History of December 16

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Tuesday, 16 December 2014

December 16 looms large in the history of South Africa; it is celebrated as the Day of Reconciliation. First celebrated as ‘Dingane’s Day,’ when the Voortrekkers triumphed against the Zulu army led by Dingane at the Battle of Blood River, it became a powerful instrument in the arsenal of the White Afrikaner drive to build Afrikaner Nationalism when in 1952 it became the ‘Day of the Covenant’.  Since the 1920s, the day was also used by the African National Congress, South African Communist Party and other political organisations to mount protest action against White minority rule and was selected in 1961 as the launch date of uMkhonto weSizwe.  

Dingaan's Day

Initially, 16 December was celebrated by Afrikaners as Dingaan's Dag (Dingane's Day) in celebration for what Voortrekkers viewed as a 'victory' over Zulu warriors near the Ncome River in KwaZulu Natal. An estimated 10 000-20 000 Zulu warriors led by Dingane's generals - Dambuza (Nzobo) and Ndlela kaSompisi - attacked around 470 Voortrekkers at dawn. With the advantage of gun powder Zulu warriors were repelled with an estimated 3000 Zulu warriors killed.  The blood of casualties was reported to have flowed in to the Ncome River, reportedly turning its water red and earning it the nickname ‘Blood River.’  The confrontation between Voortrekkers and Zulu regiments was subsequently named the Battle of Blood River. December 16 remained a rallying point for the development of Afrikaner nationalism, culture and identity.

Day of the Covenant

During the trek in to Natal, Afrikaners were led by W.J. Pretorius and S.A. Cilliers "to enter into a covenant with God."  Thus, when the Zulu attack was repelled by the Voortrekkers, it was viewed as a confirmation of God's ratification of said covenant.  This resulted in the establishment of Day of the Covenant.  In 1864 the General Synod of the Afrikaners' Natal Churches agreed that 16 December would henceforth be celebrated as an ecclesiastical day of thanksgiving by all its congregations. The following year the Executive Council of the South African Republic declared that 16 December be designated as a public holiday in the Boer Republic. In 1894 the Government of the Free State also declared 16 December to be a public holiday.

After the South African War and the subsequent unification of the Cape Colony, Natal and the two Afrikaner Republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State, an act was passed by parliament in 1910 hailing 16 December as a national holiday (Dingane's Day) throughout the Union of South Africa, effective from 1911.  In 1952 the name of the day was changed from Dingane's Day to the Day of the Vow (Day of the Covenant).

Counter events and protests on 16 December

From 1910, Africans who felt excluded from the benefits of universal suffrage after the end of the South African War launched counter events on December 16. These events were meetings and protests aimed at challenging racial discrimination and expressing disdain at continued subjugation of Black people.  On 16 December 1929 anti-pass demonstrations were organised by the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) in Potchefstroom in the Transvaal. One meeting, addressed by Edwin Thabo Mofutsanyana and John Beaver Marks, was invaded by a group of white protesters and a gunshot meant for the leaders of the CPSA resulted in the death of one civilian. Subsequent to the meeting, a general strike that lasted until 1930 was convened.  In the 1930s the CPSA continued to hold anti-pass campaigns and meetings on 16 December.  A meeting held on 16 December 1930 culminated in the burning of passes.  On 16 December 1934 the CPSA organized nine separate meetings in the townships to challenge the restrictions implemented by the Urban Areas Act. From 15 December to 18 December 1935, the All-African Convention (AAC) was held in Bloemfontein to protest against the racial policies of Prime Minister Hertzog. Thus, 16 December, particularly in the 1920s and the 1930s, became a day that signalled divisions in the country. For White citizens, particularly Afrikaners, the date symbolized a 'victory' over Black Africans, whereas for those opposed to White domination and racial discrimination; the date became a rallying point for protests.

Formation of uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) and launch of the armed struggle by the ANC

The African National Congress (ANC), together with the South African Communist Party (SACP), the South African Indian Congress, the Coloured People's Congress (CPC) and the Congress of Democrats (COD), had been engaged in peaceful acts of resistance aimed at forcing the government to recognize the rights of black citizens in South Africa. However, in the 1950s and early 1960s the South African government reinforced repressive measures to further isolate the country's black population by passing various legislations. It was the implementation of these repressive measures by the state which precipitated the need to change tactics and the manner in which the ANC, SACP and the Congress Alliance had been approaching the struggle for freedom and equality.

In the early 1960s the ANC, the SACP, COD, CPC and the SAIC mooted the idea of an armed struggle. At an ANC Working Committee meeting in June 1961 Mandela presented the proposal of a military wing to aid in the implementation of an armed struggle. On 16 December 1961 uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) (Spear of the Nation) announced its existence by launching its first acts of sabotage through bomb blasts against government structures in Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Durban.  In the Eastern Cape, an electrical substation was blown up in New Brighton and  the building of the New Brighton Labour Bureau and offices of the Bantu Administration Board were also bombed.  In Johannesburg, Joe Slovo became instrumental in bombing the Johannesburg Drill Hall.  Jack Hodgson and Lionel 'Rusty' Bernstein also successfully planted explosions in Pretoria and Johannesburg.

Between December 1961 and June 1963 more than 200 installations were attacked with the majority of these being in the Eastern Cape. This is perhaps because Port Elizabeth was the centre of sabotage training for MK cadres. The first MK casualty occurred when a soldier was killed by his own bomb and another lost an arm. MK continued to engage in armed skirmishes by recruiting and sending people for military training outside the country and redeploying them back in to the country. On 1 August 1990, MK suspended the armed struggle as negotiations for a democratic South Africa gathered momentum.

Day of Reconciliation

After the first democratic elections in 1994, December 16 continued to form part of the history of post-apartheid South Africa. On 16 December 1995 the name was changed once more and was celebrated as a public holiday known as the Day of Reconciliation. The establishment of December 16 as a public holiday was an attempt to strike a balance between a divided past and the promotion of national unity and reconciliation in a new political dispensation. 


The Truth and Reconciliation Commission that investigated human rights abuses committed during the Apartheid regime by all parties started its work in a ceremony on 16 December 1995. 

• Alana Bailey, (2003), Die gelofte van 16 Desember 1838: Die herdenking en betekenis daarvan, 1838 to 1910 (Afrikaans), Masters Thesis, Historical and Heritage Studies, (University of Pretoria)
• E, J Verwey, (1995), New dictionary of South African biography, (Pretoria), Volume 1, p.209

Last updated : 15-Dec-2015

This article was produced by South African History Online on 15-Dec-2014

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