Human Rights Day – 21 March
This public holiday is linked to the events which occurred in Sharpeville on 21 March 1960 in response to the Native Laws Amendment Act enacted in 1952. The Act extended the apartheid government’s control over the movement of non-white South Africans in urban areas and abolished the pass book system in favour of a reference book system which had to be carried at all times as proof that non-white South Africans had permission to enter urban areas. According to the law of the day, failure to produce this reference book when demanded to by the police was a criminal offence.
At the annual conference of the ANC in December 1959, it was announced that 1960 would be the “year of the pass”, where the ANC planned to launch a national anti-pass mass action campaign on 31 March 1960 to commemorate the anniversary of the 1919 anti-pass campaign. It was soon after this general meeting that the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), who were initially a breakaway sect of the ANC, held their first conference and announced their own anti-pass campaign. On 21 March 1960, an anti-pass law march led by the PAC in Sharpeville turned violent when a scuffle broke out at the Sharpeville police station and the police opened fire on the crowd of protestors after a policeman panicked and began shooting. The live rounds of ammunition killed 69 people and wounded approximately 180 people, leading to this event being known as the Sharpeville Massacre. The ANC and PAC were banned shortly after this in 1960.
According to the South African parliament, this day is historically significant because it symbolises more than just a protest against the pass laws of the apartheid regime, but of the “affirmation by the common people, rising in unison to proclaim their rights”.
Freedom Day – 27 April
27 April 1994 is significant for two reasons: Firstly, the Interim Constitution of South Africa took effect on this day, and secondly it marked South Africa’s first, democratic elections. This day has particular significance as it led to the election of South Africa’s first democratic government, led by the late former president Nelson Mandela, and was the culmination of years of struggle and a negotiated settlement which paved the way toward our current constitutional dispensation.
According to statistics provided by South African History Online, it is estimated that 19.7 million of South Africa’s 22.7 million eligible voters cast their votes in this historic election, which elected a government of national unity with an ANC majority.
Youth Day – 16 June
This is a day which recognises the role which the South African youth played in the transformative process which our country has undergone and commemorates the Soweto Uprising of 1976, which is synonymous with the image of Hector Petersen. The 1976 student protests resulted from a culmination of factors, including the introduction of Bantu education in the 1950s, which was of an inferior standard, as well as ill-equipped school facilities, overcrowded schools and unfavourable learning conditions. The situation was aggravated by the decision to make Afrikaans the medium of instruction in subjects such as mathematics and social studies, and led to hundreds of Sowetan scholars protesting. This protest soon turned violent and clashes between the police and students followed. This holiday recognises the sacrifices made by the students of that time in the struggle for a free and equal society.
Women’s Day – 9 August
On this day in 1956 approximately 20 000 women from all walks of life marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against the government extending the regulations governing the carrying of passes by women. To date, this was the largest gathering of women ever seen in South African history. The significance of this holiday celebrates and honours the important role women have played in helping South Africa transform into the constitutional democracy we hold dear today.
Heritage Day – 24 September
This holiday is one of the more recent holidays added to the South African calendar and is a day which encourages us all to celebrate our cultures and customs in light of the wide variety of cultures, beliefs, languages and traditions that make up our rainbow nation. This day bears particular significance to the Zulu tribe as this day, formerly known as Shaka Day, commemorates the legendary Zulu king Shaka Zulu.
Reconciliation Day – 16 December
This day serves as a culmination of the recognition of two significant historical events which occurred in our history. This day holds historical significance for many Afrikaans-speaking South Africans and was previously recognised as the Day of the Vow. On this day in 1838, the Voortrekkers defeated the Zulus in the infamous Battle of Blood River after making a vow before God to build a church should they be granted victory. This day holds particular significance as a symbol of Afrikaner pride, culture and identity.
16 December 1961 is also a day of significance to the ANC as the armed military wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe, was formed on this day. Thus, in order to foster reconciliatory relations at the start of the new dispensation and to attempt to reach a balance between our divided past and promoting national unity, the holiday was renamed to incorporate all the aspects of South Africa’s diverse and divided past.
Illustration: Jackie Zhang