Today, the Day of Reconciliation, marks the 18th celebration of national unity after South Africa’s historic 1994 democratic elections.
This year’s commemoration is all the more poignant, following the recent passing of former President Nelson Mandela who lives in the hearts of all South Africans, and in the hearts of people around the world. Mandela’s determined pursuit of racial reconciliation, and extraordinary compassion and understanding of his enemies sustained throughout and beyond his 27 years in detention, were exemplary.
The first and one of the most important duties of the new Democratic South Africa and president Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, was to unify the country as a whole and to reconcile all South Africans. In addition to the efforts of the Government of National Unity and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), 16 December, the Day of Reconciliation, was inaugurated to help the country achieve this admirable goal and reconcile the horror of the past. The promise of a shared future together, regardless of race, culture or creed, was born.
One way in which the Day of Reconciliation aimed to do this symbolically was to acknowledge the significance of 16 December in both the Afrikaner and liberation struggle traditions, and to rename this shared historical day – the Day of Reconciliation.
In Nelson Mandela’s first National Reconciliation Day speech on 16 December 1996, he said, “The Government of National Unity chose this day precisely because the past had made December 16 a living symbol of bitter division. Valour was measured by the number of enemies killed and the quantity of blood that swelled the rivers and flowed in the streets. Today we no longer vow our mutual destruction but solemnly acknowledge our inter-dependence as free and equal citizens of our common Motherland. Today we re-affirm our solemn constitutional compact to live together on the basis of equality and mutual respect.”
For Afrikaners, 16 December was commemorated as the Day of the Vow, also known as Day of the Covenant. The Day of the Vow was a religious holiday commemorating the Voortrekker victory over the Zulus at the deadly Battle of Blood River in 1838, and is still celebrated by some Afrikaaners.
In the 1920s and 1930s, 16 December became a day on which the divide between white South Africans and black South Africans became particularly deep. Those who felt discriminated against by the nation’s unfair laws began staging protests and holding meetings on this day to communicate their dissent and rally against a day that celebrated the Afrikaans conquest of the indigenous African. This dissent was formalised on 16 December 1961, with the founding of Umkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation), the armed wing of the African National Congress, launched to wage an armed struggle against the brutal apartheid government.
So on 16 December 1995, after 27 years in prison, much soul searching and South Africa’s first democratic elections, President Mandela stood before the South African people and celebrated the Day of Reconciliation as a unified public holiday for the first time. Mandela said, “Reconciliation means working together to correct the legacy of past injustice. It means making a success of our plans for reconstruction and development. Therefore, on this December 16, National Day of Reconciliation, my appeal to you, fellow citizens, is: Let us join hands and build a truly South African nation.” Read Nelson Mandela’s full 1995 Day of Reconciliation speech here
On this Day of Reconciliation, we wake to a new reality – one in which Nelson Mandela has been laid to rest and South Africans pledge to carry on his legacy of reconciliation and forgiveness. The ten days of mourning have now officially passed, and the government will today unveil a 9-metre statue of Nelson Mandela in front of the Pretoria Union Buildings.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela once said, in his efforts to move our beautiful Rainbow Nation towards unity, “If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.”
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