“ I come here this evening because of my deep interest and affection for a land settled by the Dutch in the mid-seventeenth century, then taken over by the British, and at last independent; a land in which the native inhabitants were at first subdued, but relations with whom remain a problem to this day; a land which defined itself on a hostile frontier; a land which has tamed rich natural resources through the energetic application of modern technology; a land which was once the importer of slaves, and now must struggle to wipe out the last traces of that former bondage. I refer, of course, to the United States of America. ” -Robert F. Kennedy, Day of Affirmation speech, June 6, 1966.
This is the begging of the “Ripple of Hope” speech given by Sen. Kennedy gave at University of Cape Town just over 50 years ago.
The most famous quote from the speech came about 3/4 of the way through the speech:
Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
When I visited the Voortrekkers monument it seemed as though we were coming face to face with the representation of the “mightiest walls of oppression” that represented the Apartheid government. Our guide for the site was great. He went into great detail about the design and construction of the monument, even including the careful rhetorical argument that the architect needed to make to the Calvinistic government since he included elements of North African religions into the monuments design. As we went inside he carefully went through the detailed history that each panel represented.
He took care to tell us which pieces were not historically accurate and he paid great tribute to the Afrikaner women for their strength and perseverance throughout the “great trek”. However, I kept thinking of the chevrons at the top of the monument and on the marble tile on the floor inside. Our guide told us that these represented a ripple or wave going out from the monument into all of South Africa. It seems to be the most understated and most prolific part of the entire monument. Annie Coombes argues in History After Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa that
the Voortrekker Monument has a significance of all South Africans.” She continues, “Historically, then, the Voortrekker Monument is of critical significance for the foundational myths of Afrikaner nationalism-in particular the idea of the Trek as the moment of emergence of the Afrikaner as the founding ethnic group of a new nation, ‘the white tribe’, and the ‘divine right’ of the Trekkers to the land. These myths are embodied through the structure of the monument itself- first through the seductive resolution provided by the narrative of encounter and conquest represented by the interior freze, and second through the fact that the edifice houses what amounts to a cenotaph on its lower level, replete with ‘eternal flame’, to the memory of Trekkers killed en route.
The monument is almost perfect in its support of the Great Trek and Afrikaner myth as the chosen people for South Africa. The monument is a contested space and I agree with Coombes that the monument is significant to all South Africans but not for the same reasons. I would argue that the majority of South Africans would see the monument as a direct representation of “the mightiest walls of oppression” Kennedy spoke about at the Day of Affirmation.