The date, December 16, holds a special significance in South African history. On this day in 1838, the Voortrekkers fought a battle for survival against Dingaan’s Zulu army, and were victorious. Later, the day was commemorated as part of the Afrikaner nationalist project.

This article traces some of the main events that make up the history of the Afrikaner nationalist project and, indeed, the construction of the Afrikaners as a social group and a ‘race’, which led to the apartheid regime. The article briefly traces the key events that highlight the significance of December 16 as a political marker. (Consideration of these key events focus on their significance for the development of Afrikanerdom. For more detail on these key events see the articles dedicated to them on the SAHO site)

Part 1

The Afrikaners: Birth of a people

The emergence of an Afrikaner people, with their ‘own’ language, social and political traditions, culture, religious orientation, dietary habits and other marks of identity, was a process that was constructed by Afrikaner activists in reaction to British imperialism, on the one hand, and Black Africans living in southern Africa, on the other hand.

These activists did not create something out of nothing, but rather took elements of South Africa’s history and forged a particular narrative that presented the Afrikaners as a group that was persecuted but heroic in resistance.

The annexation of the Cape as a colony of the British sparked the need of the Dutch colonists to differentiate themselves from the English as a people, a volk, with particular interests that were not the same as those of the English and other groups.

This process was accelerated by the imposition of laws that alienated the Dutch colonists from the political and cultural mainstream of the Cape Colony, especially when English was made the official language of the colony and the Dutch language was excluded from official, educational, church and other proceedings during the 19th century.

The Slagtersnek Rebellion

The Slagtersnek rebellion of 1815 brought home to the Dutch the new terms of citizenship that the British imposed on the colony. The British made every inhabitant of the Cape equal before the law, and imposed a new rule of law that put masters and their servants more or less on the same footing in the eyes of the law.

So when Frederik Bezidenhout was reported to have mistreated his Khoikhoi labourers, he was summoned to a magistrate’s court in the Cape. He failed to appear and a warrant of arrest was issued. Bezuidenhout fled his farm and hid in a cave, but was discovered and shot for resisting arrest.

His brother Hans Bezuidenhout, fuelled by a desire for revenge, gathered together a band to mount and uprising against the British authorities. They were confronted at Slagtersnek, and most of them surrendered, but Hans resisted arrest and was killed.

Five of those arrested – Cornelis Faber (43), Stefanus Cornelis Botma (43), his brother Abraham Carel Botma (29), Hendrik Frederik Prinsloo (32) and Theunis de Klerk – were sentenced to death, while the remainder were set free or banished.

The Abolition of Slavery

But it was the abolition of slavery that sparked a unique event that would transform the former Dutch colonists into a new ‘volk’ – the Great Trek).

The British outlawed slavery in 1834. Without slaves, the burghers  could not survive as farmers, and the Dutch Cape colonists experienced the British-imposed abolition as inimical to their way of life and their interests.

About 6,000 of them embarked on what became known as the Great Trek, an exodus to areas north of the colony that would be beyond the rule of the British.

The Great Trek and the murder of Piet Retief

From 1836 parties of trekkers began leaving the Cape Colony with the worldly goods in ox-wagons, moving north beyond the frontiers of the colony. They moved in various directions: north towards what would become the Transvaal, (today Gauteng and Limpopo province); north-east towards Durban (today’s KwaZulu-Natal), and towards today’s Free State province.

One of the leaders of the Voortrekkers, as they became known, was Piet Retief. He moved to Natal and tried to negotiate with Dingaan to secure a territory for the Boers to settle on. The wily Dingaan met with him and set as a condition the return of cattle and firearms stolen by Tlokwe chief Sekonyela. Retief fulfilled this condition and a date was set for a meeting to make final agreements.

Meanwhile Dingaan had received reports that the Boers were streaming into his territory, and a letter Retief had sent him in 1837 contained an account of how the Boers had defeated Mzilikazi ­– an apparent threat that the Boers would wage war if their requirements were not met.

