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.
* 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.
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21 March [Human Rights
Bill of Rights contained in the
Constitution is the cornerstone of democracy in South
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
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
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
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27 April [Freedom Day]
Freedom Day commemorates the first democratic elections
held in South Africa on 27 April 1994. Read more about Freedom Day celebrations.
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1 May [Workers' Day]
Workers' Day celebrates the role played by trade unions, the Communist Party and other labour movements in the struggle against apartheid. It originated from May Day, which was born from the industrial struggle for an eight-hour day. Read more about Worker's Day.
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16 June [Youth Day]
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 commemorates these events.
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9 August [National
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
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24 September [Heritage
"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."
issued by the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and
Technology, 17 September 1996)
address marking Heritage Day in 1996, (former) President
"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
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
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December [Day of Reconciliation]
16 December is a day of great significance in South Africa because of two historical events that took place on that date.
In apartheid South Africa 16 December was known as
Day of the Vow, as the Voortrekkers in preparation for the
Battle of Blood River on 16 December 1838 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.
The second historical event that took place on 16 December was in 1961, when Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the military wing of the African National Congress (ANC), was formed. Prior to its formation, the ANC had largely approached the fight against apartheid through passive resistance, but after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, where peaceful protestors were indiscriminately shot by police, passive resistance was no longer seen as an effective approach in bringing apartheid to an end. MK mostly performed acts of sabotage, but its effectiveness was hampered by organizational problems and the arrest of its leaders in 1963. Despite this, its formation was commemorated every year since 1961.
With the advent
of democracy in South Africa 16 December retained its status as
a public holiday. South Africa's first non-racial and democratic government was tasked with promoting reconciliation and national unity. One way in which it aimed to do this symbolically was to acknowledge the significance of the 16 December in both the Afrikaner and liberation struggle traditions and to rename this day as the Day of Reconciliation.
On 16 December 1995, the Day of Reconciliation was celebrated as a public holiday in South Africa for the first time.
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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.
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