During the early 19th century a multitude of Afrikaners – a South African ethnic group including descendants from Dutch, French, and German settlers – left the cape region and moved hundreds of miles inland. Among the Afrikaners was the Voortrekkers, an assembly that sought to establish independent republics on uninhabited land in protest against British colonialism. As to be expected, the land sought by the Voortrekkers was by no means vacant, and clashes with South Africa’s indigenous people were inevitable.
In 1837, the Voortrekker leadership engaged in land negotiations with the Zulu king. While historians argue over the exact details of the bargaining process, most agree that both sides attempted to display their force as an instrument of influence. The Voortrekkers and Zulus eventually agreed upon terms for land distribution, and together they signed a treaty in February of 1838. However, during a truce ceremony the Voortrekker entourage was killed by the Zulus (for reasons that continue to be debated), an ensuing battle lasted months, and numerous lives on both sides of the conflict were lost.
As the warfare persisted, about 10,000 Zulu warriors attacked the Voortrekkers on Dec. 16, 1838, but the severely outnumbered Voortrekkers – with the advantage of gun powder – warded off the Zulu army. According to some historical accounts, while only three Voortrekkers were wounded, more than 3,000 Zulus were killed. As a result of the Voortrekker victory, and because of promises they reportedly made to God before the battle, Dec. 16 was later instituted by the South African Apartheid-era government as a national public holiday, known as the “Day of the Vow."
On the other side of the South African political and racial spectrum, and in more recent times, Dec. 16 is also remembered as the historical anniversary of the 1961 founding of Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”), the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC). Umkhonto we Sizwe, often known as “MK,” was co-founded by Nelson Mandela and other members of the ANC, and they carried out the bombings of civilian, industrial, and infrastructure sites as a form of civil disobedience against the Afrikaner-controlled apartheid-era government. While the tactics of MK were initially geared toward sabotage, they gradually expanded as ANC members engaged in urban guerilla warfare. MK was classified as a banned terrorist organization by the South African government (and United States) until August of 1990.
With the above historical details in mind, Dec. 16could be remembered as a date of extreme violence and deep racial division within South Africa. Whether it was the Day of the Vow in 1838 or the start of Umkhonto we Sizwe in 1961, both occasions could symbolize deep cruelty and harsh brutality. But with the advent of democracy in 1994, Dec. 16 retained is status as a national public holiday but it did so with a redefined purpose.
Instead of celebrating a victory in war or recognizing the founding of an armed unit, South Africa renamed Dec. 16 as “The Day of Reconciliation” for the purpose of transformation, empowerment, and multi-racial national unity. In what can now be described as a dramatic conversion of symbolism, the newly redefined public holiday was celebrated for the first time in 1995.
The Day of Reconciliation is appropriately placed within the Christian liturgical season of Advent, for this period of expectation and longing for Jesus’ birth is a reminder of the ways that God’s presence heals wounds and redefines relationships. As the people of South Africa renovated their national holiday to embrace a transformed national identity, the Season of Advent prepares us to be made new through the birth of Jesus, and thus moves us to promote restored local and global communities through the practice of radical hospitality, as is written in 2 Corinthians 5:19: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, and entrusting to us the ministry of reconciliation."
While the Season of Advent is viewed in various ways, one method is to perceive it in anticipation of reconciliation, for such personal and public reconciliation is dearly needed in our present day and age. While we live in the most connected era of human history in regards to technology, media, economics, ecology, etc., we also dwell in arguably the most divided period our planet has ever witnessed, as we observe income disparity, unequal access to health care and suitable education, as well as dangerous levels of racism, sexism, religious extremism, environmental injustice, political polarization, xenophobia, and discrimination based upon sexual orientation. In the midst of our various and dangerous divisions, we seek the coming of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, who soothes our ongoing anticipation with a full dosage of divine reconciliation.
The awesome reality of Jesus’ birth allows us to perceive past mistakes in new ways, and in doing so, sets us on a path of personal healing and public civility. Through the arrival of Jesus in the world, God accompanies each and every member of humankind, thus our acts of violence and estrangement are replaced with peace, divisions removed in favor of unity, and exploitation is altered by a sustained pursuit of fairness and justice around the world. And so, as we anticipate the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day, may our Season of Advent be practiced in anticipation of reconciliation, so that our relationships may be redefined, our identities affirmed, and our communities more fully restored.
Brian E. Konkol is an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), serves as Co-Pastor of Lake Edge Lutheran Church (Madison, WI), and is a PhD candidate in Theology & Development with the University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa).