December 16 | Here's why Reconciliation Day is significant in South Africa

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The 16th of  December is a day of great significance in South Africa due to two historical events that took place.
The 16th of December is a day of great significance in South Africa due to two historical events that took place.
Nicolò Campo

Reconciliation day is a South African public holiday that is celebrated every year on 16 December. This holiday is about promoting reconciliation and national unity between different racial groups.

We take a look at what makes this day so important in South Africa. 

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Two major historical events occurred on the 16th of December, although they occurred in different centuries.

According to the Department of Arts and Culture, the first significant event took place in 1838 when the Battle of Blood River between the Voortrekkers and the Zulus happened. The second was in 1961 when the former armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), was formed.

The Battle of Blood River on 16 December

The Battle of Blood River took place between the Voortrekkers and the Zulus near the Ncome River in KwaZulu-Natal on the 16th of December in 1838.

This battle was between the Voortrekkers under the leadership of Piet Retief (before he was murdered and Andries Pretorius took over) and the Zulu's under the leadership of Dingane the Zulu King.

The Voortrekkers, having moved into the interior of South Africa in the event of the Great Trek, were eager to settle on the land between the Tugela and the Umzimvubu rivers, as well as the Drakensberg.

However, the region they intended to settle on was already inhabited by the Zulu people. 

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More than 15 000 Zulu warriors led by Dingane’s generals Dambuza (Nzobo) and Ndlela kaSompisi went into battle. The fight began at dawn and was over by midday. More than 3000 Zulu casualties were counted. Only three Voortrekkers (including Voortrekker leader Pretorius) were wounded, none were killed.

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Umkhonto we Sizwe on 16 December

The second historical event took place in 1961 when Umkhonto we Sizwe (“the Spear of the Nation”) was launched as an armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC).

Umkhonto weSizwe or 'MK' as it was more commonly known, was launched on the 16th December 1961. According to the South African Online History, the formation of MK followed a series of events that made it necessary for the national liberation movements in South Africa to move towards a more significant challenge to the white minority government.

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Before its formation, the ANC had approached the fight against apartheid through passive resistance, but after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, where peaceful protestors were indiscriminately shot by police, passive resistance was no longer seen as an effective approach in bringing apartheid to an end.  

The department of Art and Culture states that MK mostly performed acts of sabotage, but its effectiveness was hampered by organizational problems and the arrest of its leaders in 1963. Despite this, its formation was commemorated every year since 1961.

The first time the 16th of December was celebrated as the Reconciliation Day

South Africa’s first non-racial and democratic government in 1994, led by former president Nelson Mandela, was tasked with promoting reconciliation and national unity.

On 16 December 1995, the Day of Reconciliation was celebrated as a public holiday in South Africa for the first time, to mark both events.

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