk with a misinterpretation – to commemorate “the Pioneer history of Southern Africa and the history of the Afrikaner.” I suppose it does that. It certainly does relate a history. But, as those who have some familiarity with the history of the Afrikaner, both ancient and modern, can attest, the story part of that history has many sides. I’m not sure how many were presented inside the Voortrekker Monument. I think I’ll leave it at that.
What I am sure of is that the monument is much more interesting, and much less like a kitchen appliance, up close than it is from a distance. The façade, while fashioned from a relatively drab stone, has an incredibly intricate detail and multiple, subtle lines. Its hulking frame stands firm, but it also strains upward toward the heavens, as if appealing for divine blessing. The sum of all these parts evokes senses of strength, pride and reverence. Of manifest destiny.
For each emotion conjured on the outside, the inside invoked three more. The true purpose of the place became instantly blurred. It’s a church. It’s a museum. It’s a mausoleum. It’s the Halls of Justice. It’s a secret lair. It’s a…
It’s everything. It’s visual history of the Great Trek. It’s flags of former territories. It’s a sunbeam on an empty tomb. It’s panels and dioramas. It’s mannequins and oxcarts. It’s guns and knives. It’s Boers and Bantus. It’s battles and bloodshed. It’s spices and spirituality. It’s sculptures of serious men.
It’s time to leave.
After a short spell overlooking the city from the parapet near the top of the monument – we spotted the grassy field on campus where we walk Indie every morning – we grabbed a snack and lit out for Freedom Park.
Freedom Park is…well…a lot. Again, just to stay relatively neutral on all this, I quote the official website: “Freedom Park is the creation of a memorial that narrates the story of South Africa’s pre-colonial, colonial, apartheid, and post-apartheid history and heritage, spanning a period of 3.6 billion years of humanity, to acknowledge those that contributed to the freedom of the country.”
All things to all people, ne?
Officially opened in 2007 (from what I can gather), Freedom Park is a beautiful, thoughtful, peaceful and, on the day we visited, deserted place. Though there was another car parked in the lot, Jenny and I didn’t encounter another soul up there. (Except for the gardeners, whose weed whackers sometimes shattered the otherwise serene atmosphere.)
We meandered along the curving walkways, around the S’khumbuto (a siSwati word meaning “place of remembrance”) and Wall of Names, which serve as memorials to the conflicts of South Africa’s distant and recent past.
Inside the S’khumbuto is the Gallery of Leaders. We wanted this to be more. As it is, the only exhibit consists of ceiling-to-floor banners depicting African leaders who fought for national independence and racial equality. Oh, and Che Guevara. Perhaps for his role in Angola.
However, with no one around to explain things – granted, we did decline the tour guide – the park was kinda mysterious. Well designed. Important. But, somewhat elusive.
And that brings us back to the question of whether Freedom Park is the intentional antithesis of the Voortrekker Monument.
Eish. Not for me to say.
If I had to say, I’d say this: Some of the accounts offered at the Voortrekker could use a counterbalance, methinks, but Freedom Park does not necessarily serve that purpose. Nor should it. There’s already enough tension still hanging in the air, even up in the hills atop which the parks are perched, about history and its revisions. Freedom Park plays a different role, one that it will hopefully grow into over time. And one that, hopefully, more people will pay to see.
Otherwise, the next engraving on the Wall of Names will be that of Freedom Park itself. Except no one will care enough to bring flowers.