Source: Originally published in the Cape Argus on Thursday, 19 December 2019. Link
National Reconciliation Day finds its roots in a tragic battle in 1838 on the banks of what some know as the Ncome River, and others as Blood River – the “Slag van Bloedrivier”, or “iMpi yaseNcome”.
During apartheid the battle was commemorated as the Day of the Vow but renamed as the Day of Reconciliation following the transition to democracy. However, considered as a significant event for its sense of self, many in the Afrikaner community still observe the day as a religious day, gathering at the Voortrekker Monument to hear a commemorative sermon.
At the same time formal and public events to celebrate Reconciliation Day continue, with a main commemoration event addressed by the president – this year in KwaZulu-Natal.
Drawing a link between the battle of 1838 and the founding of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s military wing, a century later on December 16 1938, the president’s address contrasted the two historical events as illustrations of past conflict and resistance.
Reconciliation Day today symbolises the nation’s ability to overcome a fraught history of injustice and social distances, he argued.
It seems as if the Day of Reconciliation was this year celebrated at opposite sides of the country, both in geographical and socio-political terms – with one event in Pretoria to the North, attended mostly by citizens associating with the Afrikaner community, and the other in Bergville to the South, attended mostly by citizens associating with the ruling party.
To the North the battle of Blood River was commemorated, while to the South the battle at the Ncome River was remembered. The different events seemingly represent the distances of opposite sides of a battle 181 years ago.
“Social narratives” is the underlying dynamic of this societal drama of remembering – the stories people hear, read and share to make sense of events that diverse communities all consider significant, even if for different reasons. Such narratives create a sense of “shared biography” to create a sense that “we are the same” – different people see the events, actors, plots and timelines of their own lives mirrored in the broader narrative. As they do so, people also come to recognise similarities in the stories of others. They come to believe that those that also trust and commit to the broader storyline share their past and present.
As a way of making sense such stories gain prominence when they have formal sanction by government, or cultural, religious and political groups – in this way the battle narrative of the “Blood River” carries formal sanction of Afrikaner cultural groups, while the battle narrative of the “Ncome River” carries formal sanction of government.
What the implied distances of the two narratives reveal is a lack of stories that symbolise our aspirations for and work to achieve a new togetherness – stories of individuals and groups that embrace reconciliation.
There is one such story that emerges from a picture, a selfie taken by two prominent anti-apartheid activists, namely Desmond Tutu and Beyers Naude in 1984 (Cape Times). Taken on Tutu’s return to the country after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, they embrace each other laughingly as they celebrate the solidarity of the world with the South African drama for freedom and a new togetherness.
A story to remember that truly transcends the distances of one river in the same country remembered for vastly different narratives.
- Rudi Buys is the executive dean and dean of humanities of the private and non-profit higher education institution, Cornerstone Institute.