Today, 16 December, is Reconciliation Day in South Africa. It is a unique holiday in the sense that it doesn’t celebrate freedom, heroes, or religious or cultural festivities. It aims to bring South Africans together after a bitter and divided history. It is a day that requires all South Africans to be introspective, to reflect about our country and ourselves.
The origins of this day go back all the way to the Battle of Blood River in 1838 when the Voortrekkers under the leadership of Andries Pretorius fought 10,000 Zulu warriors under King Dingaan. 3,000 Zulu warriors, the toughest and most feared army of natives in Southern Africa, would lose their lives. On that day the Ncome River would turn red with blood. It was said that the Boers made a covenant with God on the night before, and if he would grant them victory, they would forever respect the day as a Sunday.
16 December was such an emotional day for the Afrikaners that the African National Congress themselves could not bring themselves to dismantle the holiday in 1994. During the Apartheid years, the National Party abused its memory to further their own propaganda. Most Afrikaners know some of the lines of the text of the covenant from our school days.
Unfortunately for the Afrikaner nationalists, Blood River was not unique in terms of numbers. God did not make it special. And it certainly wasn’t the first or last time that South Africans would come into conflict with each other.
The Battle of Rorke’s Drift during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 probably killed as many Zulu warriors as did Blood River. What the two battles had in common was to show that small armies can make an impact if they have the right weaponry and if they exercise discipline over larger forces. Both the Boers and English in the two respective fights made use of firing in formation, which can be psychologically damaging to any charging opponent.
The Battle of Cuito Cuanavale illustrates the divisions of our current society. Historians cannot even establish who won it or fought in it. Cuito shows that controlling the memory of the past is sometimes more important than the war itself. Winning the peace is sometimes more important than winning the war.
Other important historical battles in South Africa’s history include that battles of Slagtersnek, Spioenkop, Isandlwana, Majuba, Vegkop, Magersfontein, Colenso, and Dellvillewood.
It is a tragedy that most of African history was written by European missionaries, which is why the firsthand perspectives of black warriors are lost to time.
The founding of Lesotho by Moshoeshoe and Swaziland by King Ngwane III to escape the atrocities by Shaka points out that conflict is constant throughout our history – it leaves no prisoners. Many of the bitterness that came out of these historical conflicts are still with us today, whether the petty reoccurrence of the English-Afrikaans divide, tribalism or silly racism.
What our past conflicts tell us is that war is innate in the human spirit. “It is the father and king of us all” as the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, said some 2,500 years ago. The Greek philosophers such as Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle themselves served in the various Persian, Hellenic and Peloponnesian wars and had to grappled with what Steven Pinker would today call: the darker angels of our nature.
It is with this knowledge that South Africans can understand our complex and often brutal past, not to be masochistic with guilt; or to call for an act of vengeance, but rather to know that the crimes and conflicts of our forefathers have also been the crimes and struggles of humankind. Every society today has a history of human cruelty, enslavement, rape, brutality and other forms of injustice. Fortunately for us, we can call to act on our capacity for empathy and to use our sense of honor in a way to make sure that the next generation leaves a world behind that is better than the last.
If we assume that human nature has stayed constant in time, then South Africans should always be vigilant for signs that our future might escalate into conflict. Peace is a parenthesis, as Plato said. The history of our country shows that the democratic order that we have today – as imperfect as it might be – is rather an exception to the rule. An exception of the tragic nature and long history of our country and human species.
Societies very often decay into tyranny, not because of outside forces, but because of the age-old call of tyrants when we forget the lessons of the past. We are capable of destruction, but fortunately we can also be kind.