During the darkest days of the Anglo-Boer War, President M.T. Steyn felt strongly that a memorial dedicated to the women and children who suffered during the war had to be erected. Immediately after the end of the war, serious illness forced him to go to Europe for medical treatment, yet he had not lost sight of his dream and upon his return, one of his first tasks was to take steps to realise this long-cherished ambition. Because this was considered to be a matter of national importance, it was decided to call a conference of all the Dutch churches and political organizations in the four colonies to meet in Bloemfontein on 7 February 1907 under the chairmanship of President Steyn.
At the joint conference it was decided “that the time has come to erect a monument on South African soil to the glorious memory of the mothers, women and children, who, during the recent war, passed away, or had otherwise suffered bitterly, either in the concentration camps or outside.”
A Subscription List for the National Women’s Memorial together with a powerful appeal by President Steyn for contributions began circulating shortly after the conference. The amount to be raised through collection lists was a very substantial one, especially for those Afrikaners who suffered from extreme poverty at the time. The money was collected in pennies and shillings and contributions of a pound or more were rare exceptions. Although individual contributions were small, large numbers of Afrikaans-speaking, as well as English-speaking and Jewish citizens contributed to the fund. During the unveiling of the memorial President Steyn could justly declare: “The erection of this memorial was made possible not only by the wealth of the wealthy, but especially by the poverty of the poor.”
Architects were invited to submit designs and an amount of £100 was offered for the best design. More than forty designs were received and the adjudicaters, Prof A. Moorrees, Rev. J.D. Kestell and J.N. de Villiers pronounced the entry of the sculptor, Anton van Wouw and the architect, Frans Soff, together with the one by Hawke, McKinley and White to be the best and recommended that the prize be shared by these two groups. However, the Steering Committee decided to accept, with a few minor modifications, the design submitted by Van Wouw and Soff. The design included an obelisk of 120 feet (36.5 meters), with a group of sculptures at its base and figures in bas-relief on either side of the sculptures. After almost four years, an amount of £10 237 had been collected and the erection of the memorial became a reality. The final choice for a site (12 morgen) for the memorial fell on a position near some koppies to the south of Bloemfontein which the City Council of Bloemfontein made available. Building was to start immediately, and if possible, the unveiling would take place on 16 December 1913.
The tender for the building of the memorial was given to Medlin and Leham. After Van Wouw had had detailed discussions with the architect, he left for Italy where he started working on the group of sculptures and the panels in bas-relief in the studio of Canova in Rome. During this time he was in constant contact with Emily Hobhouse who also visited him in Rome. She told Van Wouw about an incident during the war when she was visiting the concentration camps in South Africa. The story she told him undoubtedly moved him to completely change the original design he had in mind for the main group of sculptures.
When she was visiting the concentration camp at Springfontein, she encountered a number of dishevelled and neglected women near the station. There was no accommodation available for them in the camp itself because there was a shortage of tents. With sticks and pieces of old canvas which they had scrounged from the British soldiers, they had erected rough shelters. Hobhouse was called to attend to a sick child and she described the following scene: “The mother sat on her little trunk with the child across her knee. She had nothing to give it and the child was sinking fast… There was nothing to be done and we watched the child draw its last breath in reverent silence. The mother neither moved nor wept. It was her only child. Dry-eyed but deadly white, she sat there motionless, looking not at the child, but far, far away into the depths of grief beyond all tears. A friend stood behind her who called upon Heaven to witness this tragedy, and others crouching on the ground around her wept freely.”
After working uninterruptedly for almost two years, Van Wouw dispatched his sculptures to Bloemfontein. Amidst great public interest the sandstone blocks from Kroonstad were lowered in place and the heavy bronze tip was carefully lowered to fit exactly into its grooves at the top of the obelisk. Thus the construction was completed and the group of sculptures and the figures in bas-relief could be placed in their correct position and covered with white canvas.
The first important ceremony that took place at the memorial after its unveiling was the state funeral of President Steyn, who had suddenly passed away on 28 November 1916. He was buried at the foot of the memorial on 3 December 1916. General C.R. de Wet passed away on 3 February 1922. In the presence of thousands of his former comrades-in-arms and admirers he was laid to rest on 8 February 1922. A moving request from Mrs. Steyn that the ashes of Emily Hobhouse, who had died in England in June 1926, be placed in a niche at the base of the obelisk was granted with complete unanimity by the National Women’s Memorial Commission. This memorable and moving ceremony took place on 27 October. On 9 February 1941 Reverend J.D. Kestell passed away. As had been the case with President Steyn and General De Wet, the Reverand Kestell’s funeral service was held in the “Tweetoring” Church and he was buried at the foot of the memorial. In 1955 Mrs. Tibbie Steyn was laid to rest in the same grave next to her husband.
Emily Hobhouse was one of the distinguished guests who had been invited to officiate the unveiling of the memorial. Although she was seriously ill and her doctor had advised her against undertaking the journey to South Africa, she started on the lengthy voyage in October 1912 and arrived in Cape Town in reasonably good health. Travelling to Bloemfontein by train, she could not stand the summer heat through the Karoo and had to turn back at Beaufort-West. However, she sent her speech, fully written out, to President Steyn and it was then decided that his Mrs R.I. (Tibbie) Steyn would perform the unveiling on 13 December 1913 while Charlie Fichardt would read her speech:
VROUWEN-DAG, DECEMBER 16, 1913.
“My Friends: – Throughout the world the woman’s day approaches; her era dawns. Proudly I unveil this Monument to the brave South African women, who, sharing the danger that beset their land and dying for it, affirmed for all times and for all peoples the power of Woman to sacrifice life and more than life for the common weal. This is your South African Monument; But it is more; for “their story is not graven only on stone, over their native earth. We claim it as a WORLD-MONUMENT, of which all the World’s Women should be proud; for your dead by their brave simplicity have spoken to Universal Womanhood, and henceforth they are “woven into the stuff’ of every woman’s life.”