Commemorating Dingaan’s Day
16 December 1838. Geloftedag – Day of the Vow. It used to be the most significant commemoration day of the Afrikaners. It was the day when 470 Voortrekkers called on the help of God to defeat an overwhelming Zulu force at the Ncome River in what is KwaZulu-Natal today. The victory was commemorated as Dingaan’s Day until 1948, then became the Day of the Vow until it was renamed Day of the Covenant in 1982. After South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994 it became the Day of Reconciliation. December 16th is also the day when Umkontho we Sizwe, the military wing of the African National Congress (ANC), was founded in 1961.
The battle at the Ncome River on 16 December 1838 was only one act of a drama which had been building up for months. Its prelude started in February that year. A group of Voortrekkers led by Piet Retief had signed a treaty with Zulu King Dingaan which allowed them to settle on Zulu ground. Three years earlier the Cape Colony had been annexed by Britain. As a result settlers of mainly Dutch descent [the Boers = farmers] embarked on the Great Trek north, where they hoped to establish independent republics. The Zulu king invited the men in Retief’s group to a celebration at his kraal. Women and children did not attend, and the men went unarmed. On Dingaan’s orders all of them were murdered. Zulu warriors then went on to massacre Boer women and children. Altogether 500 Voortrekkers were killed.
In December 1838 Boer leader Andries Pretorius commandeered 470 determined men to avenge the death of Piet Retief and his group in a deciding battle against the Zulu. The Boers faced an overwhelming force of more than 10,000 warriors. According to historic sources 3000 Zulu were killed in the ensuing battle. The Ncome River turned red with blood, and the battle became known as the Battle of Blood River. Among the Voortrekkers three men were wounded, one of them Pretorius.
After their victory the Voortrekkers recalled the vow they had made a few days earlier: if God helped them to defeat Dingaan’s army they would build a church in His honour, at a place which He would show them. They also vowed that they and their progeny would celebrate the victorious day like a Sabbath. For more than 150 years the Day of the Vow was an important part of Afrikaner tradition and culture. Dingaan’s Day was also observed in South West Africa, especially the rural areas, while the country was under South African administration.
At the farm Groenrivier in the lesser Karas Mountains, for example, Dingaan’s Day was celebrated for the first time in 1931. The farm was then still known as Garub. Three dozen Afrikaners assembled there on 15 December. Early the next morning, at 3 o’clock, they solemnly inaugurated the Groenrivier celebrations with a prayer, after which the Battle of Blood River was re-enacted. In a memorial publication, issued for the 25-year-jubilee event, the play was described as ‘brilliant and very realistic’. The farm was seen as a perfect stage for re-enacting the battle between the Voortrekkers and Zulus. “The performance was so poignant and realistic that some women became afraid and hysterical.” After the play a festival committee was formed, consisting of the owner of Groenrivier, Iza van Niekerk, as well as Attie Louw, Sarel van der Walt, Abraham du Plooy and Frikkie Engels.
Visitors who came to Groenrivier for the celebration of Dingaan’s Day put a stone on a rock pile as token of their attendance. The heap of stones served as a memorial of sorts to remind participants and their descendants to continue observing the day and to renew their vow to God every year. In 1946 an obelisk with a memorial plaque was put up at Groenrivier, which is still there today.
Dingaan’s Day was abolished as a public holiday when Namibia gained independence in 1990.