In old Pretoria, travelers find the new South Africa

CNN  — 

South Africa’s Pretoria might be steeped in history, but one of its popular attractions has a more recent event to thank for its sudden surge in visitors.

The place is the North Gauteng High Court. The event is the trial of athlete Oscar Pistorius.

“People always ask about Oscar,” says Jaco, a local friend who is showing me around Pretoria, one of three cities that South Africa calls a capital.

He points at a mobile cafe opposite the court. “That used to be full of the world’s media. The owner had struck gold.”

Gold – the real rather than the metaphorical stuff – is the blessing and the bane of South Africa.

It’s blamed for the 1899-1902 Anglo-Boer War, the fallout from which swept away geographical boundaries and culminated in apartheid.

Efforts to undo the damage from decades of division shape the Pretoria of today, where a conscious effort is underway to combine the black and white heritage of the city.

The restoration of the area’s ties to pre-imperialist leaders like Tshwane, an 18th-century chief who gives his name to the surrounding region, is a prime example of that effort.

A statue of Tshwane, erected in 2006, stands in front of the city’s town hall, behind monuments of Andries Pretorius and his son Marthinus, the two leaders of Dutch descent who founded the city and bequeathed it their name.

The mix of statues underlines the city’s current attempt in blending of black and white history. Previously the city was closely associated only with the Afrikaners who descended from European settlers.

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Colossal monument

The Voortrekker monument overlooks a nature reserve.

Nowhere is that past glorification of Afrikaner history more obvious than at the colossal Voortrekker Monument, standing on a hill at the edge of Pretoria.

It commemorates the Afrikaner farmers who left the British Cape colony for the interior to establish the two independent Boer republics.

The monument was erected on December 16, 1949, on the anniversary of the Battle of Blood River when a party of Voortrekkers beat a large platoon of until-then-invincible Zulu warriors.

The date of the battle was a public holiday during the apartheid years. It still is today, but has been renamed the Day of Reconciliation.

This being Africa, the Voortrekker hill is also a nature reserve where we spot blesbok – a graceful antelope with a prominent white face – and black wildebeest, a rarer cousin of the more common blue wildebeest known for its migrations.

“This was sacred ground for the Afrikaners,” Jaco tells me. “Today there are monthly music concerts inside the monument grounds at Fort Schanskop, one of four forts that used to guard the city. “

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Protected legacy

The Union Buildings, fronted by a Nelson Mandela statue, may be Pretoria's most prominent landmark.

A fiberglass sculpture of Danie Theron, an Afrikaner hero killed during the Boer War whose great-great niece is Hollywood star Charlize Theron, greets us at the entrance.

It was moved here from Kimberley, central South Africa, in November 2001 and anti-apartheid leader and former president Nelson Mandela himself paid tribute to him during the unveiling.

Such rejigging of history to celebrate Afrikaners alongside more current heroes is the narrative of the new South Africa, with Pretoria as ground zero.

The classic revival Union Buildings, the offices of South Africa’s president, are a case in point.

Designed by Herbert Baker in 1911, they represent the most graceful and coherent architectural complex in the country.

The statue of General J.B.M. Hertzog, an Afrikaner nationalist, which stood on the main stairway was removed to a remote corner of the gardens in November 2013.

It made way for a giant sculpture of Mandela that draws crowds like Herzog never did.

Notably, the Afrikaner legacy is still protected.

Paul Kruger's statue stands behind barbed wire in Church Square.

The house of Paul Kruger, the last president who was ousted by the British during the Boer War, continues as a museum.

His large statue still commands Pretoria’s Church Square, although behind barbed wire because it is often vandalized.

All disparate cultures of modern South Africa are merged in the Freedom Park and museum, one of Mandela’s final wishes.

Set opposite the Voortrekker Monument and connected to it via Reconciliation Road, the Freedom Park commemorates all who have died for South Africa, old and new.

Laser-etched on the granite slabs of its Wall Of Names are not only the names of those who fought in the two World Wars but also those who fell in the Anglo-Boer War and the women and children who died in British concentration camps.

Names like Theron, Pretorius and Grobbelaar are now inscribed next to Nkopo and Mqolo, who died during the struggle against apartheid, and opposite victims of Indian indentured labor.

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Passion for wine

Market @ The Sheds is a monthly event with music, street food, art installations and design products.

The next day, Jaco takes me to a party at Pretoria’s old vegetable market, a venue that combines street food, entertainment and art installations.

It’s one of many projects by the Capital Collective, a private initiative that aims to rejuvenate the city center.

Here, people mix casually to eat and dance, regardless of skin color – something that’s still lacking in many corners of modern South Africa despite post-apartheid aspirations.

There are more signs of the new socially mobile South Africa when I later have dinner at Hemingway’s – arguably the top restaurant in the capital.

The pizza chef isn’t Italian: “Small” Thekgo has been kneading dough for seven years and loving it.

The sommelier is Isaac Kubheka, a Zulu who left his homeland as a child and was raised by his aunt in the township of Mamelodi outside Pretoria.

In 1989, he started work in the Pretoria suburb of Faerie Glen as a gardener to an Afrikaner whose passion for wine he soon shared.

Kubheka saved up enough money to take a wine course among the vineyards of Stellenbosch, learning about viniculture, vinification and etiquette.

Now he’s one of the top sommeliers in the country and a symbol, perhaps, of a changing city.

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Getting there

Pretoria is served by the O. R. Tambo International Airport that also serves Johannesburg. South African Airways has direct flights to New York, Washington DC, London, Frankfurt and other international hubs. Your hotel will usually organize a pick up for you (about $30-35).

Ulysses Tours offers tours of Pretoria and other activities in the area including safaris.

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John Malathronas is a London-based travel writer and photographer. He is written or co-written 15 books, including “Rainbow Diary: A Journey in the New South Africa.”