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* The dates on which Good Friday and Easter Sunday fall are determined according to the ecclesiastical moon. It varies each year but 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 further provides for the
establishment of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC)
of which the aim 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 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 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]
Commemoration of the first democratic elections
held in South Africa on 27 April 1994.
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16 June [Youth Day]
Previously known as Soweto Day.
In 1975 protests started in African schools after
a directive from the previous 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
participating in a national march petitioned 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]
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
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.
In apartheid South Africa 16 December was known as
Day of the Vow, as the Voortrekkers in preparation for the
battle 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.
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Special Y2K holiday
On the recommendation from the Ministry of
Finance, the Reserve Bank and the Y2K Centre Government decided
that 31 December 1999 and 2 January 2000 should be declared
public holidays to allow four non-working days for Y2K system
testing, and ensure that the country suffers the minimum
possible level of disruption over this transition period.
A notice to this effect was published in a
Government Gazette on 7 May 1999.
Media Release published on 25 October 1999).
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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