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The Zulus and the Voortrekkers – in search of more truth

By Barend Uys

For they were freedom fighters, because they were fighting for the freedom of our land, and they sacrificed immensely, fighting against invaders.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa made this statement, referencing the Zulu warriors that fought at the Battle of Blood river, during his speech at the Reconciliation Day celebration at Bergville. Afrikaners reacted negatively to this statement. The Afrikaans singer Chris Chameleon said on Twitter:

“dingane’s impi lived under a brutal monarchy. no pvt landownership, no voting rights. @CyrilRamaphosa calling them freedom fighters on this day is deceitful & not reconciliatory. i distance myself from the reinterpretation of this day & reaffirm my ancestors’ religious intention.”

To establish whether Ramaphosa presented a balanced view of history when he called the Zulu Warriors “freedom fighters” and the Voortrekkers “invaders”, one has to consider the events of that time.

Commission Trek to Natal
A small reconnaissance party under the leadership of Piet Uys, known as the Commission Trek to Natal, departed from the district of Uitenhage in September 1834 to investigate the availability of land in Natal.

Discussions between Uys, Jacobus Moolman, Matthys Human and King Dingane kaSenzangakhona resulted in a verbal agreement by Dingane that he would be willing to give land to Uys and his people. The king was not willing to sign a written treaty before Uys and his people settled in this area.

Retief and Dingane
Piet Retief arrived at the seat of King Dingane on 7 November 1837 to negotiate land for the Voortrekkers who had left the Cape Colony. Dingane agreed to give Retief the land between the Tugela and Umzimvubu rivers, on condition that they retrieved Dingane’s cattle that had presumably been stolen by Kgosi Sekonyela (of the Batlokwa).

Retief lead a commando to Sekonyela in December 1837, retrieved the king’s cattle and sent it to Umgungundlovu along with the Zulu herders that was escorting the commando. Retief and his party of 100 men left for Umgungundlovu in January 1838. A treaty, that ceded the land between the Tugela and Umzimvubu Rivers to the Voortrekkers, was signed on 4 February. Two days later however, by order of Dingane, Retief and his whole party was brutally murdered on kwaMatiwane Hill.

The Voortrekker murders
The Voortrekkers on the eastern side of the Drakensberg were waiting to hear from Retief when they were attacked by Zulu warriors on the night of 17 February 1838. The worst murders happened at the Bloukrans River and Moordspruit – 41 Voortrekker men, 56 women and 185 children were killed.

The Battle of Italeni
A force of 347 men, under the command of Piet Uys and Hendrik Potgieter left for Umgungundlovu on 5 and 6 April to aid the Voortrekkers on the other side of the mountain. The Voortrekkers suffered defeat during this campaign when Uys, his son Dirkie and nine other Voortrekkers perished in the Battle of Italeni on 10 April. The Flight Commando (as it became known) only arrived at the lagers two days later. Potgieter decided to leave Natal for good to settle on the western side of the Drakensberg.

Fight Lager and the death of Maritz
The Voortrekkers were once again attacked by approximately 10 000 Zulu warriors at Gat Lager between 13 and 15 August. With the aid of women and children, the 75 men able to fight back and managed to beat off the attackers, but all their livestock were driven off by the Zulu warriors. The lager was renamed Fighting Lager.

Pretorius and the Battle of Blood River
The outcome of the Battle of Blood River is well known – the Voortrekkers’ force of 570 men under command of Andries Pretorius faced a Zulu army of 15 000 to 30 000 warriors under the command of Dambuza Nzobo and Ndlela kaSompisi. Only three Voortrekkers, including Pretorius, were wounded. Not a single member of the Voortrekker force died during or because of the battle – a miracle indeed.

Funeral on Christmas day
Pretorius and his Winning Commando discovered that the Zulu’s had burned down their own capital before fleeing. The Voortrekkers also found the remains of Retief and his party, as well as the signed treaty in Retief’s leather bag.

Retief and his men were laid to rest in a common grave at the foot of kwaMatiwane on Christmas Day 1838. A day that was meant for celebration was instead a day of sorrow.

The battle at the White Mfolozi
On 27 December 1838, only eleven days after the Battle of Blood River, a Voortrekker commando of 340 men lead by Karel Landman (including 40 Zulus under the command of the Englishman Alexander Biggar) rode into the valley of the White Umfolozi River. The commando aimed to drive away the Zulus hiding in the valley and to claim the cattle grazing there. At this point it is important to note that thousands of Voortrekker cattle were taken by the Zulu warriors during 1838.

The commando was however ambushed and the fierce daylong battle that followed ended in a victory for the Zulu’s and resulted in the death of five Voortrekkers, Biggar and five Zulu warriors that were under his command. This event clearly indicated that Dingane’s power was not yet broken.

Dingane defeated and Mpande crowned
Dingane’s half-brother, Prince Mpande kaSenzangakhona, joined the Voortrekkers and sent an army of 10 000 warriors to assist Pretorius in a subsequent expedition against Dingane. Dingane’s army, again under the command of Ndlela kaSompisi, was finally defeated by the army of Mpande under the command of Nongalaza KaNondela in January 1840 during the Battle of Maqongqo.

It is important to note that the Voortrekker commando under the command of Andries Pretorius never engaged the army of Dingane during this expedition and therefore played no part in the final breaking of Dingane’s power (Dingane was killed shortly thereafter by the Swazi).

Pretorius crowned Mpande as king of the Zulus on 10 February 1840. Pretorius annexed the land between the Tugela and Black Umfolozi rivers by proclamation on 14 February 1840 in the presence of Mpande and his Chiefs as part of the peace treaty between the Voortrekkers and the Zulu and as compensation for the cost of the campaigns against King Dingane.

These events heralded a time of good relationships between the Voortrekkers and the Zulu.

You are not an invader if you negotiate before settling on a piece of land. For Ramaphosa to call the Voortrekkers “invaders” is therefore historically incorrect, to say the very least, and definitely not an act of reconciliation towards Afrikaners as descendants of the Voortrekkers.

Luckily, we know that our future as well as our history are in our own hands – we must simply take up this responsibility. If we manage to convey a balanced view of the past to our descendants it will be possible to learn from it, enabling us to build a prosperous future.

Barend Uys is Head of Research and Development at AfriForum.

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