How Far We Went, How Far Back We Have Slid

We went on a family holiday in December 2016 that got me thinking. I have wanted to write about this for quite sometime but due to life events I have simply not had the time until now.

Our family holiday involved visiting some of the battlefields in the northern parts of KwaZulu Natal. This area was the scene of much conflict throughout the nineteenth century. It was an area that the amaZulu, the Voortrekkers (later the Boers) and the British all claimed dominion over. The people who actually lived in these parts either identified as being one of these claimants or were too weak to enforce their own rights. The British, the Voortrekkers and the amaZulu were all relatively powerful local forces and it was difficult for either one to fully exert control over the entire region. This led to a number of conflicts over the years. A comprehensive history of the territory is beyond this blog, but it really is very interesting and the conflicts that played out in northern KwaZulu Natal from the 1830s through to the turn of the century certainly played a significant role in shaping the politics, economics and societal structure of contemporary South Africa.

Of relevance to this blog is a battle that was fought, between the Voortrekkers and the amaZulu, in this region on 16 December 1838. The name by which you call the battle depends on whether you were taught about it by the descendants of the amaZulu or the Voortrekkers. The amaZulu called it the Battle of Ncome (the ‘Nc’ making a clicking sort of sound, best replicated by pretending you are removing peanut butter from the roof of your mouth), whilst the Voortrekkers called it the Battle of Blood River. The battle was  the result of Voortrekkers migrating into KwaZulu Natal from the Eastern and Western Cape in the mid 1830s. Their leaders allegedly acquired the rights to farm the land in northern KwaZulu Natal (an allegation refuted or at the very least questioned by many historians). When the Voortrekker leaders visited the Zulu King Dingaan to ratify the treaty they were executed and the amaZulu sent out an impi (army) to destroy the Voortrekker families who were settling in the foothills of the Drakensberg. As a result of the execution and subsequent killing of many Voortrekker men, women and children, the survivors gathered and a military leader (Andries Pretorius) arrived from the Cape and they attacked the amaZulu. The battle was a decisive victory for the Voortrekkers who then established the (short lived) Boer Republic of Natalia. No matter what the immediate political effects of the victory were, the Voortrekkers, Boers and their Afrikaans speaking descendants saw this battle as having an almost mythical importance. It seemed to them that it showed that they had a divine right to the land of South Africa, that they as a people had a privileged relationship with their god and that their presence in the interior of South Africa was in at least some way divinely ordained. Sadly this battle was also used by certain people to show the supposed superiority of the South African whites over South African blacks.

As you can imagine this battle is somewhat controversial. It is also something of a political hot potato. Many Afrikaans speaking South Africans still feel a very deep and real need to commemorate the day, and they do so at historical and cultural sites across the country. It is a potent symbol of ethnic, linguistic and even national pride for Afrikaans people and it is an important if not defining piece of their cultural and religious identity. On the other hand the battle’s role in racial oppression, the development of ideologies that ultimately led to Apartheid and its inherently divisive nature in post-Apartheid South Africa has given the government something of a headache. The day is still a public holiday, although its official name has changed and it is now positioned as a day of reconciliation and nation building. The government is trying to use the day to sew seeds of nationhood, bringing former foes together whilst still allowing the Afrikaans community the space to commemorate the day in the ways they feel most correct.

This all sounds quite good and in the urban areas of South Africa is probably quite successful. However on our trip in December I was shown an entirely different, far more challenging side of the situation. We visited the site of the battle a few days before the 16th of December. It is interesting to note that there are two components to the site. On the one  eastern side of the Ncome River is a museum and commemorative centre dedicated to the amaZulu. Here the Zulu culture and military system is explained, the isiZulu language is also spoken about and the lineage of the Zulu Kings is outlined. It is in short a good overview of Zulu language, culture, history and politics. This museum is linked to the western side of the river by a pedestrian bridge. On the western side of the river there is a museum and a commemorative site. The ox wagon laager the Voortrekkers fought in is reproduced in bronze, as are the artillery pieces. The eastern side is called Ncome, the western side is called Bloed Rivier (Blood River).

So far so good. Now for the problems. We arrived at the Blood River side and entered through an electric gate. The whole area was surrounded by an electric fence. Clearly intruders are not welcome. We arrived at the museum/visitors centre and we were charged an entry fee. I was amused to see that our receipt listed us as ‘buitelanders’. Quite literally ‘foreigners’. This was amusing because we were all South African citizens and nearly all of us were born in South Africa, some more than 75 years ago. Having paid our entry fee we took a look around. A number of Afrikaans families were setting up camp. They were there to re-enact the battle on the 16th. They were flying flags from the old Boer Republics of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal (Zuid Afrikaanse Republiek). This was strange. These republics were only established after the battle was fought (if memory serves the Orange Free State was only established in the 1850s and the ZAR around 1840) and I found the flying of their flags to be somewhat unhistorical. I could only assume that they were flying these flags in an effort to assert their identity, an identity different to the identity of the country in which they live. We walked past the campers and we definitely did not feel welcome. It was nothing that they said or did, but we all felt ‘a vibe’. We spent some time looking at the bronze wagons and I explained the events of the battle to my family.

