Bridging a river of blood

2013-11-14 00:00

THERE can’t be many conferences that begin with the programme director announcing that delegates presenting papers “take responsibility” for their content. That Pieter Nel, programme director of the Courageous Conversations conference held at Ncome Museum last week, felt the need to do so indicated the potentially controversial nature of what might follow.

The three-day conference, held to mark the 175th anniversary of the Battle of Blood River/Ncome, fought on December 16, 1838, organised by the Msunduzi Museum in Pietermaritzburg and the Ncome Museum on the site of the battlefield, originated in a speech given last year by Professor Russel Botman, rector and vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University, at the centenary of the establishment of a museum at the Church of the Vow in Pietermaritzburg.

Noting that museums such as the Msunduzi Museum created a space where national reconciliation could be fostered, Botman called for “courageous conversations” to achieve that objective. “Let us talk this country into its future together,” he said.

The Ncome Museum, near Dundee, is situated on the eastern bank of the Ncome River. On the other side stands the replica laager of 64 bronze Voortrekker ox wagons at the Blood River Heritage site. The two sites are linked by a bridge of reconciliation, ironically, usually closed, but opened for the duration of the conference.

“In our new democratic dispensation, we are using this platform to unite us rather than divide us,” said Professor Sihawu Ngubane, chairperson of the Msunduzi and Ncome Trust and lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Arts, who chaired the first session of the conference and, following Nel’s earlier lead, requested presenters to “keep emotions moderate”, adding “but I can’t guarantee that — [this battle] brings up memories of the past”.

Proceedings kicked off unemotionally enough with Ben Khumalo-Seegelken, Institute of Protestant Theology and Religious Education, Carl von Ossietzky University, Oldenberg, Germany, presenting an overview of how the battle has been commemorated over time.

“Survivors from both sides and their families used to remember the day and commemorate it in their own way. In 1864, the surviving trekkers widened the scope of the commemoration and brought matters under the banner of the Dutch Reformed Church, resulting in a synod decision that ‘Dingaan’s Day’ be observed, and that an annual service be held at Ncome/Blood River.”

In 1865, December 16 was declared a public holiday in the Transvaal Republic. The creation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 saw the day become a national public holiday. In 1952, four years after the National Party came to power and the introduction of apartheid, the day was renamed Gelofte Dag (Day of the Covenant) and was commemorated with “public ceremonies with religious overtones”. Full democracy in 1994 saw the day renamed the Day of Reconciliation.

Acknowledging the divisive nature of the battle’s legacy, Khumalo-Seegelken called for a national cleansing ceremony to be held on December 16, 2014, at Ncome, to “open a new page” during the year that will mark 20 years of democracy.

Political analyst Somadoda Fikeni said South Africa is experiencing “an honesty and courage deficit” when it comes to reconciliation. Even the image of Nelson Mandela had been distorted to push reconciliation without justice, he said. Noting the irony of the reconciliation bridge being closed, he observed that “reconciliation is still an incomplete process”, adding that “social reconciliation and social justice cannot be replaced by symbols of reconciliation”.

Fikeni emphasised the importance of memory, quoting from Ariel Dorfman’s 2010 Mandela Lecture: “A nation that does not take into account the multitude of suppressed memories of the majority of its people will always be weak, basing its survival on the exclusion of dissent and otherness.”

Fransjohan Pretorius, Department of Historical and Heritage Studies, University of Pretoria, also acknowledged the need for honesty and courage: “If we are to have ‘courageous conversations’, we must expect to differ. Disagreement is the nature of history, and of life.”

Pretorius said the Afrikaner view of the battle has prevailed for too long and that there is a need for a revised version. “We need to integrate the sources; not simply discarding the Afrikaner version and replacing it with the Zulu version. This is an opportunity to achieve real reconciliation.”

The emotional temperature rose when Jabulani Maphalala, KZN commissioner for Traditional Leadership Disputes and Claims, came to the podium. He disputed several aspects of the battle, including the idea of the Ncome River turning red with blood. He left the stage exclaiming: “Eh! I am angry now” — though not before proposing the Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurvereniginge (FAK) have an indaba with King Goodwill Zwelithini to resolve the issues of 1838.

Speaking to The Witness,Major-General Gert Opperman, managing director: Heritage Foundation and director: Voortrekker Monument, under whose banner the Blood River Museum is run, said that “on a local level there are good relationships; we co-operate well, and there is no animosity”.

Opperman echoed Pretorius’s call for an integrated version of what happened at the battle, “but we can’t reject one version of propaganda and replace it with another form of propaganda. Our version has become glamourised, politicised and embellished — we need to demystify it.”

The two versions as displayed by the two museums boil down to a question of emphasis. One tells the story from a Zulu point of view, with a focus on customs and rituals — although noticeably coy about the casualties —

while the other tells it from the Afrikaner perspective.

But another dividing line is a financial one. Ncome Museum, which came into being in 1999 as part of the government’s Legacy Project, is funded generously by the Department of Arts and Culture, whereas the Blood River Museum is privately funded. “We envy them their state funding,” Opperman said. “But we want to retain our independence.”

And the closure of the reconciliation bridge? For practical reasons it seems. There is a bricked path leading to the bridge from the Ncome Museum side but none on the other. “But we have now got the money to complete the walk from our side,” said Opperman. “It is now out to tender.”

But Opperman says there has to be some form of access control. “We have had vandalism in the laager.”

There’s also the question of the entrance fee. Entry to Ncome Museum is free, but the Blood River Museum charges R25 plus R10 per car.

However, the bridge is evidence of how attitudes have softened, says Opperman. “When it was first mooted, there was strong opposition from locals. We have assured them there will not be uncontrolled access and vandalism. There’s now a rapprochement.”

Further rapprochement seemed likely, listening to Bongani Ndhlovu, executive director: Core Functions, Iziko Museums of South Africa, and a former director of the Msunduzi and Ncome museums, who called for an examination of the “different and selective truths” concerning the battle.

Ndhlovu said there is a need to bring the two versions together and to move away from having two sites taking offensive/defensive positions. “Until such time as this is realised, the motto ‘unity in diversity’ will continue to be an illusory dream, a nineties notion of a rainbow nation.”

Ndhlovu said differing views should be allowed to exist on one site. “The two should sit down and say ‘Here we have a site. How are going to run the site in an integrated way and incorporate all the texts?’.”

Opperman endorsed Ndhlovu’s position. “It’s wrong to talk about them and us … [the site] would be better managed if it was one heritage site under one management.”

Rapprochement found written form in the resolutions drawn up at the end of the conference. Among them, the establishment of a committee, with members from all involved parties, to carry the reconciliation process forward; an annual conference to take place on alternate sides of the river; and an invitation to historians to create an integrated version of the battle. Though reconciliation might still be elusive, the conference, and its resulting resolutions, hopefully represent genuine commitment to courageous conversation.


THE Voortrekkers came over the Drakensberg into Natal in 1837. In early 1838, a group of Voortrekkers under Piet Retief met with King Dingane kaSenzangakhona at his umGungundhlovu homestead in Zululand to negotiate a land deal. But Dingane, fearing the mounted and armed trekkers, ordered they be killed. Zulu impis subsequently attacked trekker encampments, killing 270 whites and 250 coloureds, and taking 25 000 cattle.

The trekkers determined on revenge. An initial mounted expedition was routed by the Zulus, who enjoyed less success when they attacked a laager of 290 wagons and were repulsed after three days.

In December 1838, Andries Pretorius led a force consisting of 464 trekkers, three English settlers, 120 black followers, 64 wagons and two cannons, into Zululand. Pretorius chose a strategic site above the banks of the Ncome River, laagered his wagons and waited.

On December 16, 1838, a Zulu army of between 12 000 and 16 000 men under Dingane’s senior commander, Ndela kaSompisi, attacked. They could make no impression on the laager, repelled by the trekkers’ firepower. Finally a mounted charge led by Pretorius brought the battle to an end. It is estimated that 3 000 Zulus were killed, while three trekkers were wounded, including Pretorius, who received a cut to his hand while fighting. The river was renamed Blood River as it is said the water was red with blood; and the battle became known as the Battle of Blood River. Zulu and Afrikaner historians differ on aspects of the battle, including the number of casualties, as well as the reasons behind the earlier killing of Retief and his followers. Prior to the battle, the trekkers had vowed they would honour God if victory was theirs. Faithful to this promise, the Church of the Vow was built in Pietermaritzburg and the annual commemoration of the battle became known as Day of the Vow. It was renamed Day of Reconciliation in 1994.

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