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Guest post: The Day of the Covenant

Welcome to another guest post, this one by Michael (aka Racing Boo).  I enjoy Michael’s thoughtful and often humorous comments so I asked him to do a guest post on a topic of his choice.  I hope you read and enjoy a fascinating look in to the history and politics of South Africa. 

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December 16 is a public holiday in South Africa, celebrated officially as such for more than a century. Today it is called the ‘Day of Reconciliation’, but for most of those years it was known as the ‘Day of the Covenant.’ It was on this day in 1838, on the banks of the Ncome River in what is now the Kwa-Zulu Natal province, that the Boer leader Andries Pretorius led the people under his protection and leadership in making a vow, binding on future generations. If God would deliver them from the attacking Zulu impis (fighting units), they would henceforth celebrate the day as a Sabbath, and build a church to honour his name.

The Boers were farmers (that is the literal meaning of the word) who had left the frontier farms of the Cape Colony to escape the British rule that was entrenched by the early 1800s, and the endless border wars with the native Xhosa. They were strict Calvinists, descended from French and Dutch settlers who had fled religious persecution in those countries during the preceding two centuries. The British had little time for them, and offered them no protection, so they took their cattle and all their possessions loaded into their ox wagons, which were houses on wheels, and began the trek northwards. That word, perhaps the only word from the Afrikaans language to make it into mainstream global English, means ‘to pull’ or ‘to move’ in the sense of moving from one area to another, in this case boldly going where no (white) man had gone before.

They soon encountered other indigenous tribes of the region, in particular the mighty Zulu nation, the ‘people of the sky.’ The Zulu king at the time was Dingane, who had come to power in 1828 after assassinating his famous and even more notorious half-brother Shaka. One of the Boer leaders, Piet Retief (my wife Nadia is a direct descendant of one of his daughters), left the area of the Tugela River in February 1838 in the hope that he could broker permanent boundaries for the Natal settlement with Dingane. At the royal kraal near present-day Eshowe, an agreement was signed, ceding land in return for the recovery of some 7000 head of cattle stolen by a rival local chief, Sekonyela. Dingane then invited Retief and his men (there were about 100 in total, including his son) to a feast, which lasted several days. They were obliged to leave their weapons outside the enclosure.

Dingane put on a military display for his guests, but the climax of this was not a friendly goodbye. From a nearby hilltop, during a sudden silence, Dingane raised his stick and shouted “Bulalan’ abathakathi!” – Kill the Wizards! There are eye-witness accounts from the Zulu side, as well as one Boer who managed to escape with his life as he had been left outside the kraal to guard the weapons. One can only imagine the fear and terror of that moment, enhanced by the ululating kikiza cry of the women. Retief was apparently the last to die, and he fought back to the last breath.

The reasons for this massacre (apart from Dingane’s treachery, that is) are the subject of much speculation. It is believed that Retief may have unwittingly broken an obscure tribal law by retaining some of the cattle recovered from Sekonyela. Another explanation is that on the night before the massacre, the Boers had rounded up some of their horses outside the kraal in preparation for departure the follwing day. Dingane would have heard the sounds of the hooves at night, and there was a belief that wizards of the white race rode on horses at night. Whatever the reasons, the white settlements of Natal were now in trouble. Dingane sent his impis to attack several encampments, including one at Weenen where 500 men, women and children were killed. The settlers then called for help from another Boer leader, Andries Pretorius, asking him to leave the Cape Colony and come to their aid against the Zulu.

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