Dec 16 – National Day of Reconciliation


(An SA Blog Beta post from Your Correspondent.)

Today is a public holiday in South Africa: our National Day of Reconciliation. This year, the day is particularly momentous, because it marks the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The Commission was tasked with shedding light on, and forging a common understanding of, SA’s racist, violent past. Fundamentally, the TRC and the Day of Reconciliation encourage South Africans of all stripes (and there are many stripes!) to replace prejudice with ubuntu . Ubuntu can be loosely translated as “humanity.”

Practical note on SA public holidays: banks and post offices are closed, as are many shops; and trains, buses and minibus taxis run limited services.

What’s on in Cape Town today: there’s a free, day-long concert in the Company’s Gardens, city centre. The concert starts at 1pm and will finish around 8pm. (Translated into Cape Town Season time, this means it will probably start around 2pm and end at 10pm.) Its headline act is Freshly Ground, a highly-recommended homegrown band.

The TRC was chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Nobel Prize for Peace, 1984), and its stories of torture, massacres and popular resistance dominated headlines in South Africa for several years. The TRC established new ground rules for how SA history should be researched and written. For more information on this important body and its crucial work, visit the TRC website. A documentary which gives a good feel for the TRC’s work is Long Night’s Journey into Day (2000).

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The National Day of Reconciliation, meanwhile, has a long history in SA, despite the fact that it’s only 11 years old.

Like most SA public holidays, it replaces an older, apartheid-era commemoration, known originally as “The Day of the Covenant” and later as “The Day of the Vow.” Its universal common name before 1994, however, was “Dingaan’s Day.”

Dingaan, or uDingane, was a Zulu king, brother of the great Shaka (and also, ahem, his murderer). In 1838, he led an army of Zulu warriors against the Voortrekkers, colonists of Dutch extraction who had moved away from the Cape to establish their own republic. In February, Dingane and his men slaughtered 600 Voortrekkers, setting up a great showdown later in the year, on 16 December.

A Zulu army of thousands confronted 500 whites, who, before they fought, prayed to God for victory and vowed to honor him in the event. “The Battle of Blood River” was then waged, and all Zulu gains were reversed, thousands of them dying. The legend of the Voortrekker’s victory became a crucial element, 100 or so years later, in the revival of Afrikaner nationalism that led to the National Party’s ascendancy, and, eventually, apartheid.

Today, the battle site is a spooky place – but not because of ghosts. A ring of bronze covered wagons – life-sized – marks the spot where the Voortrekkers made their stand. The wagons rise out of the weeds like the ruins of a lost and bafflingly remote civilization – which, essentially, they are.