“So they finally buried Madiba. In a way I’m glad for the old man – he had such a hard time with his health lately.” Precilla sips a cold beer on the stoep of Boggel’s Place. From here, you can see the Kalahari stretching away in the distance: so far that the horizon is almost invisible behind the heat waves rising from the barren veld.
“Ja, it’s a somber time for us. End of the year, Mandela died, and today is the Day of the Vow. Not exactly party-time.” Servaas is back in his black suit, looking suitably depressed. When he’s in this mood, the others try to sit far away from him. Today Boggel’s Place is closed, forcing the townsfolk to gather on the veranda.
“At least Boggel keeps us on the straight and narrow. Look at what he did today: he’s reminding us that vows are sacred. He’ll open tomorrow – as usual – but today he wants us to reflect on the hardships the old Voortrekkers had to endure. It is, you have to admit, rather uncomfortable out here on the stoep.”
Vetfaan nods. Yes, they all know what happened on this day in 1838. A group of 470 Voortrekkers was attacked by Dingane’s Zulus under their general, Ndlela. History records the numbers of Zulus as ‘36 regiments’ each consisting 900 to 1000 men. Andries Pretorius the Voortrekker leader, again read The Vow which stated that – if God protected them that day – this date will be remembered as a Sunday in the future and that a church would be built on the spot.
When the sun set that day, 3000 corpses surrounded the wagons of the Voortrekkers, while only three Voortrekkers were wounded.
“It was a pivotal day in the history of our country. Two Zulu princes were killed during the battle, leaving only Mpande as a possible challenger to Dingane’s throne.” Gertruida in her lecturing tone again. “It was this man, Mpande, who formed an alliance with Pretorius, and together they defeated Dingane. Mpande became king and was the founder of the Zulu dynasty, which rules to this day.”
Kleinpiet leans through the window to get a beer from the ice-box inside.
“So…you’re saying the Battle of Blood River paved the way for Mpande to be king? And that, without the Voortrekkers, we wouldn’t have Jacob Zuma as president today?”
Gertruida doesn’t bother to answer. She watches as Boggel shuffles off, around the building towards the back. He’ll get more beer from the little store room to refill the ice-box. Then he’ll rejoin them on the stoep. Boggel’s Place may be closed, but he won’t neglect his civic duty.
“Isn’t history a fickle thing? The Zulus should be celebrating the Day of the Vow as well, don’t you think?”
“Ja, Fanny, you’re right. But you know how it is – everything became politicised. 16 December is also the founding day of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC – in 1961. We now celebrate a national day of reconciliation, so we can remember to live in peace with one another. Without such a day, we might forget to love our neighbours.”
“Come to think of it…has any one of you ever heard anybody thanking the Voortrekkers for helping Mpande? Now, that would be a real gesture of reconciliation. Without Pretorius pitching in, we wouldn’t have great leaders like Buthelezi today.”
“But also not Nkandla…”
“Still, the Battle of Blood River was a determining factor in shaping the way we live today. It wasn’t about the whites beating the blacks – that’s a stupid way of looking at the 16th. What we should remember is that Pretorius called on God for guidance. He knew Who was in control. Maybe we should remember that as well. Maybe we shouldn’t just view reconciliation as an act between the different peoples in the country. We’ll do justice to the word – and the day – if we added a vertical link to the concept as well.” Oudoom sits back with a sad smile.
And so the idle chatter on Boggel’s stoep will fill the empty hours of the Day of the Vow as they discuss reconciliation, and the many legacies of the past we live with every day. Boggel, like a good Afrikaner, will keep the front door of Boggel’s Place locked as a sign of respect. Just to remember, see?
And they’ll talk about the future as well, while they watch the hazy horizon dance behind the heat waves. They’ll wonder if the message of the Battle of Blood River will ever be understood properly.
Towards the evening, when the dusk takes over to obscure the horizon, they all go home quietly. Servaas made them all think when he said reconciliation is a big word, “It is a longer word than ‘vow’, but both of them carry tremendous responsibility. It’s much like almost-closing Boggel’s Place today: we’re forever thinking up loopholes and new ways of misunderstanding our obligations…”