South Africa has 12 public holidays as determined by the Public Holidays Act (Act No 36 of 1994) [PDF]. The Act determines whenever any public holiday falls on a Sunday, the Monday following on it shall be a public holiday.
1 January: New Year’s Day
2 January: Public holiday
21 March: Human Rights Day
14 April: Good Friday*
17 April: Family Day*
27 April: Freedom Day
1 May: Workers Day
16 June: Youth Day
9 August: National Women’s Day
24 September: Heritage Day
25 September: Public holiday
16 December: Day of Reconciliation
25 December: Christmas Day
26 December: Day of Goodwill
* The dates on which Good Friday and Easter Sunday fall are determined according to the ecclesiastical moon. That varies each year but they fall at some point between late March and late April.
**The Public Holidays Act (Act No 36 of 1994 [PDF]) determines whenever any public holiday falls on a Sunday, the Monday following on it shall be a public holiday.
The Bill of Rights contained in the Constitution is the cornerstone of democracy in South Africa.
The Constitution provides for the establishment of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC). The aim of the Commission is to promote respect for human rights, promote the protection, development and attainment of human rights, and to monitor and assess the observance of human rights in SA. The SAHRC was launched on 21 March 1996, 35 years after the fateful events of 21 March 1960 when demonstrators in Sharpeville were gunned down by police.
The Native Laws Amendment Act of 1952 extended Government control over the movement of Africans to urban areas and abolished the use of the Pass Book (a document which Africans were required to carry on them to 'prove' that they were allowed to enter a 'white area') in favour of a reference book which had to be carried at all times by all Africans.
Failure to produce the reference book on demand by the police, was a punishable offence. The Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) proposed an anti-Pass campaign to start on 21 March 1960. All African men were to take part in the campaign without their passes and present themselves for arrest.
Campaigners gathered at police stations in townships near Johannesburg where they were dispersed by police. At the Sharpeville police station a scuffle broke out. Part of a wire fence was trampled, allowing the crowd to move forward. The police opened fire, apparently without having been given a prior order to do so. Sixty-nine people were killed and 180 wounded.
In apartheid South Africa this day became known as Sharpeville Day and although not part of the official calendar of public holidays the event was commemorated among anti-apartheid movements.
Freedom Day commemorates the first democratic elections held in South Africa on 27 April 1994. Read more about Freedom Day celebrations.
In 1975 protests started in African schools after a directive from the then Bantu Education Department that Afrikaans had to be used on an equal basis with English as a language of instruction in secondary schools. The issue, however, was not so much the Afrikaans as the whole system of Bantu education which was characterised by separate schools and universities, poor facilities, overcrowded classrooms and inadequately trained teachers. On 16 June 1976 more than 20 000 pupils from Soweto began a protest march. In the wake of clashes with the police, and the violence that ensued during the next few weeks, approximately 700 hundred people, many of them youths, were killed and property destroyed.
Youth Day, previously known as Soweto Day, commemorates these events.
This day commemorates 9 August 1956 when women participated in a national march to petition against pass laws (legislation that required African persons to carry a document on them to 'prove' that they were allowed to enter a 'white area').
"The day is one of our newly created public holidays and its significance rests in recognising aspects of South African culture which are both tangible and difficult to pin down: creative expression, our historical inheritance, language, the food we eat as well as the land in which we live.
"Within a broader social and political context, the day's events…are a powerful agent for promulgating a South African identity, fostering reconciliation and promoting the notion that variety is a national asset as opposed to igniting conflict.
"Heritage has defined as "that which we inherit: the sum total of wild life and scenic parks, sites of scientific or historical importance, national monuments, historic buildings, works of art, literature and music, oral traditions and museum collections together with their documentation."
(Statement issued by the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, 17 September 1996)
In an address marking Heritage Day in 1996, (former) President Mandela stated:
"When our first democratically-elected government decided to make Heritage Day one of our national days, we did so because we knew that our rich and varied cultural heritage has a profound power to help build our new nation.
We did so knowing that the struggles against the injustice and inequities of the past are part of our national identity; they are part of our culture. We knew that, if indeed our nation has to rise like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes of division and conflict, we had to acknowledge those whose selfless efforts and talents were dedicated to this goal of non-racial democracy."
Government determines a theme for each year's celebrations.
More on Heritage Day
In apartheid South Africa 16 December was known as Day of the Vow, as the Voortrekkers in preparation for the battle on 16 December against the Zulus took a Vow before God that they would build a church and that they and their descendants would observe the day as a day of thanksgiving should they be granted victory. With the advent of democracy in South Africa 16 December retained its status as a public holiday, however, this time with the purpose of fostering reconciliation and national unity.
During the earlier part of the 19th century, many Afrikaner farmers left the eastern cape and moved inland. Among them was the Voortrekkers, a group of Afrikaners protesting British colonialism and seeking independent republics on what was reputedly empty land. But the land was not empty and clashes between these Afrikaners and indigenous peoples were inevitable.
Late in 1837 one of the Voortrekker leaders, Piet Retief, entered into negotiations for land with Dingane, the Zulu king. In terms of the negotiations Dingane promised the Voortrekkers land on condition they returned cattle to him stolen by Sekonyela (the Tlokwa chief). This Retief did and apparently he and Dingane signed a treaty on 6 February 1838. During the ceremony Dingane had Retief and his entourage murdered - an event which was witnessed by Francis Owen, a missionary who described the scene in his diary.
In ensuing battles between Zulus and Voortrekkers over the next few months numerous lives were lost on both sides.
On 16 December 1838 about 10 000 troops under the command of Dambuza (Nzobo) and Nhlela attacked the Voortrekkers, but the 470 Voortrekkers, with the advantage of gun powder, warded them off. Only three Voortrekkers were wounded, but more than 3 000 Zulus were killed during the battle.
- Public Holidays Act, Act No 36 of 1994
- South Africa. Department of Home Affairs. 1994. Report of the technical working group on public holidays to the Minister's Committee. Pretoria: Department of Home Affairs.
- Illustrated History of South Africa: The Real Story, 1989. Cape Town, Reader's Digest.
- SIMKINS, C. 1988. The Prisoners of Tradition and the Politics of Nation-building. Johannesburg: South African Institute of Race Relations.