Symbolism in the Day of Reconciliation

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Within the broad spectrum of Anthropology, a field that is highly popular is Symbolic Anthropology. As a discipline, it offers a way to view how others see the world in a conceptualised way. For some, symbols are “vehicles of culture”, as claimed by Clifford Geertz (Geertz, 1973). This would suggest that symbols should be studied for what they can show to us about culture, as opposed to studying them in and of themselves. This theory, and indeed the wider field of symbolic studies in anthropology, hasn’t gone without being criticised. One of the more common critiques is that symbolic analysis allows anthropologists to see and study meaning wherever and however they choose to. Despite this, it does seem clear that symbols are a powerful force in our lives, as can be seen with the example of the 16th of December yearly in South Africa, which is and has been variously The Day of the Vow (an important Afrikaaner religious holiday); the day that Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) began to fight apartheid militarily; and the Day of Reconciliation (the post-apartheid public holiday celebrating the “Rainbow Nation” ideology of peace, forgiveness and equality for all South Africans, unified in their difference). As this complex symbol of culture and contention shows, symbols can shape the ways that social actors, see, feel and think about the world; and that because of this, symbols actively work as forces of change or as reactionary forces in social processes.

These symbols are produced, reproduced and maintained, and even recreated, by people both intentionally and unintentionally. Of as much interest to the topic of the Day of Reconciliation as Geertz’s theory on symbols as vehicles of culture is Sherry Ortner’s categorisation of symbols, which makes symbols and their uses easier to think about (Ortner, 1979). The Day of the Vow marks the day of one of the more important battles in South African history. This is the Battle of Blood River, where besieged Voortrekkers made an oath to their God to mark the day as a Sabbath if they won the forthcoming battle (Langa, 2016). When the battle occurred, the 470 Voortrekkers slaughtered approximately 3000 of the 10 000 to 15 000 isiZulu soldiers with their guns, suffering only 3 light injuries between them (Roos, 1950). Although it was not widely celebrated for a while, ultimately it grew in prominence, and during apartheid under the National Party it was celebrated as a religious public holiday symbolising Afrikaaner superiority in South Africa. It had been used in the past to justify Afrikaaners as being deserving of the land of southern Africa, as their victory at Blood River had been ordained by their God, so they had his favour in creating a nation there (Muller, 1981). Naturally, a day such as this was unpopular with all those who were oppressed in South Africa before and during apartheid, including many people who shared a social memory of the 16th of December 1838 as being a near genocide by a white minority who continued to act in such a way up to and beyond the 16th of December 1961, the year the MK formed from the ANC to begin sabotaging locations like power stations (Muller, 1981). The choice of this date was no mistake. It symbolised taking the fight back and continuing what the Zulu army had tried to do in 1838 (Langa, 2016).

As the day was a sacred one to most Christian Afrikaans people (to them it symbolised a right to rule and a superiority of white culture over black culture), the MK stood to change what the day meant, to attack the ideological foundation of apartheid in a symbolic way, as well as threatening the state with damage to infrastructure. This was markedly different from the original political, social grassroots and philosophical aims of the ANC preceding 1961, which were slow, and were felt by many to be ineffective (Muller, 1981). In 1994, when some form of equal democracy came into being with the election of Nelson Mandela as president, the day had its religious reason for being a public holiday stripped from it, and was renamed the Day of Reconciliation in an attempt to once more change the narrative of the day (Langa, 2016). Pushed by Mandela and Desmond Tutu, the day appealed as a “good change” for most of the politically moderate South Africans, but to this day has not been as effective as it might have been hoped, due to race relations, employment opportunities, financial equality and social development seemingly not having improved as much as hoped in the intervening years (Bearak, 2009). Of special applicability to this subject is Sherry Ortner’s grouping of symbols. She divides “key symbols” (ones which anthropologists find important in studying the culture of a group of people) into Summarising Symbols and Elaborating Symbols (Ortner, 1979). Summarising Symbols are those which could be said to be expressing or representing in a “relatively undifferentiated” and “emotionally powerful” way what they system they are endemic to means to the participants (Ortner, 1979).

Elaborating Symbols serve to sort out complex or undifferentiated ideas or feelings in a way that helps the subject communicate them better, either to themselves or to others, and to put them into action (Ortner, 1979). These Elaborating Symbols are then divided into Root Metaphors, which provide categories for ordering thought experience and conceptualising the order of the world; and Key Scenarios, which provide categories for organising action experiences and serves more to start action on the part of participants, giving strategies for what one should do (Ortner, 1979). All of these definitions serve more as a heuristic device than something that one can use to “dissect” symbols and label each aspect of them (Macdonald, 2010). However, they can all be applicable in the context of the Day of Reconciliation. When Ortner’s symbolic categorization is used is a similar way to their use by Helen Macdonald in Crystallising Commitment to Transformation in a South African Higher Education Institute, the value of this framework is clear in how it helps sort out how symbols do work, and how they relate to the people they work for (Macdonald, 2010).

