South Africa Festivals

Because of the divisive history of the country, South Africa has more public holidays than most of the other countries. In fact, If any of the 12 public holidays of the country falls on a Sunday, the following Monday is also declared a holiday. Earlier, public holidays reflected the beliefs of ruling white minority. However, today public holidays and events are a great celebratory occasions for people of all castes and colours.


Day of Goodwill: Better known as Labor Day or Boxing Day by most of the people from around the world, The day of Goodwill is a celebrated public holiday that falls on December 26 every year. The day was renamed to its current name from the earlier version of ‘Boxing Day’ in 1994 as a mark of severance of ties with the colonial past of the country. Considered to be an extension of Christmas, the holiday was initially created in the honour of time people spent boxing all the presents up that they got on Christmas. However, today the day is best celebrated in the country lounging at the beach with friends and family or by sharing the summer festivities with everyone.


Christmas: This international public holiday marks the central event of the Christian religion- the birth of baby Jesus into this world. Celebrated by billions of people around the world, Christmas is the day when people from all religions and cultural backgrounds come together in the spirit of giving. Though the actual date of the birth of Jesus in unknown and is always up for debate, December 25th has been accepted by people all over the world as Christ’s birthday. Families come together at dinner tables, roasts are carved and crackers are pulled out all in the spirit of the festival. Though South Africa lies in the hottest hemisphere of the world, yet many people still uphold the European tradition of displaying Christmas tree, exchanging gifts and cards, warm puddings on the dinner table and a mandatory visit by Father Christmas. There are also the Christmas prayer service and plays held across the country.


Day of Reconciliation: Inaugurated in 1994 to reconcile with the horror of the past events the country had seen, the Day of Reconciliation marked a promise of a shared future regardless of the race, culture or creed of the people. Previously the day symbolized the divide between the white and the black South Africans. Protests and meetings were held all around the country to raise voice against the unfair laws of the country. However, it was only after the advent of democracy in the country that the day was turned into a day of hope and unity among the indigenous and the Afrikaans communities of the society. The day was declared a public holiday by the new democratic government of South Africa in the hope of building a better nation and symbolizing unity among all sections of the society. The day is also considered to be the de facto start of the summer holiday period of South Africa.


Heritage Day:  Celebrating the cultural diversity of the South African society, Heritage Day is also known as National Braai Day by many and is celebrated on September 24th every year. Earlier celebrated as Shaka Day in the memory of famous Zulu king Shaka who was instrumental in uniting various Zulu clans into a cohesive nation, Heritage Day was appointed to encourage the coming together of the countrymen to celebrate the rich cultural heritage and diversity of this rainbow nation. Today, to celebrate the day in a special way, friends, families and strangers unite across the country to celebrate the heritage of the country of overcoming its painful past by chucking a tjoppie into the fire. In fact, if you are planning to visit the country around this day, be sure to attend any of the different braai events held in every city.


National Women’s Day: Paying homage to the women of the country who fought tirelessly against the tyranny of the Apartheid government, Women’s Day was announced in 1994 on 9th August with the free democratic nation. The day commemorates the historic 1956 protest held on the same date that was led by Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Albertina Sisulu and Sophie Williams De Bruyn along with 20,000 women from all over the country came out on the streets of Pretoria to stage a peaceful protest. This peaceful protest marked a momentous occasion that marked an inspiring display of female solidarity, political strength and inner fortitude. In fact, today the day is considered as a living reminder of how these great women helped in moulding the modern day democratic South Africa while continuing to take the country forward on the path of progress and freedom.


Youth Day: This significant public holiday observed on 16th June every year marks the start of infamous Soweto riots that took place in 1976. The riots were sparked off by a government edict that declared that all the teachings and instructions in black schools would have to be delivered in Afrikaans language. In fact, it is the iconic picture of a black school kid named Hector Pieterson who was shot by police in Soweto in a peaceful protest march. What followed was one of the most brutal riots in the history of South Africa that resulted in the death of over 700 people, mostly youth. Though the occasion is quite sombre and conflict ridden, the date in itself serves as a reminder of the importance the youth plays in a country’s progress and brings across the message that something like ‘Soweto Riots’ should never happen again.


