In the Footsteps of Paul Kruger and the Voortrekkers

I have a confession to make: We’ve lived in South Africa for almost two years, and until last week I had never set foot in Pretoria, its administrative capital, even though it is only 40 minutes from where we live. But two things conspired to make us finally explore it – a visitor from Germany interested in new sights, and the fact that the Jacarandas are beginning to bloom. It was a very educational trip, so much so that I feel like my head is going to explode if I don’t write it all down.

The first bit of learning occurred before we had even left the garage. I wanted to read up on the history and locales before we got there, and searched our travel guide’s index for Pretoria – in vain. It was not to be found. I finally stumbled across it under “Tshwane,” to which Pretoria apparently had been rechristened in 2002. Really? I had no idea! It’s still known and talked about as Pretoria by everybody I’ve ever come across, and incidentally our NAVI also knows it as Pretoria. So that’s what I will keep calling it for the purpose of this post.

We – Zax, Noisette, my sister-in-law, and myself – started our day at Church Square. It’s a beautiful spot, for the very reason that one doesn’t find that type of square here in Joburg (I now imagine loud protests from the people who have ventured into Joburg more than I have). Pretoria strikes you more like a European city, with older buildings, wide tree-lined avenues, monuments galore. In fact, I pointed out the trash-littered sidewalks to Zax and remarked “just like Paris,” at which he was aghast and insisted that Paris (which he has never been to), being a “proper” European city surely must be absolutely clean and orderly. Ha!

blooming jacaranda trees in pretoria
The Jacaranda City
blooming jacaranda trees in pretoria
It’s hard to do Pretoria’s spectacular jacarandas justice in pictures; they are much more impressive in real life, but coming about a week later and capturing the early morning or late afternoon late would have yielded better pictures than these
blooming jacaranda trees in pretoria
With my new friend Photoshop (and thanks to some awesome tutorials on a friend’s blog, I was able to improve it a bit. When I have time, I’ll figure out how to remove the lamp post!

Around Church Square you will find the Ou Raadsaal, the Palace of Justice (where I thought the Rivonia Trial took place*, an event I’ll get to in my post about Lilieslief Farm), the Main Post Office, and in the middle a giant monument of Paul Kruger, if you can see it amongst all the pigeons.

Before I go on, I should try to briefly summarize South Africa’s history (its white history, for Pretoria is very much a monument to its Afrikaans heritage – I will have to get to all the other fascinating history elsewhere on this blog).

Europeans first settled in South Africa in 1652 at the Cape of Good Hope, establishing an outpost of the Dutch East India Company under Jan van Riebeeck. This colony subsequently changed hands several times between the Dutch and the British, and after the abolition of slavery in 1834 a number of discontented Afrikaner farmers or Boers set out in what is called the Great Trek, angered by the British declaration of race equality, and searching for new land to settle in the interior.

Paul Kruger monument in pretoria
Paul Kruger’s statue on Church Square with Ou Raadsaal in the background to the right


These so-called Voortrekkers initially believed to have found the promised land of abundant pastures for their cattle, but this land had only been abandoned due to a destructive war, also called mfecane, between the aggressively expanding Zulu kingdom led by the legendary king Shaka, and other black tribes. New conflicts arose, one of which was the infamous Battle of Blood River in Natal (today’s Kwa-Zulu Natal), where the Voortrekkers defeated a Zulu army far superior in numbers.

While Natal was soon annexed by the British, the other two Boer republics of Orange Free State and Transvaal (literally “across the Vaal” meaning to the North of the Vaal River, also called Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek or ZAR) remained in Afrikaner hands, with the latter becoming more or less independent in 1884 under the leadership of Paul Kruger, who is revered as the father of South Africa.

The discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand shortly thereafter reignited the simmering conflict between British and Afrikaner rule, eventually leading to the Anglo-Boer war in 1899. Kruger fled to Europe, guerilla tactics were adopted by the Boer general Jan Smuts, the British retaliated with a scorched-earth policy and the use of concentration camps in which many civilians died, and by 1902 the Boers were defeated and the peace of Vereeniging was signed. It led to the incorporation of the Cape Colony, Natal, the Orange Free State, and the Transvaal into the Union of South Africa in 1909, which remained a British territory but gave home-rule to the Afrikaners. Under this Union and the leadership of Jan Smuts, South Africans fought alongside the British in both World Wars, although some Afrikaner nationalist elements sympathized with the Nazis, and it is in part from these elements that the National Party eventually rose to establish the system of apartheid.

Kruger House Museum in Pretoria
Kruger House Museum in Pretoria

Did I thoroughly confuse you?  There is so much more to tell but it will have to wait until another time. All I wanted to really get into your head is the name of Paul Kruger and the historical significance of the Voortrekkers, who in many ways were similar to the pioneers setting out for the American West in their wagon trains.

A short distance from Church Square you will find Kruger House Museum, which is where we headed next. It is the house Paul Kruger lived in as president of the South African Republic until he went into exile in 1901, and I would say it’s definitely worth a visit. It will not only give you a chance to see this historic residence but also what life in this particular era was like, what with all the artifacts exhibited there. Zax – who had not been particularly keen to join us, in fact it is still a bit of a mystery to me why he did although of course I was very pleased – immediately perked up and entertained himself trying to translate everything from Afrikaans. I don’t know if this is because we are German, but we can amuse ourselves endlessly with words like slaapkamer (bedroom) and motorhuis (garage), trying to best each other with our pronunciation (which Zax, having recently switched his language from Zulu to Afrikaans, won hands-down).