For example, the Day of the vow or the story of the Vow to God could be viewed as a summarising symbol, serving as it did to represent the desire for and belief in the Voortrekker nation, with all of its racial, religious, social and language-related beliefs, ideals, hopes and theories in a way that does not require cohesiveness as much as it requires a strong emotional connection of the symbol representing the culture. For the MK, the date served not only to represent all that was wrong with white superiority and the oppression of apartheid, of their lives and freedom being taken from them, but it also served to inspire action. It was an Elaborating Symbol in the sense of a Key Scenario, with the story of the Battle of Blood River representing the willingness for self-sacrifice necessary to take action and to fight the oppressors. This gave the men and women in the MK an ideal to work towards and a narrative to work within, to continue the battle that was fought in 1838. The story of the battle of Blood River was important to Afrikaaners, notably including Malan and Verwoed, as well as some other white South Africans as a Root Metaphor (Blake, 2015). Beyond coming to represent the ideology of the Voortrekkers, it served as a shaper of thought processes about the place of Afrikaans or white South Africans in South Africa. Whether this was because of the association with the favour of the Judaeo-Christian God; the “civilised superiority” of the weapons and tactics of the Voortrekkers over the “uncivilised, backwards weapons” of the Zulu nation; or even just the right to rule through conquest, with military might; or, as is likely, a combination of these and other reasons, it gave white South Africans a way to justify what they were doing to black South Africans (although obviously this reason was ethically unjustifiable and a crime against humanity) (Blake, 2015).

The fact that 16/12 has had such varying meanings to different people makes it ideal in showing how symbols define how social actors see, feel and think about the world. The Day of Reconciliation as a public holiday has symbolic power as an Elaborating Symbol in both the manner of a Root Metaphor and that of a Key Scenario. In the case of the first, it attempts to guide how we think of the world, or at least the country, post-apartheid (Doxtader, 2001). From its name, it symbolises the importance of reconciliation and forgiveness in how we view the past. This points at how many white South Africans have to acknowledge the injustices they benefitted from and or assisted in perpetrating, even by doing nothing; and at the same time it tries to remind those who suffered terribly under apartheid that the post-apartheid South Africa was founded to be a better place for everyone, and that revenge was not the narrative the new South African government wanted to follow (Langa, 2016). Unfortunately, it is in question how successful the Day of Reconciliation has been. It has been criticised by religious Afrikaaners that the renaming and recategorizing of such a symbolic day is an attack on their culture, that it seeks to erase their past (Blake, 2015).

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Every year, thousands of Afrikaans South Africans still celebrate the day religiously, even holding rallies at the Voortrekker monument (Bearak, 2009). This is usually seen in the media with images of flocks of Afrikaans families gathering, often with the old South African flag visible on shirts or being waved, as well as the hauling out and ceremonial wearing of old military uniforms from the days of conscription during apartheid (Bearak, 2009). Obviously, this and the economic, social, and education inequality in the country means that many South Africans see the Day of Reconciliation as being a cop-out, a failure at creating racial harmony in a state that never truly addressed the vast injustices of apartheid and its legacy (Blake, 2015). It is not uncommon for people to point out that reconciliation is not easy when the wrongdoer has not been held to account, or even held themselves to account.

The Day of Reconciliation, regardless of its successes at bettering the country, is also an intentional attempt at creating a summarising symbol. Speeches and comments by many of the post-apartheid elite, such as Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and even F. W. de Klerk described the day as “representing the new South Africa” (Doxtader, 2001). As a public holiday, it sought to connect the celebration of the day being off with the post-apartheid ideology of forgiveness, the “rainbow nation”, freedom and equality for all, power in the hand of the people and other key concepts (Doxtader, 2001). As such, it was much like the South African flag, something to think about as representing the values and ideals of the country, in an undifferentiated way that didn’t necessarily provide cohesiveness, but rather gave a strong sense of what it was to be a “new” South African (Langa, 2016). As these cases show, symbols shape the way we see the world, and how we think and feel about it. However, they play a more active role in social processes as well. The symbol of the Day of the Vow is a powerful one to this day, inspiring Afrikaans people from across the country to gather and remember what they see as central to their heritage (Bearak, 2009).

During apartheid, this was instrumental in how the NP government acted. The belief in the symbol of the Day of the Vow resulted in racist, anti-black laws, and allowed “normal” people who thought of themselves as good individuals to do terrible things. The symbol reinforced the social scene of whites above blacks as God’s favoured outcome, and hampered efforts to change the moral direction of the country (Muller, 1981). However, the fact that it also gave many Afrikaaners a sense of belonging, connection, history and religious comfort cannot be denied; making it hard to outright declare the holiday racist and evil (Roos, 1950). In contrast to the Day of the Vow, the Day of Reconciliation worked to change social processes for the better. The very concept of this public holiday was more open and inclusive, and its message attempted to limit the continuing harm of apartheid (Doxtader, 2001).

