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South Africa Reviews Its Public Holidays

  • Nadia Samie

Various leaders from different faith communities attend the faith-based Climate Justice Rally at the ABSA Kingspark Rugby stadium in Durban, November 27, 2011.

Various leaders from different faith communities attend the faith-based Climate Justice Rally at the ABSA Kingspark Rugby stadium in Durban, November 27, 2011.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - South Africa's public holiday calendar is under review after complaints that it is biased towards Christian holidays and needs to encourage equal treatment for other religions and cultures.

South Africa prides itself on being home to nearly 20 religious groups, including indigenous African belief systems. But if you look at the South African holiday calendar you will see there is only one religion represented: Christianity, with both Christmas and Good Friday listed.

Although no other religious holidays are specified on the calendar, that may change.

The Commission for the Promotion of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Rights is holding public hearings on the issue.

"As we go from province to province, we have realized that recommendations from members of the public are changing day by day," Commission chief Pheagane Moreroa explained. "For instance, some have indicated that they want an African calendar. Some are saying, let us deal away with all religious holidays. Some are saying, lets deal away with all religious holidays and replace them with general holidays; general holidays, for the first time."

Moreroa says it is essential for nation-building that no group of people feel discriminated against.

"The current South African calendar has been imposed on us," said Moreroa. "It is a Westernized calendar. We do not want it. We want an African calendar. That is what one of the participants said, and it does not go away from my mind."

The South African Council of Churches says while it is happy with the public holiday calendar in its current form, it welcomes the debate. The council's general secretary, Reverend Mautji Pataki, says the church will stand firm against the removal of the two existing Christian holidays from the calendar.

"Well, remember we are in a democracy, where everyone has got a space to voice any opinion and we are treating these as opinions that must be listened to," said Pataki. "In the sense that we therefore support public hearings on this matter and listen to what South Africans feel would satisfy their needs in a democracy, in a country of diverse religious communities, each one with its own demands."

Wendy Kahn from the South African Jewish Board of Deputies says all she wants is for Jewish holy days to be respected by both government and business.

"I think that we are quite realistic. We have 13 Jewish holy days. On all of them, observant Jewish people are not able to go to work, are not able to write university exams, so it really does impact on the community in a big way," said Kahn. "But in saying that, it is not realistic to add another 13 days to a national calendar. If we were to implement everybody's religious and cultural holidays, we would not spend much time at the office."

With about 12 days of national annual holidays already on the calendar, the business sector is not eager to add more because the economic cost would be too high.

Some South Africans spoke about how they feel about the matter.

"Well, we as the Muslims believe that there are generally two public holidays that we would like to celebrate," said a Muslim. "It is both the Eids. And generally the two Eids happen within a period of 30 to 40 days of each other and companies, they do respect our rights, but we find that they will give us the first day as a public holiday, and because the second one happens quite quickly after the first one, you would have to put in for a day's annual leave. Muslim people working at government institutions, both days they will have to put in as annual leave."

"I am happy with the calendar as it is," said a man named Gabe. "Because I accept that it is what it is. The religious system that South Africa has adopted, since its date of independence, I just think that people should just accept it, because South Africa's system is accommodative to other religions, and the labor laws and labor acts actually accommodate people who want to acknowledge and celebrate whatever religious happenings that there are."

Once the commission has completed its nationwide hearings, it will make recommendations to the government. It is a process that is set to take months, in the meantime, it has South Africans talking.