THE Day of Reconciliation was born out of the triumph of bullets and cannons over spears – and out of the formation of a body to wage an armed struggle against gross human rights abuses contained in a policy of apartheid.

Both were seminal events in the history of South Africa. Both occurred on the same date – 16 December – but in different centuries.

And both were joined together in those heady moments immediately after 1994, when South Africa became a true democracy and the first president of the “new” country, Nelson Mandela, looked for opportunities to put into practice what he so passionately believed – that white and black South Africans had the will and capacity to truly reconcile with each other.

It is a day that has travelled a long journey with a common thread: bitterness. In the case of Afrikaner South Africans it was a journey that began with an event that was to assume almost mythical proportions in their history and consciousness – the Great Trek.

Books have been written about why a tiny proportion of Dutch-speaking settlers decided to leave the Cape Colony to trek inland in wagons containing all their worldly possessions, but a 46-year-old Voortrekker, Anna Steenkamp, perhaps put the reasons most succinctly….

In 1843, in a letter from the then Natal to relatives in the Cape Colony, Steenkamp spoke about “the continued depredations and robberies of the K*ffirs for making life on the eastern frontier unbearable”; and the emancipation of slaves – “not so much their freedom … but being placed on an equal footing with Christians, contrary to the laws of God and the natural distinction of race and religion.”

The refusal of the Voortrekkers to recognise black people with whom they came into contact as members of the human race sowed the seeds of tragedy. Once the exiles from the Cape Colony reached the Highveld, Lowveld and the south-eastern coast of the region, they made no distinction between hunting and raiding. Both were equally lucrative activities – killing and looting more so, for their rewards were land and labour.

In what became a reign of terror over much of present-day Mpumalanga, the new arrivals captured thousands of children and turned them into “inboekselings” (which translates as apprentices, but which in reality were no more than child slaves).

In cases, where land was “legally” ceded, there was little doubt that African chiefs did not in fact sell land to the Voortrekkers. None of the parties – neither Boer nor Chief – subscribed to a uniform legal system or concept of ownership.

Private land ownership did not exist in African societies. In cases where chiefs ceded land to the Voortrekkers, the land was either communally owned, or communally owned by other chiefdoms. Another problem was that land was ceded to the Boers for next to nothing: for example, the northern part of present day Free State – about 60 000 square kilometres – was “sold” to Andries Potgieter in 1836 for a few cattle and a promise to protect the Taung king, Makwana, from the Ndebele.

This transaction worked out to 2 000 square kilometres per head of cattle. Dispossession, dodgy land sales and child-raiding were rife in the interior of the country in 1838 when a Voortrekker delegation led by Piet Retief visited the Zulu chief, Dingane, at his capital, Umgundgundlovu.

Retief wanted land.

And although Dingane was amendable to his request, he set conditions: that Retief retrieve 63 head of cattle stolen from the Zulu by the Tlokwa. He also wanted 11 rifles from the Boers. Retief retrieved the cattle, but showed he had no intention of giving any rifles to the Zulu.

At a handing over ceremony of the cattle, and after being instructed to leave their rifles outside Dingane’s cattle kraal, Retief and his party were murdered on the instructions of the king. The murder of the Boers fuelled intense anger among their compatriots and plans were immediately launched to avenge their deaths.

These were based on the premise that they were heavily outnumbered – there were 468 of them – and that they would in all likelihood be attacked by thousands of Zulu soldiers.

The Voortrekkers set up a laager in an area near the Ncome River where they could not be completely surrounded. There, armed with single-shot rifles and three cannons, the Boers, after being prompted by Andries Pretorius and Sarel Cilliers to “make a covenant with God”, waited for the Zulu to attack.

At dawn, on 16 December 1838, 10 000 Zulu soldiers made their move. The guns and cannons of the Voortrekkers ensured that it would be an unequal fight. At least 3 000 Zulu were killed. Three trekkers sustained injuries. The Ncome River turned red with the blood of the Zulu dead, so much so that the Voortrekkers named it Blood River.

After the battle, Voortrekker chaplain Sarel Cilliers gave credit for the victory of guns and cannonballs over spears to the word of the Lord, which he said had been fulfilled. “By one way shall your enemies come, but by the blessing of the Lord they shall fly before your face,” he said.

When it was all over, he added, chillingly, that “the k*ffirs lay on the ground like pumpkins on a rich soil that has borne a large crop.” The victory over the Zulu was seen as confirmation of God’s ratification of their covenant, which in turn led to the day being celebrated as a public holiday in the Boer republics, and later, after the formation of the Union of South Africa, as a national holiday called Dingane’s Day. In 1952, the National Party government changed the name to the Day of the Vow (or Day of the Covenant).

The second part of the Day of Reconciliation centred on the formation of a military wing of the ANC – Umkhonto weSizwe, or MK. The prime mover in this regard was Nelson Mandela, who argued that after decades of peaceful protest and action against segregation and apartheid it was time for a change of tactics.

The decision to move towards armed struggle was agonised over by many of the organisation’s top leaders, including its then president, Chief Albert Luthuli. Luthuli believed that all peaceful means of protest had not been exhausted. What made it more difficult for him to accept a move to armed struggle was that the decision to launch an armed wing was taken in the same year that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The idea to launch an armed wing was intensely debated by the ANC, the Communist Party of South Africa, the Congress of Democrats, the Coloured People’s Congress and the South African Indian Congress.

Mandela was both praised and criticised for urging this change in tactics. But in the end, a compromise was agreed on: an armed wing would be formed and would operate separately from the ANC. It would also be open to non-ANC members..

On 16 December 1961, MK announced its existence by launching its first acts of sabotage, setting off bomb blasts on government structures in Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Durban.

Targets included an electrical substation in New Brighton in the Eastern Cape, as well as the New Brighton Labour Bureau. In Johannesburg, the Bantu Administration Board offices, as well as the Drill Hall were bombed.

More than 200 installations were attacked between December 1961 and June 1963, most of which were in the Eastern Cape. Over the years, MK continued to wage its armed struggle by recruiting and sending people for military training outside the country and redeploying them back in South Africa.

On 1 August 1990, after the defeat of apartheid, it suspended its armed struggle as negotiations for a democratic South Africa gathered momentum. On 16 December 1995, the new democratic government changed the Day of the Vow to the Day of Reconciliation – as an attempt to strike a balance between South Africa’s divided past.

The idea was to promote national unity and reconciliation in a new political dispensation that filled so many people with optimism.

Dougie Oakes has been a journalist for more than 30 years, specialising here and in the UK in sportswriting, politics and features.

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