PRETORIA, South Africa -- Sensing a future as uncertain as the one their Voortrekker ancestors faced, about 10,000 Afrikaners gathered here yesterday to commemorate the most solemn of their national holidays -- the Day of the Vow.
It was only one of numerous celebrations as many of South Africa's disparate political and ethnic groups are trying to make this national holiday their own, celebrating their own victories, political and military.
But Dec. 16 was originally set aside to mark a victory by some 400 Afrikaner pioneers who circled their wagons and used guns to defeat an estimated 10,000 spear-carrying Zulus on Dec. 16, 1838. The night before, the Afrikaners had vowed to keep the day holy should they emerge victorious.
"We received our freedom not from man, but from the hand of God," Ferdie Hartzenberg, leader of the right-wing Conservative Party, told the crowd at the Voortrekker monument. "The world will stand aghast at the price of blood if they try to take away our freedom."
The sea of brightly colored umbrellas guarding against a hot summer sun covered the bowl of the amphitheater, contrasting with the brooding granite memorial that towers on top of a hill south of this city.
It commemorates the the Afrikaners who, chafing under British rule in the area around Cape Town, trekked northeast, inland over mountains to these high plains to establish their independent states. Defeating the Zulus was crucial.
Though the original vow was simple, to many Afrikaners the victory against overwhelming numbers -- 3,000 Zulus died, four Voortrekkers were wounded -- at what became known as Blood River came to symbolize a particular covenant with God, giving them a status as a people chosen to bring Christianity and civilization to Africa.
"It is a religious gathering for me," said Hernus Conradie, dressed in his old South African Defense Force uniform. "We pray to the Almighty to help us in this time of crisis."
Mr. Conradie said that many of his ancestors had suffered while his generation has had an easy time. "Now it is time for us to make history again. We cannot give away what our forefathers worked hard for. We will look up and will get the light from God that will tell us what to do."
To many Afrikaners, the election of their National Party government in 1948 was the final fulfillment of their covenant, giving them dominion over the country they had fought the Zulus and the British for.
With apartheid crumbling and the country about to allow its overwhelming black majority to vote for the first time next April, the very core of these Afrikaners' faith in their nation is being questioned. It is not clear if the Day of the Vow will ever again be officially celebrated in South Africa.
"Today has a very special significance, because at the moment the future is [bleak] for us," said Piet Breet, who attended the commemoration with his 8-year-old son.
"I think he will grow up in a South Africa where there will be many nations. We must make peace with those nations. We must know what is God's will for us. There will be a star to tell us. In a year or two we will know what he wants us to do."
Mr. Breet's vision of a new South Africa included a separate state for the Afrikaner, the proposal pushed by Mr. Hartzenberg and other right-wing leaders.
Mr. Hartzenberg told the crowd that the Conservative Party would soon set up its own transitional government that would claim dominion over Afrikaner affairs while negotiating the borders of a homeland.
"This was the day when the Afrikaners defeated the mass of savages," said Andre Labuschagne, a 28-year-old contractor from Pretoria, of the Day of the Vow. "And that's what's going on today.
"If we oppressed the black people, then why do so many of them try to come to South Africa to find work? We are the people who brought civilization to the African continent. Black African government has made a pretty dismal record.
"When we get our homeland, which will probably be just a little bigger than our percentage of the population, I promise you that blacks will be lining up to come in and work."
Ironically, the main ally to right-wing whites is the Zulu tribe that the Afrikaners defeated in 1838. The Inkatha Freedom Party, a Zulu-based group, also is refusing to recognize the negotiated steps toward a new South Africa and is seeking greater local autonomy, perhaps to establish a homeland for Zulus.
Zulus gathered yesterday at Isandlwana, the battlefield where in 1879 they gave a colonial British army one of its few defeats at the hands of an indigenous population. They listened to speeches from Inkatha leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, denouncing those who would threaten their sovereignty. They condemned in particular a proposal to take away the name KwaZulu from the Natal region.
Not far from there, about 1,500 people gathered at the Blood River site where they heard from Constand Viljoen, former head of the South African Defense Forces who has emerged as a right-wing leader.
The African National Congress (ANC) has also claimed Dec. 16, calling it Heroes' Day, the name it will probably have next year if the ANC, as expected, wins the April 27 election. Yesterday, the HTC day was used to honor Umkhontho We Size, or MK, the ANC's liberation army at sites throughout the country.
About 50 miles south of the Voortrekker monument, 5,000 people gathered in a Soweto soccer stadium to hear Nelson Mandela and to witness what was billed as the final ceremonial appearance of MK -- "spear of the nation" -- that will soon be merged into a new national army.
Many of the camouflage-clad soldiers spent years away from home at bases in neighboring countries, in training in the Soviet Union and other countries supporting the ANC.
They have been returning since the ban against the ANC was lifted in 1990 and were clearly celebrating the ability to wear their uniforms openly on South African soil.
"Five years ago, we didn't think we would ever be able to do this in South Africa," said Jimmy Jwicki, a 29-year-old who spent eight years in exile after joining MK. "This is our last day. This is victory day."