At the meeting, on February 6 1838, Retief and his delegation of 100 men went to Umgungundlovu, where they were slaughtered. Dingaan mounted a campaign against the Boers that very day, and attacked a party in the Upper Tugela, as part of a series of attacks over the next few months.

The Battle of Blood River

The Boers felt that the entire Trek project would collapse. They mobilised a force of about 470 fighters and moved to a strategic point on the Buffalo River (also known as the Ncome River), where they formed a laager bounded on two sides by water, ready for an attack.

Sarel Cilliers vowed that if God allowed the Boers to prevail, they would forever celebrate that day, December 16.

The Zulus attacked but were defeated, with blood flowing into the Ncome River, which later became known as Blood River, and the conflict as the Battle of Blood River.

A Political awakening

After the Battle of Blood River, the Boers established colonies called Natal, Transvaal and the Orange Free State, where they governed themselves as republics. Natal proved to be a short-lived republic as it was soon annexed by the British.

The development of the republics set Afrikanerdom at odds with the British more than any previous event. The culmination of the Great Trek, the republics developed as autonomous political units more or less outside the influence of  British rule. But British imperial interests were threatened by the OFS and Transvaal as republics that could undermine the British foothold in the Cape.

These developments could be seen as evidence of the coming into being of Afrikanerdom, and it would not be inaccurate to say that those who were burghers in the Cape, the Voortrekkers who had established republics in the north, now constituted a distinct, self conscious cultural and political entity. The Afrikaners had arrived, and they set about creating the basis for a cultural and political nationalism, focusing on issues of language and literature.

In the Cape Colony, representative government was established in 1853, and the beginnings of party politics followed in the 1870s. By now, Afrikaners were agitating for recognition of their language, as it was not allowed in parliament, and was beginning to go into decline, with some burghers speaking English even in their homes.

Two figures played the most significant role in this new struggle: SJ du Toit and JH ‘Onze Jan’ Hofmeyr.

The First Language Movement

Du Toit and a few fellow-travellers formed Die Genootskap vir Regte Afrikaners (the GRA, the Fellowship of True Afrikaners) in Paarl on 14 August 1875. This was the beginning of the First Language Movement of the Afrikaners, and the beginnings of a cultural nationalism that would eventually become a political nationalism.

The GRA was dedicated to the recognition of Afrikaans as a language in Parliament, the civil service and schools. They launched a newspaper, Die Afrikaanse Patriot, first published on 15 January 1876, using a version of Afrikaans accessible to ordinary Afrikaners.

Du Toit wrote a history of the Afrikaners, Die Geskiednis van ons Land in die Taal van ons Volk (The History of our Land in the Language of our Nation), published in 1877, which presented Afrikaners as oppressed throughout their history, and hailed those ‘martyred’ after the Slagter’s Nek rebellion.

According to TRH Davenport: ‘It was romantic history of an exaggerated kind, in which the hero was the Afrikaner Boer. He was pictured, first of all, trying to build a colony, caught between the upper and nether millstones of the Dutch East India Company and the “wild nations”; and was seen to prevail over both because the Lord was on his side… they sought to arouse the group patriotism of the Afrikaner by a skilful use of melodrama, best seen in their account of the Slagters Nek executions in 1815.’

Du Toit then translated the Bible into Afrikaans, published Eerste Beginsels van die Afrikaans Taal (First Principles of the Afrikaans Language), a history of the Afrikaans language movement, an anthology of Afrikaans poetry, and picture books for children.

The Afrikaner Bond

Du Toit called for the establishment of an Afrikaner Bond, an organisation that would serve the interests of all those who saw themselves as Afrikaners.

The call was heeded by Afrikaners especially after the British annexed the Transvaal in 1877, and after the Transvaalers found themselves at war with the British, a war that they swiftly won after the Battle of Majuba in 1881.

The Bond became the first political party in South Africa, representing the interests of Afrikanerdom in the Cape Parliament, but also forging links and setting up branches in the OFS and Transvaal.

In 1881, after the Boer victory in the first Anglo-Boer War, Paul Kruger, speaking at the state festival on December 16, said that God had given the Boers their victories at Majuba and Blood River.