As the story of the 16th of December has developed since 1838, the symbolic systems of the day have shifted, and have been produced, reproduced and maintained at different times. After the Battle of Blood River, maintaining of the symbol of the Vow was consistent (Muller, 1981). It can be seen in the becoming of the day not just a day of religious celebration, but as a religious public holiday, intrinsically a part of the South Africa of the time (Blake, 2015). As the 1960s arrived, the MK produced their own symbolic system around the day, one of fighting back, and continuing the battle (Langa, 2016). This martial symbolic system was maintained by the acts of defiance and guerrilla warfare committed by the MK, and when much of the command of MK were arrested and tried in the famous Rivonia Treason Trials, the maintenance of this symbolic system was severely limited (Langa, 2016). In the cases of all three “main” symbolic meanings of the 16th of December, the symbols are maintained through action of the participants.

The Voortrekkers, and later Afrikaaners, celebrated the date yearly with religious observance and celebration of their culture. Umkhonto we Sizwe continued with their sabotages, and this “continuation of the battle’ was what maintained the symbolic capital of the 16th of December 1961 as the day they picked up the fight for freedom. In terms of the Day of Reconciliation, much of the maintenance is “’state-sponsored”, like the Day of the Vow was during apartheid. The state puts its power and authority behind this event, lending it social legitimacy for many, and the government and NGO’s invest considerable effort and money into organising events like marches, live music, charitable work, political rallies and publicization of the ideals of the day (Doxtader, 2001).

Essentially, ceremony and celebration are manufactured intentionally as much as they naturally come about from deep-seated beliefs and views held by the participants. This is not to deny that there is organic attribution of capital to the day, in fact many people in SA do observe the day in a reflective way, and this too maintains the day (in a different way to the day being “set” as a public holiday by the government to try establish their chosen narrative of post-apartheid South Africa). While anthropology as a discipline has been criticised widely, and often deservedly, with regard to many issues, a common criticism is that the anthropologist is able to lay their pre-existing understandings or beliefs over the people they are studying, and find connections that support their conclusions. Certainly, this is historically true, especially in terms of western anthropologists studying more “primitive” cultures, from whom they could learn how “civilised” people used to live. While these anthropologists were clearly mistaken and using outdated socio-political frameworks and racial beliefs, the question of whether aspects of anthropology like symbolic analysis allow anthropologists to construe or envision meaning however and whenever they choose to do so is still relevant.

In fact, it seems clear that this is true to an extent, especially if the anthropologists are unethical in their work. There is more than just the issue of research ethics in this problem though. As Macdonald points out, even the use of one model of symbolic theory (in this case, Sherry Ortner’s) can exclude other theories, which would likely have provided a different way of seeing meaning (Macdonald, 2010). Another issue is the base loyalties, biases and beliefs anthropologists hold themselves, which affect how they interpret and ultimately share their research (Macdonald, 2010). I for example, as a white, English home language South African born after the end of apartheid have a significantly different view on the Day of the Vow and the Day of Reconciliation than an Afrikaans man in his fifties or a young, black South African, who both could have found various other meanings more important than those I found key.

Despite the issues around the ability of anthropologists to construe meaning as they see fit, symbolic analysis (and anthropology as a discipline) still has value. The recent era of so-called “navel gazing” in anthropology, where anthropologists have become increasingly focused with investigating their inherent biases and acknowledging that their research only shows their interpretation of the subjects, and not necessarily objective truths, is one way that anthropology is acknowledging its flaws. In addition, anthropology often works at fostering mutual understanding as opposed to the civilised observer – uncivilised subject dichotomy once favoured. Ultimately, symbolic analysis is a valuable (if imperfect) tool for understanding how others see and understand the world around them, as long as context, bias and social relativity is taken into account. As can be seen with reference to the multiplicity of meanings around the Day of Reconciliation, symbols can be seen as “vehicles of culture”, and symbolic analysis is a valuable tool for anthropological understandings of these meanings (Geertz, 1973).

Symbols have great value in what they can say about the culture they come from, which is extremely visible in how different groups of people have interacted with the symbolism-laden date of the 16th of December. Whether celebrating the Day of the Vow as a cornerstone of religious and Afrikaans culture, the date that Umkhonto we Sizwe took up arms against the apartheid state or remembering the ideals of peace, harmony and forgiveness on the Day of Reconciliation, almost every South African finds something important in the symbolism of the date, even if they find the reality of the world falling short of the hopes and ideologies of the date.

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