Kruger House Museum in Pretoria
Old light switch in Kruger House, one of the first buildings with electricity in Pretoria

The whole place actually reminded me of my grandparents’ house in Southern Germany, even though that wasn’t built until the 1930s, and I was hopping from room to room like a little child, excitedly pointing at things like an old coffee mill, a food processor (the kind you strap to the edge of the kitchen table and crank), a washing tin, a rolling pin – all of which I could swear were identical to those living in my childhood memories. There is a pretty garden in the back, a separate “saal” exhibiting all the presents and honors Paul Kruger received from other countries over the years, and an entire railway (“spoorweg” – do you know what I mean?) car that was used as a state carriage and later housed Kruger’s government-in-exile before he fled across the border into present-day Mozambique to embark for Europe. In short, lots and lots of history to soak up (and breathe in, literally, as you can’t escape that distinctive old house smell throughout those rooms).

Kruger House Museum in Pretoria
Paul Kruger’s presidential railway car in which he left Pretoria to go into exile

Back at Church Square, we needed a break and settled for Cokes and sandwiches at Café Riche, which apparently is another well-known fixture in Pretoria. The food was okay, not great, but the location on the corner of Church Square with a view of the Palace of Justice and the big lawn with its pigeons in front can’t be beat.

pretoria church square
Cafe Riche on Church Square

Our next stop, after we felt sufficiently refreshed, was the hill with the Union Buildings. Those were built in when the South African Union came into existence and the two lovely towers are meant to symbolize the two cultures or rather languages this union was built upon (the existence of the black tribes and multitude of languages was conveniently left out at that time). It is here where Nelson Mandela was sworn in and gave his historical inauguration speech as the first democratically elected president of South Africa in 1994. You can go crazy here with your camera – there is so much beautiful architecture, the gardens below are a spectacle of color to behold, and the view of Pretoria down below is breathtaking. One interesting tidbit: The statue of Nelson Mandela that now graces Mandela Square in Sandton was originally meant to stand in the courtyard of the Union Buildings. I’m not sure why the location was changed. Another fact I found interesting is that Pretoria boasts the second largest number of foreign embassies in the world, after Washington DC, and many of those can be found in the vicinity of the Union Buildings.

union buildings in pretoria
The Union Buildings, designed by Sir Herbert Baker, are theofficial seat of South African government
pretoria skyline
Lovely view of Pretoria from the site of the Union Buildings
photographer at union buildings in pretoria
I couldn’t get enough of the Union Buildings from every single angle

Our final destination of the day could not have stood in more contrast to the graceful architecture of the Union Buildings. The Voortrekkermonument is probably one of the ugliest structures ever built, but nonetheless imposing with its own strange beauty. In fact, those two architectural opposites in many ways represent the divide still present to this day between the Afrikaans- and English speaking population of South Africa. People with English heritage are often considered more refined, educated, and cosmopolitan, whereas one associates Afrikaners with the land, the old days, farming, and a disdain for the outside world (boy am I going to get into hot water with that comment!).

voortrekker monument pretoria
Voortrekker Monument

But look at the pictures for yourself and you’ll understand what I mean. There is a lot of symbolism built into the Voortrekker monument that glorifies not only their quest but Afrikaner supremacy, which I, given my German heritage, cannot help but feel very uncomfortable with, as it cuts very close to the symbols of our own dirty past. I have much admiration for the new South African government for having left this monument intact and open for future generations to visit and admire, but I suspect tearing it down might simply have been an insurmountable task, what with all this solid granite! I’m glad it’s there, as all history is worth revisiting.

voortrekker monument pretoria
One of the Afrikaner symbols is the covered wagon (conveniently housing the toilet here)
voortrekker monument pretoria
Lots and lots of covered wagons surrounding the Voortrekker Monument
voortrekker monument pretoria
This marble shrine can be viewed from a balcony above. Every year on December 16th, the date of the Battle of Blood River, a shard of light shines on it from the top of the monument. One cannot help but think of Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol” when being inundated with such symbolism. By the way, the 16th of December is now a public holiday called “Day of Reconciliation” to promote unity between the races [this is a correction from an earlier version].
view from Voortrekker monument pretoria
View down from the top of Voortrekker monument; I hope you appreciate the fact that I went up there, despite my phobia of heights, to take pictures for this blog; in fact, not only did I GO up there, I RAN up there, challenged by Zax, who once raced me to the 21st storyof a hotel in Manhattan. I lost, then and now.
voortrekker monument pretoria
One of the Voortrekkers

We actually met up with fellow blogger Bing that day, who you can see here with her husband waving from the top of the monument:

voortrekker monument pretoria


* Thank you to Andrew, a reader of Joburg Expat, to make this correction: 
Your remark on Pretoria (Palace of Justice where the Rivonia Trial took place,) is not correct. The trial took place at the Old Synagogue on the east side of Paul Kruger Street, in the third block, North of Church Square. Many articles on the web make this mistake. Look up the ‘Old Synagogue Pretoria’ on the web. The synagogue was refurbished as a court.”

This post is part of the What To Do In Joburg series.

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