On December 16, 1838, 430 gun-toting Boers defeated an army of 10,000 spear-waving Zulu warriors, killing 3,000 of the Zulus, proving the superiority of gunpowder over spears, and turning the water of the Ncombe River red, giving rise to the name Blood River. Miraculously, during the battle none of the Boers were killed and only 3 were injured. The Boers attributed their victory to the vow they made before the battle to build a church and hold the day sacred if they won. Generations of Afrikaners (white South Africans of Dutch extraction) interpreted the unlikely victory at Blood River as a sign of the superiority of the white man. The events at Blood River are at the heart of Afrikaner nationalism, which was central to Apartheid ideology.
When the Afrikaners ran South Africa, December 16th was declared a religious public holiday. They called it Dingane Day, which translates loosely as "the day we kicked their black asses." It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see how that might be considered offensive by the vast majority of the population here. After a few decades, the name was changed to Covenant Day, which translates loosely as "the day God looked down and chose the white man to run this country." It isn't surprising that one of the first acts of the post-apartheid government was to rename the public holiday the Day of Reconciliation.
When we read in our guide book that the monument at Blood River was comprised of 64 life-size bronze Voortrekker wagons, we decided that we couldn't miss seeing such a vainglorious, quasi-religious monument. Realizing that we could be there on the eve of the Covenant Day holiday, which is still celebrated by Afrikaners, we hustled on over to see what was doing. Unfortunately, we might have been hustling a little too fast, as we skidded off the gravel road leading out to the battlefield at 80km/hr and landed in a cow pasture. We got out to inspect the car and make sure we hadn't punctured anything and found that our legs were shaking from the adrenaline dump.
Riders waving old flags - Dutch Empire, Anglo-Boer War Unity Flag, New Republic (Vryheid), Transval Republic, Orange Free State, Natalia Republic. The new South African national flag is conspicuously absent.
We were still rattled from the near miss when we arrived at the Blood River Monument Site to find a group of 30 riders, dressed in khaki, sitting astride their horses, carrying the flags of the old Afrikaner Free States, preparing to go through the entrance gate. Sten pulled around them and began to enter the gate. Then he froze.
Sitting in the car halted in front of the gate, I looked at the crowd of white people in front of us wearing khaki and bonnets and holding cameras. I looked at the line of riders behind us. Then I turned to Sten and said, "Dude, you're holding up the parade." He jolted into action and drove us through the gates, leading the parade.
We got out of the car and watched the rest of the parade, which was kicking off several days of festivities. In the parking lot several dozen tents and campers were already set up and the braais were going. Initially we were welcomed in Afrikans, but when we responded in our American-accented English people seemed taken aback to find outsiders among them. We were clearly intruding on something sacred to them, and possibly something that they didn't want to be seen doing by anyone else. I felt like we had infiltrated a Klan rally. So we paid our entrance fee, watched an informative, if somewhat skewed movie about the battle, and headed over to the life-size laager (defensive formation) of bronze wagons.
If that isn't anachronistic, I don't know what is.
Once we were inside the wagon circle we could see a huge crowd on the other side of the river, on the other side of the razor wire-topped chain link fence that surrounds the Blood River Monument. We could see large tents set up in front of a large, low-slung brick building. We assumed that the building that we were looking at was the Ncombe Monument and Museum Complex, which was built after the end of Apartheid to tell the Zulu side of the story about the events that occurred at Blood River. We debated whether we had time to make a stop there as well, but then we decided that we really had to check it out.
As we drove through the gates, we got a lot of odd looks from the Zulus attending the Reconciliation Day festivities at Ncombe. Their expressions said "whitey, you are on the wrong side of the river." Or maybe we were just projecting our own fears onto their surprised faces. We parked and walked through the crowd towards the entrance of the museum, causing a lot of double takes, as people swung their heads around to give us a second look.
At the museum entrance, we were greeted with more wondering expressions and a smile. We were assigned two guides wearing orange safety vests to walk through the empty museum with us. We asked them a few questions, but they didn't speak much English. At the far end of the exhibits, we reached an open door, leading out to the back of the complex, through which we could hear singing. Our guides gestured us back towards the door we came in, but we asked if we could go out and see what was going on. So they led us out the back door and into a crowd of a thousand Zulus watching a dance performance.
First stop was to see their boss, who greeted us with a traditional handshake. Then, they tried to lead us into the tent for honored guests. We didn't want to be on display, or to disrupt the proceedings, so we motioned that we wanted to stand on the sidelines with the rest of the crowd and watch the dancing.
Zulus dancing under the new South African Flag
As bare breasted maidens wearing wool skirts sang and clapped to keep the beat, boys wearing t-shirts and imitation lion fur around their calves, above their Converse All Stars, danced energetically. As a precisely synchronized group, they executed a well-choreographed routine of high kicks, claps, jumps, and falls on their backsides. Our favorite part was the minister wearing a big silver cross and waving a briefcase directing the whole show.
As we watched the performance, we noted that we were the only white people there. Even on the sidelines, we were a complete spectacle. Everyone around us was looking at us, rather than the dancers. The girls glanced at us surreptitiously, then twittered with each other. The boys stared openly. I tried to strike up a conversation with the young man standing next to me, but he didn't respond; I assume because he didn't speak much English.
Trying to be less conspicuous, I sat down on the ground behind some older women. Sten squatted behind me. The ladies kept gesturing for us to come sit in front of them. Thinking that there might still be a few people on the parade ground who weren't aware of our presence, and wanting to keep it that way, we declined. One of the older women spoke some English and asked why we wouldn't go sit in the tent at the front of the performance ground. We said that we weren't staying long and didn't want to bother anyone. Well, that wasn't good enough.
She gathered herself up, grabbed my hand and pulled me to my feet. Towing me through the tightly packed crowd, with Sten following behind, she led us towards the tent. Sten thought that it was for our protection; I thought that she was just being hospitable. We had to explain to a guard why we didn't want to sit at the front of the crowd or go into the tent. The guard calmed down our new auntie, and we watched the rest of the performance from the sidelines. At the end, Sten let out a hoot of approval, which got some laughs from the people around us.
As we drove away, we realized that we had just witnessed a microcosm of this racially troubled nation. Here we were, ostensibly on the eve of the Day of Reconciliation. And yet, no one is reconciled. The two races are still camped out on different sides of the river.