Reconciliation Day: Here’s Why 16 December Is Important To South Africa

Reconciliation Day on 16 December marks two important historical events.

According to South African History Online, the first significant event took place in 1838 when the Battle of Blood River took place between the Voortrekkers and the Zulus. The second was in 1961 when the former armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), was formed. 

The Battle of Blood River on 16 December 

The Battle of Blood River took place between the Voortrekkers and the Zulus near the Ncome River in KwaZulu-Natal in 1838.

The Voortrekkers, having moved into the interior of South Africa in the event of the Great Trek, were eager to settle on the land between the Tugela and the Umzimvubu, rivers, as well as the Drakensberg,   

However, the region they intended to settle on was already inhabited by the Zulu people. Thus 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 along with 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 with the advantage of gunpowder, . 

The Voortrekker victory was commemorated since then as the Day of the Vow on 16 December.

Umkhonto we Sizwe on 16 December 

The second historical event that took place on 16 December was in 1961 when Umkhonto we Sizwe 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 196, where peaceful protesters were shot by police and passive resistance was no longer viewed an effective approach in bringing apartheid to its knees. 

MK mostly performed acts of sabotage, but its effectiveness was hampered by organisational problems and the arrest of its leaders in 1963. 

Despite this, its formation was commemorated every year since 1961. 

First observance known as Reconciliation Day 

South Africa’s first non-racial and democratic government in 1994, led by former president Nelson Mandela, was tasked with promoting reconciliation and national unity. 

One way in which it aimed to do this, was to acknowledge the significance of 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. 


Written by AN

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