Differing views on the centenary trek of 1938
One of the subsidiary headlines over the report on the start of the Great Trek centenary replay in 1938 recorded, in a hopeful tone, the “‘peace and unity’ note in speeches”.
Yet it is clear these nearly 80 years later that the two speakers on the day, if not exactly talking at cross purposes, were addressing very different national qualities, and both had in mind a very limited sense of what “nation” amounted to.
H J Klopper of the trek’s sponsors, the Afrikaanse Taal en Kultuurvereniging ( Afrikaans Language and Culture Association or ATKV), was anxious about Afrikaner unity; Cape Town mayor W C Foster hoped to see “the English and Boers as they were called at the beginning of the century” collaborating to forge “one great nation”. It was left to the bulk of society merely to spectate.
What was clear over the next decade was that, not for the last time in South African politics, historical myth proved effective in rallying chauvinistic sentiment. By the time the Voortrekker Monument was unveiled in an elaborate ceremony in 1949, the conjured romance of the 1830s Great Trek had helped to shore up the logic of a brand of Afrikaner unity that would delay the country’s destiny as an indivisible society for more than four decades. Here is how the centenary trek was reported at the time. A crowd of more than 10 000 people, lining Adderley-street and crowding the circus at its foot, witnessed the start of the “Great Trek” of the two Voortrekker wagons to the Rand and Blood River from Van Riebeeck’s statue at 1.30 to-day. The service, at which Mr. O Pirow, Minister of Defence, and Mr. W. C. Foster, Mayor of Cape Town, were speakers, took place in the blazing sunshine, with Table Mountain a shimmering blue backcloth to the scene.
The wagons, drawn by teams of red Afrikander oxen, and the mounted commando which will accompany them on the first “skof,” or trek of the journey, were assembled in the Castle.
For several hours before the start the great courtyard rang with the bustle of mounted men in flowered waistcoats, short black jackets and corduroy trousers. Women in long dresses of floral gingham and traditional “kappies,” with children in the garb of 100 years ago, gave realism to the opening scene in this pageant which, celebrating the centen- ary of the Great Trek, will move ever northward from town to town and village to village until, sometime in December, it reaches its journey’s end.
The streets were so crowded when the trek moved out of the Castle that all traffic had to be suspended as it slowly progressed down the streets to the circus which surrounds Van Riebeeck’s statue. Here, it was received by the representatives of the organizing Afrikaans Taal en Kultuur Vereeniging and by State and civic representatives.
Mr. H. J. Klopper, chairman of the executive committee of the A.T.K.V. recalled the sol- emn promise made by Charl Cilliers on the eve of the Battle of Blood River, and appealed to the nation to attend the celebrations in the spirit of that promise.
“Let us go to the celebrations as one nation. Let us build a monument of united Afrikaner hearts, stretching from the Cape to Pretoria.
“We trust that the two wagons of the A.T.K.V. will be the means of getting Afrikaner hearts, which to-day may not beat in unison, to beat as one again.”
The Mayor, Mr. W. C. Foster, appealed to youth to sink their differences and to work for the great cause of welding them- selves together into one great nation without prejudices of race or language.
“We know only too well the unfortunate strife and unhappiness which existed between the English and Boers as they were called at the beginning of the century,” he said, “but the difficulties arising out of these are surely not insuperable when we compare them with previous difficulties which have been overcome.
“The British and Dutch are two of the premier European races and their union should result in something extraordinarily good, and that is why I am appealing to our youth to set to and to justify themselves.”
‘Boer’ horsemen cross a bridge during the 1938 centennial re-enactment of the Great Trek.