Increasingly, Afrikaners were commemorating December 16 as a founding myth. At the unveiling of the Paardekraal monument in 1891, Kruger warned that the Boers had to thankful to God for their victories. They would suffer if they failed to honour their covenant.

In the Transvaal Paul Kruger maintained an anti-British policy that eventually led to the second Anglo-Boer War.

The Anglo-Boer War

When Britain went to war against the Boers in the second Anglo-Boer War, Afrikanerdom was not totally united against the British, who took steps to ensure the Cape Afrikaners did not join forces with their brethren in the republics, although a number of these did join the Boers in their struggle, either fighting or lending support.

The Afrikaners lost the war, and suffered great hardships, with some 25,000 women and children dying in British concentration camps. They were forced to accept defeat in 1902.

Union, 1910

After the war, Afrikaners were divided between those who decided that reconciliation with the British was the way forward, and the so-called bitter-einders, who had fought until the last and resisted a peace deal.

Afrikaners increasingly referred to Dingaan’s Day as part of their mythology. Gustav Preller, the editor of Die Volkstem, published articles about Piet Retief in 1905/6. Historian F van Jaarsveld wrote that Preller saw the Great Trek as the birth of the Afrikaner nation.

Plans for uniting the four colonies into a union of South Africa went ahead, and the Afrikaners entered into a new form of conflict: parliamentary politics.

Political Developments 1910-1938

After union was established, Afrikaners sought to capture the state through political means, with Jan Smuts and Louis Botha’s South African Party winning the first election to national government. The SAP stood for reconciliation between English and Afrikaner, a position rejected by many Afrikaners, especially after South Africa entered the First World War on the side of the British.

Increasingly, the Afrikaners began to develop their political mythology. The Slagtersnek Monument was unveiled in 1915, a hundred years after the original incident. Preller produced a film, The Voortrekkers, in 1916. The script was published in a book, together with articles celebrating Retief’s life. Preller referred to Retief as ‘faithful, valiant Retief, honest upright Afrikaner, and soul of the future Afrikaner nation’.

In 1929 Prime Minister JBM Hertzog, gave a speech on Dingaan’s Day, in which he referred to the ‘significance of the Battle of Blood River’ and announced that ‘Dingaan's Day 1838 was decisive for the European race from Cape to Nyasa’. He said the ‘victory of those few trekkers on the Banks of Blood River achieved more than securing a fatherland for a few thousand expatriate farmers from the Cape’.

The so-called poor-white problem that emerged in the 1920s saw the emergence of the ‘Second Great Trek’. Poorer Afrikaner farmers, increasingly driven off the land into the cities, began to constitute a class of white proletariat wit little or no skills with which to find jobs in an urban economy. Finding themselves in competition with Black workers, the state embarked on programmes to empower this class.

The Second Language Movement

A second Language Movement emerged in the 1930s, with writers now producing works of literature that far surpassed the earlier efforts of SJ du Toit and his followers.

According to Hermann Giliomee: ‘One of the most remarkable features of the public debate between 1902 and 1934 was the public silence about the Anglo-Boer War.’

Giliomee adds that only nine books on the war were written in Afrikaans or Dutch between 1906 and 1931. And Die Burger editorialised that a veil had been thrown over the British concentration camps because Afrikaners were ‘ashamed of the way in which women and children of a brave nation had been treated’.

But during the 1930s, Giliomee writes, ‘a new generation of Afrikaners sought to rediscover themselves through acknowledging both the heroism and the suffering of the war’.

Having gained official recognition in 1925, Afrikaans now flowered as a language. Poets, novelists and historians began to contribute to a growing archive of literature. A new translation of the Bible was lauded by DF Malan as the greatest cultural event in the life of the Afrikaner people. Writers such as Uys Krige, Elisabeth Eybers and WEG Louw published their first volumes of poetry.

The foremost Afrikaans writer, NP van Wyk Louw, produced a play, Die Dieper Reg (The Higher Justice), in which he presented the Voortrekkers as heroes who followed the ‘call of their blood’.

