The architects of a narrative are the ones who craft history. Furthermore, the validity of their “truths” is a matter of great subjectivity and often little factuality. These statements have never been as true to me as they have been now in South Africa, where we have observed how the “winners,” (a title synonymous with oppressive invaders in this context) ultimately have the last word. In fact, the structure of certain narratives, especially those whitewashed to eliminate the pain and suffering incurred over hundreds of conflict can easily convince the less-refined to accept many fallacies.
Voortrekkers, Dutch descendants who sought to colonize an already inhabited large region of Africa, can be described as “pioneers” by their descendants, where as the descendants of the Xhosa, Zulu and other tribes that the Voortrekkers killed would beg to differ. After many years of the Voortrekkers’ senseless killings (with their advanced cavalry and weaponry) for the sake of their own land gains, the Battle of Blood River asserted Voortrekker control.
Piet Retief, leader for his following of Voortrekkers, approached the Zulu king Dingane to obtain land in 1837. After negotiations and an agreement, Dingane ordered his men to kill the foreigners, despite their signed contact. Needless to say, the remaining Voortrekkers heard of the news and began preparations for retaliation. After a failed attempt, they anticipated another Zulu attack. This time, on December 16, 1838, they were able to kill allegedly thousands of Zulu men while suspiciously incurring zero casualties on their end. The Battle of Blood River as it would later be known as due to the blood of the Zulus that made the river red, inspired the Voortrekkers to commemorate the “victory” with a Voortrekker monument that is celebrated around annually in a ceremony that draws thousands of Afrikaaners to Johannesburg annually.
Now, while a very compelling story, I found the biases with which this story was delivered to us at the very same Voortrekker monument to be angering and repugnant to say the least. In the story told to us by a prideful descendant of the Voortrekkers, the Zulus were depicted as savages infringing on the “right” of the Voortrekkers to explore and obtain land on a continent to which they were not native.
While it was such wickedly exploitative and violent colonialism that defines the grounding of the United States of America, a nation to which I proudly vocalize my allegiance, I am forever embarrassed by the racist, white supremacist intentions that began U.S. history. In listening to the heroic way our guide spoke about the Voortrekkers, and walking the terrain established to commemorate a horrifically painful history, I could not help but squirm.
Down the road from the Voortrekker Monument is Freedom Park—a park that then President Thabo Mbeki announced as a place a tribute to humanity, which would commemorate the lives of those who died in the name of combatting injustice. Sadly enough, despite the powerful symbolism of this arena where leaders of many faiths were able to contribute to the construction of, to create a pluralistic place of reflection on South Africa’s history, our Voortrekker guide only gestured to it as something along the lines of “that place of there with the tall poles.”
Such a gap in the understanding of its implications, especially in the mind of a historian who sells her heroic narrative of the Voortrekkers for profit at the site daily, was shocking to say the least. Furthermore, it was off-putting to witness the blissful ignorance this woman was able to surround herself with.
Of course, while I detest the narrative we received at the Monument, I respect the tour guide’s liberty to speak her “truth,” and I appreciate the diversity of opinions required to grapple with complex histories. However, what is important to recognize is this: one, two or even hundreds of accounts of history can be equally devastating to the preservation of truth. In a world where people are paid to sell their convoluted interpretations of history, it is important to always remain skeptical, question authority, and cling tightly to each and every opportunity to question the narratives we receive.