Pretoria, South Africa

Here we are popping up in Pretoria, the administrative capital of South Africa. We are here to join a tour commencing tomorrow morning that begins with a trip to Cape Town on the famous Blue Train and then a tour of South Africa more generally.

I spent a week in South Africa in around 1982 when I was working for Control Data. At that time apartheid was in full swing. I’ll be interested to see what has changed since then.

We were up early yesterday to catch an 8.00 am flight to Sydney and then a Qantas flight non-stop to Johannesburg. Frustratingly, this flight flew back right over Melbourne in the first hour of its 14 hour long flight. For some reason, this flight seemed to be very long. I guess that it was because the whole trip took place in daylight hours as we travelled with the sun all the way. The flight is actually no longer than ones from Sydney to Los Angeles or Santiago, but those flights take place overnight so some time is spent asleep and it doesn’t seem to be so long.

At Johannesburg, we waited anxiously for our luggage bro come out almost last and than collected a local sim card for my phone. We then found our transfer for the half-hour drive to Pretoria. We arrived early in the evening at about 7.00 pm local time although by then, we had already been awake for twenty hours. After checking in to our hotel, all we were interested in doing was having a quick shower and crashing into bed.

Pretoria is one of South Africa’s three capital cities and has a population of around 700,000 people (not including those living in nearby townships). It serves as the seat of the executive branch of government (Cape Town is the legislative capital and Bloemfontein the judicial capital). Pretoria has a reputation for being an academic city with three universities. A number of government agencies are located here, as are many foreign embassies and High Commissions. P5140815

Pretoria is named after the Voortrekker leader Andries Pretorius, and within South Africa it is popularly known as the “Jacaranda City” due to the thousands of Jacaranda trees planted in its streets, parks and gardens. I always thought that these are indigenous South African trees, but our tour guide, today, told us that they were originally imported from Brazil.

We lazed around for the first half of today (Sunday and Mother’s Day) and took a local tour of city sights this afternoon. There is not a lot of interest for tourists in this place because most activity is centred on universities and government facilities. As we know, most government offices are rather boring. Over three hours, our guide took us around the three major attractions in town.

The first was the Voortrekker Monument. It is 40 metres high, with a base of 40 metres by 40 metres. You enter through a black wrought iron gate decorated with an assegai (spear) motif. After passing through the gate you find yourself inside a big laager consisting of 64 ox-wagons made out of decorative granite. This circle of wagons was the way in which the Boers camped overnight, using the wagons for protection.

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At the foot of the Monument stands a sculpture of a Voortrekker woman and her two children. It recognises the strength and courage that women played in the early days of white settlement in the country.

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The Cenotaph, situated in the centre of the building, is the central focus of the monument. In addition to being viewable from the main hall, it can also be seen from the dome at the top of the building. Through an opening in this dome, a ray of sunlight shines at twelve o’clock on 16 December annually, falling onto the centre of the Cenotaph, striking the words ‘Ons vir Jou, Suid-Afrika’ (Afrikaans for ‘We for Thee, South Africa’). The ray of light is said to symbolise God’s blessing on the lives and endeavours of the Voortrekkers.

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This monument is really a memorial to the Boer pioneers who moved across South Africa in the pioneering days. I get the impression that it is largely irrelevant to the vast majority of black people (and non-afrikaans people) in the population. Whites make up only about 15% of the population here and those with an Africaan heritage perhaps account for only about 5% of the total population. Some of the murals show this very clearly. However der, at the time that was built (during WW2) the Afrikaans were very powerful in South Africa.

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Our next visit was to Church Square in the central downtown area. This square is the historic centre of the city. The founder of Pretoria, Marthinus Pretorius, decided that the square be used as a market place and church yard. It was subsequently named for the church buildings that stood at the centre of the square from 1856 to 1905. The square’s most prominent feature, since June 1954, is however the statue of the late Boer leader and president of the South African Republic, Paul Kruger. It now has a large fence around it to protect it from protesters who disfigured it in protests over the significance of Boer statues in the country.

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Several historically and architecturally significant buildings surround the square: the Palace of Justice, the Old Capitol Theatre, the Tudor Chambers, the Old Council Chamber and the General Post Office. The impressive Palace of Justice was the scene of arguably the most famous political trial in South Africa’s history, the Rivonia Trial. It was the trial in which Nelson Mandela and a number of other ANC members were charged with treason, found guilty and subsequently imprisoned for so many years. 

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Our final stop was at the Union Buildings that form the official seat of the South African government and also house the offices of the President. Named for the unification of original Boer republics into the newton of South Africa, these buildings are one of the centres of political life in the country.  I understand that in th days of apartheid, these were hated by the black people as a symbol of their suppression. However, since apartheid has been discontinued, it has become an iconic landmark of Pretoria and South Africa in general as an emblem of democracy. It’s now one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city . It’s as if the building has turned around 180 degrees. A large statue of Nelson Mandela with outstretched arms now stands in front of the building.

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3 comments

  1. Eamon Tansey · ·

    Great review

  2. Trina Bruce · ·

    When did the Boers 1st go to Sth Africa? I should get the “encyclopaedia ” out😉

  3. Pamela Saunders · ·

    I am struck by how much reference through monuments and statues etc reflect times of conflict and war. And I am sad that this is probably a truth about human activities throughout history; defined by battles.
    How quaint that already the large monument of a building the GPO is fast becoming a relic of its original purpose.
    Love the Mandela statue.