Van Wyk Louw was part of the Dertigers, the Generation of the Thirties, which broke with the romantic traditions of their predecessors. He joined the Broederbond in 1934, joining fellow poet DJ Opperman.

All the preceding developments serve as a brief background to the use of the December 16 date as a tool of political mobilisation.

Part 2

The Political Use of December 16

Afrikaner nationalists claim that the Battle of Blood River saved the Great Trek; that it represented the birth of the Afrikaner nation; that the Voortrekkers' victory symbolized the triumph of Christianity over heathens; that all Afrikaners were irrevocably bound by the vow for all time; and that the battle itself must be regarded as a miracle in the sense that divine intervention gave the Voortrekkers their victory.

The Boers’ vow to commemorate the day of their victory over Dingaan’s Zulu army was not observed in any significant way until the 1880s, and after 1838 the day arguably fell into disregard as the Boers focused on their everyday struggles.  

In 1864, Paul Kruger declared December 16 a public holiday in the Transvaal Republic. In 1880, the Boers remembered the covenant at a popular festival in Paardekraal, near Krugersdorp.

In 1888 Kruger attended Dingaan’s Day celebrations on December 16 at the site of the Battle of Blood River, and proposed that a monument be built in honour of the Voortrekkers. In 1894, the OFS declared December 16 a public holiday.

By 1908 December 16 became a South African national holiday.

The Re-enactment of the Great Trek, 1938

In 1931 the Sentrale Volksmonumentekomitee (SVK) (Central People's Monuments Committee) was formed to build the Voortrekker monument. Construction began in July 1937.

In 1938 the Afrikaanse Taal and Kultuurvereniging organised a re-enactment of the Great Trek. Beginning in the latter half of the year, nine ox-wagons travelled  along two routes: from Cape Town to the site of the Battle of Blood River in northern Natal; and from Cape Town to Pretoria, where a foundation stone for a Voortrekker monument was laid on December 16.

Moving through small towns and villages, the trekkers drew massive crowds, often dressed in clothing resembling that of the Voortrekkers. Wreaths were laid on graves of Afrikaner heroes, folk songs sung and people imitated the Voortrekkers’ eating habits, most notably by having barbecues – the famous South African braaivleis.

On December 16, a crowd of over 100,000 attended the ceremony in Pretoria. Jan Smuts was also in attendance. In the Natal gathering, future prime minister DF Malan spoke of the poor-white problem, describing it as the greatest challenge to the survival of the Afrikaner people.  He addressed Afrikaners, saying ‘you stand today in your own white laager at your own Blood River, seeing the dark masses gathering around your isolated white race’.


Ten years later, in 1948, the National Party came to power in South Africa, and instituted its apartheid programme. This was the culmination of the Afrikaner quest for political power. The event was soon followed by the completion of the Voortrekker Monument.

On December 16 1949, the completed Voortrekker Monument was inaugurated, the event drawing the largest crowd the country had ever seen at an event until then.  The monument was meant to 'engender pride in the nation of heroes which endured the hardships of the Great Trek’. The frieze on the interior of the monument is meant as a symbol of 'the Afrikaner's proprietary right to South Africa’.

In his last major speech, Jan Smuts said that few nations could boast of such ‘a romantic history… and one of more griping human interest’. Interestingly, according to Giliomee, he warned: ‘Let us not be fanatical about our past and romanticise it.’ He also called for greater co-operation between Afrikaner and English white South Africans, and said that the greatest problem facing white South Africans, was ‘the problem of our native relations’, the ‘most difficult and final test of our civilisation’.

Malan, by now prime minister, also spoke at the event, warning that global influences were undermining the spirit and ideals of the Voortrekkers. He said a ‘godless communism’ was threatening the achievements of the Afrikaners. According to Giliomee, Malan said that  ‘there was a danger of blood mixing and disintegration of the white race. The only way of avoiding the spectre of a descent into “semi-barbarism” was a return to the Voortrekker spirit and a return to the volk, church and God.’

With apartheid becoming entrenched, the Afrikaners no longer needed mythmaking to acquire power, but rather to maintain power.

Collections in the Archives