The 16th of December was once a day of rival holidays in Pretoria, two opposing flows of memory colliding at a junction.

Afrikaners, the descendants of white settlers, celebrated the Day of the Vow, a covenant said to be made between their ancestors and God in 1838 that led to the slaughter of 3,000 Zulus. Blacks commemorated the same day on the calendar, marking the start of armed struggle against the apartheid regime by the African National Congress in 1961.

With the arrival of multiracial democracy in 1994, lawmakers considered it wise to maintain Dec. 16 as a holiday, proclaiming it a Day of Reconciliation, a time for all races to come together in the spirit of national unity.

But 15 years later, that happily-ever-after ending is a long way off, and the ideal of a rainbow nation now seems little more than a deft turn of phrase. According to a poll released last week by the highly regarded Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, 31 per cent of South Africans believe that race relations have not improved since the end of apartheid, and 16 per cent actually think they have gotten worse. (About 50 per cent said relations had improved.)

As for the holiday itself, most Afrikaners have found it hard to set aside one of their most sacred occasions, and on Wednesday, thousands of them gathered, as they do every year, inside the marble chamber of a mammoth granite monument near Pretoria. The structure is a shrine to the Great Trek, when white pioneers migrated north with their ox-drawn wagons and ramrod-loading muskets, completing a conquest they saw as the fulfilment of a divine mission.

“The Day of Reconciliation may be a good idea, but for Afrikaners, the Day of the Vow is still what’s in our hearts,” said Johan de Beer, 46, a teacher waiting on the steps for the gates of the monument to open in the early morning. “This is a religious holiday that is based on our people’s history.”

In his inauguration address, Nelson Mandela spoke of a covenant of his own, longing for “a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.” Viewers of the new American movie Invictus might be tempted to conclude that such racial harmony prevailed in the aftermath of a long-shot upset in a rugby game.

The recent survey results would probably stun someone who went to sleep during apartheid and awakened in the present. After all, blacks not only control the government, they also mingle in the finest restaurants and swankiest malls. The so-called black diamonds include liberation struggle heroes who have been welcomed into the boardrooms of the nation’s largest corporations.

Income inequality

But while South Africa is the continent’s wealthiest country, income inequality here remains among the worst in the world. About 29 per cent of blacks are unemployed, compared with 5 per cent of whites, according to recent figures. When statistics include discouraged workers — dropouts from the labour force — the jobless rate climbs to nearly 50 per cent. Most of the unemployed have never held a single job, according to a study by a panel of international economists.

The recent poll results also showed that nearly one in four South Africans never speaks to people of other races in a typical day. “In the upper income groups there is a lot of integration, but very little among the poor,” said Fanie du Toit, the executive director of the institute that released the poll. “About 40 to 50 per cent of blacks are slum dwellers or rural people who never come in contact with whites.”

At the Voortrekker Monument, among those celebrating the Day of the Vow, barely a black person was in sight but for the men in blue uniforms picking up the trash. “I don’t know anything about their holiday,” said one of those workers, Elias Selema.

The earliest attendees took seats beneath the monument’s dome in the main hall, a huge room encircled by friezes made from Italian marble that depict the epic migration. Others sat a level below, surrounding the cenotaph, the empty tomb that is the symbolic resting place of those who died during the trek. Still more took seats on the surrounding lawns and in the gardens.

“This is my day of thanksgiving,” said Callie van Merwe, an 89-year-old woman dressed in the loose frock and white cotton bonnet of a settler. She added: “Today is a happy time, but I feel bad about the future. This country is changing, changing too much.”

One-sides record

There are several versions of the Day of the Vow and the Battle of Blood River that followed. The historical record is one-sided, and no doubt the retellings lend themselves to myth. One historian, Leonard Thompson, has said the mythology came to serve a political purpose, used to justify the racial oppression of apartheid as God’s will.

In the story’s most common rendition, a brigade of 468 Voortrekkers, or pioneers, and about 60 of their slaves set out to avenge hundreds of deaths at the hands of the Zulus. Their leader, Andries Pretorius, cleverly selected a place to camp that was protected by a steep ravine and the Ncome River, which broadened at that spot into a deep hippopotamus pool.

Preceding the Zulu attack that was sure to come, the trekkers came together to recite a vow. In part it read, “If he will protect us and give our enemy into our hand, we shall keep this day and date every year as a day of thanksgiving like a Sabbath, and that we shall erect a church in his honour.”

The Afrikaners chained their covered wagons together, placing barbed shrubs beneath them. Wave after wave of Zulus charged, trying to use their short spears in close combat, but instead dying in heaps as smoke rose from muskets and cannons. As the story goes, 3,000 Zulus died while the trekkers suffered only three injuries. So many warriors fell dead in the Ncome it then became known as Blood River.

“We believe it was God’s will to have Christians lead the way in this land,” said Lukas de Kock, one of the leaders of Wednesday’s worship. “On that day, the Day of the Vow, God made a clear statement that this was his will for South Africa.”

The reading of the vow is one of the two most solemn moments of the prayer service. The other comes precisely at midday as families lean over the parapets that overlook the cenotaph.

Careful calculations were made by the monument’s designers, and exactly at noon on each Dec. 16, the sun shines through a small opening in the dome, alighting on the empty tomb 138 feet below and yet again signalling for many that it was the Lord’s will that the land be theirs. — © 2009 The New York Times News Service

More In: Comment | Opinion