Posted on August 3, 2004

Christmas May Be Cancelled

Dominic Mahlangu, Brendan Boyle, and Rowan Philp, Sunday Times (SA), Aug. 1

SOUTH Africa’s 14 public holidays are up for review and “not one will be regarded as sacred”.

This warning was given yesterday by Rufus Malatjie, chief director of legal services at the Department of Home Affairs, who heads a government task team evaluating the number of public holidays.

He said Christmas Day, Easter and Youth Day, on which the June 16 1976 Soweto uprising is commemorated, were also not exempt.

“I cannot guarantee that we will still have the Christmas Day holiday. At this stage anything is possible. There is no holiday that is regarded as being sacred. They are all being looked at,” he said.

The team was appointed by Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the former Minister of Home Affairs, last November after complaints from the public that the South African calendar discriminated against religious groups and certain sectors of the population.

Members of the team include officials from the departments of Finance, Education, Labour and Environment and Tourism. They have already held public hearings in all nine provinces about the selection and distribution of public holidays and will report to the Cabinet, which will make the final decision.

Malatjie said individual submissions at hearings held between February and April had ranged from calls for the cancellation of Christmas to proposals for additional holidays.

He said some participants wanted Youth Day scrapped. Others wanted it renamed to reflect the event more directly.

Malatjie said views were raised at the hearings that provinces should have their own public holidays apart from the national ones. Some called for the celebration of Shaka Day in KwaZulu-Natal.

Cosatu spokesman Patrick Craven said the union federation would welcome additional holidays, but warned of trouble if liberation celebrations were cut.

“Our submission to the task team is clear: don’t tamper with May Day, June 16, Sharpeville Day or Women’s Day. We are also opposed to any move that would reduce the days that workers currently enjoy.”

Sheikh Achmat Sedick, secretary-general of the Muslim Judicial Council, said his group had made a submission and would expect to be involved in further consideration of holidays.

He said Christmas, Easter and other religious holidays were legacies of apartheid and mainly reflected the priorities of the Dutch Reformed Church, to which most white leaders had belonged.

“Christmas and Easter were always there. If you want to retain them, then at least give us some consideration as well as all the other religions, which will be a logistical nightmare,” he said.

“Maybe they just have to squash this whole idea of making the existing Christmas a national holiday, but I don’t know . . . How are they going to accommodate the Jews, the Hindus, the Buddhists, the Rastafarians?”

The dean of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, Bishop David Beetge, said most South Africans would be disappointed if Christmas and Good Friday were tampered with.

Malatjie said the task team was about to study more than 50 written submissions and would then start work on a report taking in all views.

“It will take some months, but we would like to have it off our desks by Christmas,” he said.

He declined to speculate on the likelihood of any specific holiday being cancelled, saying his team could not jump to any conclusion.

On the basis of submissions so far, business generally felt there were too many holidays and that it would be better to celebrate some on a Friday or a Monday to minimise economic disruption.

He said trade unions generally felt there should be no reduction in the number of holidays, with some arguing for more.

Tony Twine, a senior economist at Econometrix, said South Africa had one of the highest numbers of public holidays in the world but what mattered most was how to align them with business. “It would be better to have the closest Friday or Monday as holidays,” he said.

Democratic Alliance spokes man Douglas Gibson said the opposition was broadly happy with the existing arrange ments, but added: “We would be happy with a balance between religious and historical holidays. Such a balance must also take note of our business community.”

The national spokesman of the African Christian Democratic Party, the Rev Selby Khumalo, said Christian holidays were ingrained into people’s lives and must be preserved at all costs.

Carol O’Brien, the South African Chamber of Business’s policy executive, said Sacob had lobbied to move holidays to Mondays and Fridays to prevent absenteeism and to promote local tourism.

Sacob would oppose any further holidays because each cost the economy R2.9-billion.