Day of Reconciliation

I thought I’d interrupt the regular programming here on Joburg Expat totalk about today’s holiday here in South Africa.

Or, to be precise, yesterday’s holiday. Just so no one is cheated out of a holiday, the government usually makes one of the surrounding weekdays a holiday when it falls on a weekend. Though there have been arguments about this when it wasn’t so, if I remember correctly.

day of reconciliation in South Africa

Anyway, December 16th is the Day of Reconciliation here in South Africa.

Did anybody know that? 

I bet you didn’t. Like me, you’re probably  happy to take any holidays you can get that don’t involve any family descending on your home or a lot of cooking on your part. And there are a lot of those in South Africa, which is what makes life here so nice. Lots of holidays without extra chores.

But this one in particular is worth thinking about, because of its special symbolism.

December 16th, you see, is the anniversary of the Battle of Blood River in 1838. Which was fought on the banks of the Ncome River in Natal by less than 500 Voortrekkers led by Andries Pretorius against an overwhelming force of over 10,000 Zulu warriors led by King Dingane. Over 3,000 Zulus were said to be killed that day, while the Voortrekkers only suffered three wounded. Until 1994 December 16th was celebrated as the Day of the Vow or Day of the Covenant, based on the vow taken by the settlers that should they win the battle, they would build a church and always commemorate the day as holy.

Interestingly, a sizable number of indigenous people fought on the side of the Voortrekkers, and in a previous massacre by Dingane’s men of hundreds of settlers, including women and children, an even larger number of black servants were killed. (That massacre, following the betrayal and murder of Piet Retief during a visit to Dingane’s kraal, was one of the events leading up to the Battle of Blood River). So one can’t simply view this history through a racial lens. It’s as much a result of the politics of the times (for instance, Dingane’s rivalry with King Mzilikazi, ruler of Matabeleland, later Rhodesia and then Zimbabwe) as it was a clash between white settlers and black tribes.

I’ve summarized some of the Voortrekker history in a previous blog post, In the Footsteps of Paul Kruger and the Voortrekkersin case you are interested to find out more.

It just so happens that another historical event falls on that particular day. Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC, was formed on December 16th, 1961, under Nelson Mandela’s leadership, signaling a marked shift from passive resistance to an armed struggle to bring apartheid to an end. I’ve also written about Umkhonto we Sizwe and the secret meetings at Liliesleaf Farm, where some of its members were captured during a raid in 1963. Visit Liliesleaf Farm and the Rivonia Trial for more information.

With the end of apartheid and the first democratic elections in 1994, something had to be done about this holiday. Naming it the Day of Reconciliation and commemorating both events starting in 1995 is, in my mind, yet another building block in Nelson Mandela’s great legacy.

Happy Day of Reconciliation, everyone!

For more information on South African holidays and the Battle of Blood River, visit and Wikipedia.


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