On the 16th December, South Africans have the day off work. As a nation we are very good at public holidays, having 12 in total every year. Unlike in some countries in the world, where only civil servants and banks get off, in South Africa, everybody gets to lie in or paid double.  Since 1994, in celebration of what Nelson Mandela declared was to be called the ‘Day of Reconciliation‘, South African’s have kind of marked the 16th December as the beginning of the mass shut down. Really after the 16th December, even in major cities, the roads are clear, the shopping malls are jammed and our beaches are packed. South Africa does December well, the sun is shining, schools have concluded the academic year and everybody except the retailers, manufacturers and miners breathe out a huge sigh of relief. We braai, we drink; and we lie in the sun.

Of course 1994 is massively significant in South Africa’s history, because it was in this year that apartheid was officially disbanded; and we held our first democratic elections in April. Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black President and the African National Congress became the party in power.  However, what you might not know, is that before 1994 the 16th December was already a public holiday. Only it was called the ‘Day of the Vow’. The ‘Day of the Vow’ was one of the, if not the most, important holidays of the year, certainly to Afrikaans South Africans.

The significance of the 16th December lies in history. On the 16th December 1838 the besieged Voortrekkers found themselves face to face with the powerful Zulu nation, in battle, in what is today called KwaZulu Natal. The reason for the fight is complicated, but simplified for the purposes of this Blog, the Voortrekkers felt they had their honour to defend because King Dingane had killed Piet Retief, one of the Voortrekkers’ most prominent leaders. Standing on the banks of the Ncome River, the Afrikaaners knew that the great Zulu army were a force to be reckoned with, not only in terms of numbers, but also in terms of their physique, their strength as a highly organised army (the most significant in Africa thanks to the great Shaka Zulu); and their knowledge of the terrain, all under the leadership of the formidable Dingane. It is said that there were less than 500 Afrikaaners and between 10 and 15 thousand Zulus going into battle. Clearly the Voortrekkers were the underdogs and they knew it. So they prayed to their God, asking for assistance in order to overcome the mighty Zulus. They said that if they were to beat the Zulus, they would forever keep the 16th December a holy day in recognition of how God assisted them at this difficult battle, in remembrance for their decedents, of how God did not desert them in their time of need. The Voortrekkers also promised that they would build a monument in remembrance of this momentous day, which they did in 1841. There is a ‘Church of the Vow’ in Pietermaritzburg.

If you believe in miracles, then perhaps it was a miracle that took place on the 16 December 1838, because just three Vorrtrekker men were harmed versus over 3000 Zulus, at what came to be known as the Battle of Blood River, allegedly because of the amount of blood that was spilled during the bitter fighting. A miracle only because it is extraordinary that such underdogs could ever have won out under such odds. Perhaps God really did have a hand in helping the Voortrekkers because they had asked for His help? These summations will all depend on your belief system. For me,whatever way you look at it, it is a beautiful and powerful story; and one which contains many lessons.

One of the finest lessons that can be learned from the 16th of December is from Nelson Mandela, a man who has taught the world so much about forgiveness. So often, when there is a radical regime change in any country, there is an attempt to eradicate the past. Monuments, road names, statues and significant holidays are changed or ignored in an attempt to ‘forget’ the past. The problem with that is that the past cannot just be forgotten; and often the opposite is achieved. Those who have lost a system that they have known, or even loved, feel even more slighted than they otherwise would have, which only serves to fuel divide and perpetuate tensions. For those who have not known the past, it becomes an intriguing mystery that is possibly misunderstood and therefore imagined; and in this context, one’s imagination often serves to create exaggeration, either negative or positive. Surely it’s best to work with facts and information, with just what is, as apposed to the emotionally charged embellishment of the ‘truth’, which doesn’t exist anyway because truth is subjective.

That is why I admire so much that Nelson Mandela did not remove the 16th December as a public holiday for South Africans. He respected the promise the Voortrekkers made in keeping this day a Holy Day of respect and remembrance, but changed it to the Day of Reconciliation so as to include the rest of South Africa as well. A stroke of genius I say. An act of extraordinary forgiveness, a representation of wisdom and maturity. How many lessons can we all learn from this; and it is so fitting that this should fall in December, a perfect time of year for reflection.

So on my favourite public holiday of the year, I hope you all, wherever you are; and whatever your beliefs, take some time to reconcile your beliefs, behaviour, relationships, work ethic, or whatever else is significant in your life, especially after a year that was full of uncertainty and change.

Can we forgive enough to say thank you to the past so that we can take away the lessons for a better future?




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