Next to Joubert Bridge, just outside on Pilgrim’s Rest on the way to Robber’s Pass, stands a small memorial. Like most of us with such historical beacons in our hometown, I had passed it regularly but never paid much attention. While taking friends on a tour of the village surrounds recently I was most embarrassed by being, unusually for me, without words when asked what it was. I have since learnt a great deal while ensuring that I was not caught out again in the future.
The pyramid-shaped stone monument has two plaques – one in Afrikaans, and one in English – that read: “In commemoration of the visit of the Louis Trichardt-wagon to the Blyde River 28 November 1938. 1930-1938.”
What visit? What is the historical significance? The year 1938 saw the Centenary Celebration of the Great Trek – a period during which many Afrikaans-speakers packed all their belongings on ox wagons and left the Cape Colony. They went into the interior to seek a new life, free from British Rule.
The celebrations of the Centenary of the Great Trek started with a parade of nine ox wagons in Cape Town in August 1938. At this stage, the Afrikaners were still reeling from their defeat by the British in the Second Boer War. The celebrations sparked an unprecedented revival of Afrikaner identity and culture and in the end, there were 9 wagons crisscrossing the whole country and visiting hundreds of towns. At each stop, there were festivities including historical parades, church services and speeches. At the time, an American correspondent was recorded as having said: “This is the most remarkable thing that has occurred in this century amongst all nations and in all countries of the world.”
Included in most of the celebrations was the laying of a pile of stones – a form of memorial frequently referred to in the Bible. Across all provinces in South Africa, there are still over 400 of these memorials. Many of these stone piles were later changed into more formal monuments – like the one in Pilgrim’s Rest where a more permanent structure was created from stones plastered into a pyramid shape. The land and stones for the monument were donated by Mr Diering, the mine manager of TGME at the time, and the memorial was unveiled by a Mrs. de Beer.
As they are older than sixty years the Groot Trek Centenary memorials are protected under the National Heritage Act no. 25 van 1999. Although these memorials commemorate the history of only a small section of the South African population, they have considerable significance for cultural tourism in the towns where they appear. Memorials help to tell the story of the history and development of the town and the country.