This past weekend, Toni and I joined Marieke in a tour of Afrikaner culture in Pretoria. Marieke is herself Afrikaans and generously shared her own experiences growing up in South Africa. You might know two things about Afrikaners: First, Charlize Theron; second, they were the architects and the ruling party during apartheid. That too sums up about all I knew coming to South Africa so I was interested to learn more.
Our itinerary for the day was the Voortrekker Memorial, Paul Kruger’s House, Church Square, the Union Buildings, and end with drinks at a Afrikaner bar called Ridgeback. Schubart Park, a housing project that was the center of a Con Court case last term also made the list. But more on that later.
Generally, Afrikaner history is the history of the mostly Dutch settlers who first landed in the area of what is now known as Cape Town. But the Dutch did not actually colonize South Africa, England did. And it was conflict with English rule that pushed the Afrikaaners to set out in search of “self-realisation” and independent rule. That journey is now called the Great Trek and was marked with a whole lot of fighting both with the English and Zulus.
The Voortrekker Memorial represents the fulfillment of the Afrikaner’s promise to thank God for faithfulness during that journey. It’s a stark structure and one loaded with symbolism There are three levels once inside. At the top there is a small hole which the sun hits once a year in December and shines down onto a marble coffin on the lower level. That day is a holiday on which Afrikaners go to church and remember.
The site remains a tourist attraction although an awkward one in South Africa’s young multi-racial democratic state, as it memorializes a community that has caused a great deal of pain and suffering to the majority of the population. The old South African flag is emblazoned on all sorts of souvenirs. Reminds me strongly of the tenuous place of the confederate flag in the US.
We next visited the home of a beloved Afrikaner President, Paul Kruger. His home was maybe seven rooms, extremely modest and stands in marked contrast to English rule at the time. Set up across the street was his family’s own personal chapel built like a miniature cathedral.
Then to Church Square, near the site of the ANC’s largest attacks during the struggle for freedom. Like downtown Joburg, downtown Pretoria is mostly black and we were the only white people there.
Lastly to the Union Buildings, a grand and imposing building at the top of a hill reminiscent of India’s Supreme Court. The grounds were lush and green. We counted at least three very large wedding parties posing in front of the well-manicured trees. In the full sun though, I’m sure they were melting in those heavy satin dresses!
By this time, even with multiple snacks along the way, we were all wicked hungry. The Ridgeback was exactly what I was waiting for. The outside seating was on picnic tables with rugby playing on big screen TVs and misters spraying water into the hot air. I ordered a basket of samosas and fritters full of melted cheese. We quieted down to eat and I mulled over the insights Marieke shared in terms of her Afrikaner experience in South Africa.