We then went down to the bridge so that we could cross the river. There was a gate on the bridge and it was chained and locked!

Not to be deterred we returned to our car and drove to the Ncome site. Here we were given free entry and after wondering around looking at the buildings we finally found a guide. He proved to be very knowledgeable. Once he ascertained that we were genuinely interested in what he had to say he was a font of knowledge. He explained many things that were not clear to me about the history and culture of the amaZulu. He was also very knowledgeable about the Zulu monarchy and the succession of Zulu kings. I particularly appreciated the fact that he pointed out that the Ncome side was presenting an alternative view to the history that has always been presented by the Blood River side. The difference? The Blood River side presents its history as an incontrovertible fact. In truth both sides are at best interpretations. I suspect those who are aware that their views are interpretations are less likely to make historical errors and when they do they are less likely to make false assertions about these errors.

We spent a delightful hour or so with our guide and we started talking in a bit more detail about the battle site. We asked about the locked gate. At this point he told us some things that frankly made my hair stand on end. We were told that when the bridge was built and officially opened the people managing the Blood River side of the battlefield were unhappy and insisted on putting a gate on the bridge. They cited security concerns as their reason for this. Reluctantly it was agreed that a gate could be put up. The gate was built and the next morning the Ncome staff arrived to see that it had been locked. It has, I believe, never been unlocked since. The Ncome side were also instructed to tell all black visitors that they can go and see the Blood River side (assuming they can get through the electric fence) but that any black person entering the laager of bronze wagons does so at their own risk: their safety cannot be guaranteed!

Now admittedly, this is all hearsay. I only have the word of a museum guide and I am sure there are other interpretations/reasons for the facts (the locked gate is a fact). However, I cannot see why he would lie and even if he is lying it is still evidence of the very serious fault lines within our society.

In the post 1994 euphoria South Africa was riding a wave of tolerance, acceptance, inclusivity and reconciliation. This spirit was personified in the likes of Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and even FW de Klerk. Everyone wanted the project that was South Africa to succeed. Differences were set aside, people worked to a common goal and a vision of a multicultural society was in everyone’s mind.

23 years later we have museums that are locked. Whole battle sites fenced off and separated from the community. People who have lived in the country their whole lives are called ‘foreigners’ based on the language we speak and others are informed that their safety cannot be guaranteed if they set foot on a piece of land that, in heritage terms, belongs to us all, simply because of the colour of their skin. How did a nation that ended Apartheid come to this point?

We now have a president who seeks to divide before he seeks to unite. A president who thinks it is good that women (and only the women) prostrate themselves before him when he arrives to visit a traditional leader. A president who puts the authority of traditional leaders (that is chiefs whose only accomplishment is being born into the right family) ahead of our hard won constitution. A president who uses racial and ethnic divisions to advance his own petty political and economic agenda (and I use petty correctly, his main aim is to enrich and empower himself and his family) at every opportunity. I am convinced that the reason for people asserting their racial and ethnic identities in this destructive way is because our president does the same. He legitimises and justifies these actions.

The problem is that whilst urban South Africans may not experience these tensions, those in rural areas see these events playing out everyday. They are at the sharp end of these actions and their frustrations are real. Also rural South Africa is even more economically unequal than the urban areas. White farmers drive Mercedes Benz motor cars and live in large farm houses. Black rural dwellers seldom have electricity or piped water and sewage. Transport involves two feet and a sturdy pair of shoes. It is also true that farm murders are a real problem and that many white farm communities live in fear.

I am concerned that if the tensions that are evident in the rural communities will spread to the urban areas and that all the hard won freedoms we have will be steadily overcome. Fear and hatred have a habit of overcoming hope and love. But we cannot let attitudes harden. We must look to those communities that can and do live together in hope. There are people who share common dreams and hopes, we must let those lead our hearts and minds. We must stand up to those who would repress others. We must oppose those who would exclude others. Good luck South Africa!


Add yours →

  1. Seeing as I’m an Afrikaner (or Boer) I’d rather not comment on this one, besides pointing out the obvious fact that I’d probably not be here if my forefathers didn’t survive this battle… But then, I didn’t find my (real) surname on the plaque. My wife’s maiden name was well represented though.


    • I would actually welcome your comments… I think we need to debate these issues. How do you reconcile the different communities within our diverse country given our turbulent history? It is a conundrum and one that needs to be resolved if we are to move forward… Or do we just balkanise and break apart? Are there not better ways to move forward?


  2. I can relate to this. Here in The North of Ireland we have similar or a parallel baggage and currently a break down in government with one side trying to dominate the other in what was supposed to be a power sharing government. Our progress for the past 20 yrs has been a model to areas of conflict around the world but I fear that may porentially be slipping away. I do hope and prey that we can get back round the table and make things work again. No matter where in the world we may find ourselves progress can only be achieved through co-opertaion and a recognition that we all share a common place.

    Liked by 1 person

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