Everyone enjoys a public holiday, however, not everyone knows the significance that lies behind them. Public holidays serve as reminders of the struggles that South Africa has overcome and the sacrifices that were made by many.

21 March – Human Rights Day

In 1994 when former President Nelson Mandela was elected, Human Rights Day was declared a public holiday. The aim of this day is for South African citizens to commemorate the Sharpeville Massacre and reflect upon their rights.

1948 was the start of formalised segregation, as this was the year that the National Party came into power. The Native Laws Amendment Act of 1952 stated that all black citizens must carry a reference book as a medium to control the movement of black nationals. Failure to produce this reference book was a punishable crime. This legislation was met with an anti-pass protest on 21 March 1960 by the Pan African Congress (PAC), a breakaway party of the ANC. During this protest at the Sharpeville police station, the police opened fire which resulted in the death of 69 individuals and left 180 wounded. Although it is uncertain what caused the police to open fire, the aftermath of the event was tragic. Mass funerals were held and several marches were led by Phillip Kgosana, the PAC Regional Secretary General. Of these marches, the most significant occurred on 30 March 1960 when Kgosana led a crowd of between 30 000 to 50 000 protestors from Nyanga and Langa to the police headquarters in Caledon Square. The protestors offered themselves up for arrest as they did not have their reference books. A week later, both the PAC and the ANC were banned under the Unlawful Organisations Act of 8 April 1960. The apartheid government implemented this banishment – and other more brutal methods of repression – to silence liberation movements. This ban prompted the ANC and PAC to launch an armed struggle campaign as a new means to fight the apartheid government.

On 21 March 1996, the South African Human Rights Commission was launched. The Commission aims to promote respect and protection for the attainment and development of human rights.

27 April – Freedom Day

Freedom Day marks South Africa’s first democratic elections held on 27 April 1994. 86.8% of the 22.7 million eligible voters partook in these elections. The ANC won the elections with 62.65% of the votes and Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president. Although apartheid formally began in 1948, segregation, white minority rule, and colonialism had oppressed black citizens for over 300 years. Although many inequalities burden South Africa today, 27 April 1994 remains significant as it is a turning point in the struggle for equality. Freedom Day thus serves as a reminder of the continual fight to eradicat e racism and inequality, as well as to promote the rights within our Constitution.

16 June – Youth Day

16 June 1976 led to the death of approximately 700 people (the majority were members of the youth) when over 20 000 protested the Bantu Education System. This system was designed to “train” black citizens for their role in apartheid society. The Black Consciousness Movement and South African Student Organisation brought the injustices of such a system to light. The implementation of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction led to protests in 1975, but other injustices of the Bantu Education System included poor facilities, overcrowded classrooms, and inadequate teachers. On 16 June 1976, students from various schools in Soweto marched peacefully toward the Orlando Stadium. The students were met by police who were armed with live ammunition and teargas.

Although it is unclear why, the police opened fire and shot at the youths. One youth, Hector Pieterson, has become an icon for the fatal events of this day. At the age of 12, he was one of the first to lose his life during the uprising. His life and the lives of others are now commemorated at the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum. The Soweto uprising turned into an uprising against the apartheid government as its brutality was exposed both nationally and internationally.

9 August – National Women’s Day

9 August commemorates the day in 1956 when thousands of women marched to the Union Buildings to oppose Pass Laws. The march consisted of over 20 000 women of all races and was organised by the Federation of South African Women (FSAW). FSAW was famous for challenging South Africa’s patriarchal ideologies. 1995 was the year when the first National Women’s Day was celebrated.

16 December – Day of Reconciliation

In 1838, the Battle of Blood River took place between the Zulus and the Voortrekkers. Having the advantage of gunpowder, the Voortrekkers won the battle and defeated the Zulu army of 10 000. During apartheid, 16 December was commemorated as the Day of the Vow, which signified the Voortrekkers’ thanks to God for their victory in battle against the Zulus. However, 16 December gained new meaning in 1961 when the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), was formed and led by Nelson Mandela. MK was launched as a part of the armed struggle against the apartheid government after the Sharpeville Massacre.

Image: Kaylyn O’ Brien

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