The Day of Reconciliation is a public holiday in South Africa that occurs every December 16th for the purpose of commemorating the end of Apartheid and promoting national unity.
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The date was chosen to coincide with two previously existing significant 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 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 a 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.
As to the ANC and its struggle against Apartheid, on December 16th, 1961, after 69 protesters were killed by the gunshots of South African Police in the infamous Sharpeville Massacre, Nelson Mandela and other leaders of the ANC decided that armed resistance was necessary. They founded Umkhonto we Sizwe, meaning “Spear of the Nation,” which began attacks on government installations. The group was soon labeled a “terrorist organisation” by South Africa (and the U.S.) and blamed for “fomenting violent revolution.” After negotiations for a new, democratic South Africa began on August 1st, 1990, the armed group ceased its activities. In 1994, the first democratic elections without Apartheid were held in South Africa, and the ANC’s military wing was incorporated into the South African armed forces.
In 1995, the Day of Reconciliation was declared a national holiday in South Africa, and December 16th was chosen for its existing significance to those of both African and European descent. Today, the holiday also marks the beginning of the festive season at the end of the year, including Christmas, the Day of Goodwill, and New Year’s Day. During this period, many businesses close and workers spend time at home with their families or engage in various celebrations.
If in South Africa for the Day of Reconciliation, some ideas on what to do include:
- 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.
- 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.
Visiting South Africa during the Day of Reconciliation gives you ample opportunity to learn of South Africa’s past, and to appreciate its many cultures.