Workers’ Day: Commemorating those working cogs of the society that keep the clock ticking, Workers day is a public holiday celebrated on 1st May which is widely celebrated all over the country as well as around the world. This international holiday is also known as May Day with more than 80 countries celebrating the ideology behind the same. The history of the day goes far back to 1886 to the Haymarket Affair in Chicago when while dispersing a crowd of striking workers, a bomb was thrown on the policemen by an unidentified assailant which was then followed by firing of live ammunition at the unarmed group of these defenceless workers. However, it was not until 1891 that the day was recognized around the globe and inserted as a public holiday in the calendars of the countries. This day today is used by the working masses to stress their need and to establish fair practices in the labor and employment standards. It was after the fall of the oppressive regime that the new democratic South African regime decided to include this day into their calendar. Though there is hardly any fuss around this date, the date in itself marks a reminder of the importance the working class pays in the progress of the society.


Freedom Day: Celebrated on 27th April, this day celebrates the democratic freedom of South Africa as well as commemorating the first post apartheid elections that were held on this day in 1994. The day symbolizes the long walk that the nation has made away from its colonial dark past while shackling off the shackles of the domination of white minorities. Legendary visionary Nelson Mandela was elected through a fair and free voting process in the elections where the franchisees did not depend on any kind of race preference. The day also pays homage to the unique, detailed and remarkably inclusive constitution of the country that has formulated a Bill of Rights that has been considered to be one of the most developed charters of the world. This document guarantees freedom to all within the South African borders from the past hatred and oppression that the country previously saw.


Family Day: This Public holiday falling on the Monday after the Easter Sunday also goes by the name of Easter Monday. The day marks the conclusion of Easter weekend with the day spent as a recovering day from all the Easter festivities. However, there is little religious significance of the day. In fact, it was 1994 when the democratic government of South Africa renamed the day as Family day to detach it from Christian beliefs and become an all inclusive family day. The day makes for the end of a languid weekend that falls within the first school holidays of the year and marked a coming together of the families. Take advantage of this public holiday to relax and unwind while discovering more of Cape Town on this Easter Monday.


Good Friday: Considered to be one of the most important days in the Christian calendar, this South African public holiday falls on the Friday before Easter Sunday commemorating the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ. Though most of the populace of Cape Town is not religious, there are various Easter related customs specific to the city. Most of these are culinary based delights. Apart from the global favourite of hot cross buns, there is the local favourite of pickled fish that is considered to be one of the traditional Cape Town fare for Good Friday. The food became popular as a steadfast culinary pastime due to its ability to feed families during the whole Easter weekend without getting spoiled. Also, since schools are usually closed during this period, many prefer to hit the road to enjoy a period of respite in this mother city.                 


Human Rights Day: Commemorating past mistakes made and celebrating the promising future of South Africa, Human Rights Day was declared as a public holiday in 1994 by former president Nelson Mandela. Observed on 21 March every year, the day marks celebration of the constitution of the country that grants equal rights to all while also serving as a reminder of the Sharpeville massacre that took place in 1960 in Sharpeville. In this massacre, over 69 unarmed people were killed and 180 injured gathered to protest pass laws outside a city police station. Today, no pas books are required by any person of any caste, color or creed, thus giving the citizens of the country their basic human dignity and making the country a progressive and democratic nation.


New Year’s Eve: Put on your dancing shoes and be sure to visit Cape Town on this first day of Gregorian calendar, more popularly known as New Year’s Eve around the world. With celebrations starting early on 31st December, people wait for the clock to strike midnight sparking off heated celebrations where any and everyone cling to their glasses to toast their loved ones a very happy new year. Also, even though fireworks are forbidden in the residential areas of Cape Town, there are various other places where you can witness this spectacle for yourself. Another famous event associated with this eve is the Cape Town Minstrel Affair that takes place on the streets of the city celebrating a second new year on 2nd of January. The day celebrates the ancient tradition when the slaves were only allowed one day off in a whole year which they celebrated by dressing up in their gaudiest garb and entertaining themselves by playing music. Today, the day is celebrated on New Year’s eve itself with the Cape minstrels dressing up in their most colourful dresses and dancing to the beats of marching bands in this much awaited annual parade.


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