The Day of Reconciliation is a public holiday celebrated annually on December 16 in South Africa. The holiday came into effect in 1995 after the end of apartheid, with the intention of fostering reconciliation and national unity for the country. The date was chosen because it was significant to both Afrikaner and African cultures. The government chose a meaningful date for both ethnic groups because they recognize the need for racial harmony. The celebration of the Day of Reconciliation can take the form of remembering past history, recognizing veteran’s contributions, marching and other festivities.
History of Day of Reconciliation
16 December is a day of great significance in South Africa due to two historical events that took place:
Afrikaans’ Day of the Vow
The first of these was in 1838, when the Battle of Blood River took place between the Voortrekkers and the Zulus. The Voortrekkers, having moved into the interior of South Africa during the Great Trek, were eager to settle on land. The region that they intended to settle on was already inhabited by the Zulu people. Thus the Voortrekker leader, Piet Retief was eager to negotiate with the Zulu chief Dingane. Having misunderstood Retief’s intentions, Dingane planned an ambush and murdered Retief and his party of 100 people. This act culminated in the Battle of Blood River, in which 470 Voortrekkers, defeated the 10 000 strong Zulu army. This Voortrekker victory was commemorated since then as the Day of the Vow.
The Day of the Vow is so named because, on this day back in 1838, Afrikaaners vowed to God to build a church and keep for him a perpetual day of thanksgiving should He be pleased to defeat the Zulu army then surrounding them. At the Battle of Blood River, against all odds, the prayer was apparently answered, for against all odds, an Afrikaans force of 470 routed 10,000 Zulu warriors who assaulted them from every side. Tradition says that only three Afrikaans soldiers were wounded, while 3,000 Zulus were killed. On the 100th anniversary of the battle, the 1938 classic film “They Built a Nation” re-enacted the event on the silver screen.
Founding of the Umkhonto we Sizwe
The second historical event that took place on 16 December was in 1961, when Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) was formed. This was the military wing of the African National Congress (ANC), which was launched to wage an armed struggle against the apartheid government. Prior to its formation, the ANC had largely approached the fight against apartheid through passive resistance, but after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, where peaceful protestors were indiscriminately shot by police, passive resistance was no longer seen as an effective approach in bringing apartheid to an end. MK mostly performed acts of sabotage, but its effectiveness was hampered by organizational problems and the arrest of its leaders in 1963. Despite this, its formation was commemorated every year since 1961.
The date 16 December was chosen to coincide with these two significant historical dates: the Afrikaans’ Day of the Vow and the anniversary of the founding of the Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military branch of the African National Congress in its fight to end Apartheid.
The First Day of Reconciliation
South Africa’s first non-racial and democratic government was tasked with promoting reconciliation and national unity. One way in which it aimed to do this symbolically was to acknowledge the significance of the 16 December in both the Afrikaner and liberation struggle traditions and to rename this day as the Day of Reconciliation. On 16 December 1995, the Day of Reconciliation was celebrated as a public holiday in South Africa for the first time.
Day of Reconciliation: Things to Do
- Learn about the history behind the holiday firsthand. First, tour the Apartheid Museum
in Johannesburg to see artifacts illustrating the realities of Apartheid throughout the 20th Century. Next, go to the Battle of Blood River Monument in the province of Kwazulu-Natal. You will see 64 bronze ox-wagons as well as one carved out of granite. On the other side of the memorial is the Ncome Monument, which is dedicated to the memory of the Zulu warriors who fell. Both sides have their own museum on-site.
- Get a taste of both African and Afrikaaner cuisine, both of which you can find served up in many South African restaurants. Afrikaans cooking is heavy on red meat, frequently grilled or roasted, and staples like potatoes and rice. Their vegetables are made more flavourful with butter and sugar. Dried meats like “biltong” (jerky) and “droewors” (dried sausage) are classics hailing from the old frontier days. Zulu and other African cuisine dates back many centuries and is closely tied to the local agriculture of particular tribal areas. Meat is used sparsely, and stews and all-in-one-pot meals are very common. Also look for “mieliepap,” a corn-porridge with beans, other vegetables, and animal fat mixed in.
- Watch for special Day of Reconciliation events, but expect them to vary from year to year. There will likely be parades, speeches by the president and others on the nation’s progress, and various cultural activities to attend. You simply have to find out what is going on in your local area.
Things to Remember
While you celebrate the Day of Reconciliation take time to take a deep look at your life and the world that we live in. Take some time to educate yourself on colonialism and how it affected, and still affects the people who suffered under it. Colonialism and racism often go hand in hand, and their effects don’t end with the people who lived under them, but carry down through their children and grandchildren. Be the one to instill the right godly values to future generations and set the right example of tolerance and acceptance of the Democratic way of life of the South Africa of Today.