A circle of 63 bronze wagons marking the spot where 468 Boer fighters aided by 120 Africans routed a force of 12,000 Zulus on 16 December 1838 in what became known as the Battle of Blood River, formed the backdrop of a warning from the right-wing Afrikaner leader General Constand Viljoen: 'At the moment we are standing on the edge of a dark night.'
It was here that the Afrikaners made their vow 155 years ago to honour God's glory if he 'would give us his protection and be with us and give our enemy into our hands so that we may defeat them'. With the Afrikaner people facing crisis today in the form of South Africa's new multi-racial democracy, General Viljoen proposed a new commitment: 'If you give us victory over the darkness which now faces us we will reaffirm the vow . . . whether by peaceful means or more violent actions if that is God's will.'
At times General Viljoen sounded conciliatory towards South Africa's new order, telling an assembly of several hundred Afrikaners at Blood River: 'Our struggle must not be to destroy anyone but to survive.' But the threat of violence was clear as he told reporters: 'If a battle is a decision of the Lord then it will be a battle.'
Fifty miles away at Isandhlwana, where Zulu warriors crushed a British imperial force of 950 troops on 22 January 1879, the message was that Nelson Mandela's African National Congress, which is expected to form the next government after elections in April, was like the British before, bent on the 'complete annihilation of the Zulus' and their nominally independent KwaZulu government. The Zulu king, Zweliphini Goodwill, with the KwaZulu Chief Minister, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, at his side, told 10,000 Zulus, many armed with spears and shields: 'We know the price that our ancestors paid when this kingdom was invaded. You must be prepared to pay that price for this second invasion.'
The messages from the Afrikaners and Zulus were steeped in irony. Ever since the Afrikaner farmers fled British rule in the Western Cape in 1835 in the Great Trek and pushed into Zulu land, the two were implacable foes, as the monument to the Battle of Blood River and the annual anniversary marking the day demonstrates.
Today, however, they stand united in the Freedom Alliance, a coalition of conservative Afrikaners and leaders of South Africa's nominally independent black homelands, which opposes South Africa's new constitution negotiated primarily by the country's dominant political force, the ANC, and the ruling National Party of President F W de Klerk. General Viljoen's Afrikaner Volksfront and Chief Buthelezi's mainly Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party have pledged to resist anything that threatens their people's right to self-determination.
The Afrikaners hope to set up a still ill-defined Volkstaad, which they would dominate, and Inkatha wants to maintain its control over KwaZulu. Both want strong regional powers and their own police and security forces.
As the Zulus and the Afrikaners spoke of the possibility of bloodshed, the ANC's armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe, held its final passing out parade in Soweto, outside Johannesburg, in preparation for its integration into the South African Defence Force after elections on 27 April.
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