Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Will Christmas Be Cancelled in South Africa?

Could Christmas be cancelled in South Africa?
Not likely, but a glut of holidays has led the nation to consider calling
some of them off
By STEPHANIE NOLEN
UPDATED AT 5:16 PM EDT Tuesday, Oct 12, 2004

JOHANNESBURG -- South Africa's government is beset with massive
challenges, but Rufus Malatjie may have the least enviable job of all.

Mr. Malatjie heads an interministerial task force charged with deciding
whether Christmas should be cancelled, or Freedom Day called off.

Although Sri Lanka and Trinidad also vie for the title, South Africa is
believed to have more public holidays than any other country. Human Rights
Day, Women's Day, Youth Day, Heritage Day and Workers' Day are among the
14 statutory holidays currently celebrated. Canada has nine. The country's
business leaders say that at least one of the holidays has to go,
insisting that the country can't afford the 2.9 billion rand (about
$600-million) each of them costs.

But the powerful trade unions are fighting back. Not only do they say they
won't allow any holidays to be cancelled; they're lobbying for even more
days off.

"Don't tamper with May Day, June 16 Day or Women's Day," warned Patrick
Craven, spokesman for the Congress of South African Trade Unions, after
making a submission to Mr. Malatjie's task force earlier this year. (June
16, Youth Day, commemorates the day in 1976 when rioting schoolchildren in
the township of Soweto began the resistance that ultimately toppled
apartheid.)

The task force's original motivation was actually not work, but religion.
The country's sizable Asian minority felt it was discriminatory that
Christian holidays were state holidays while Hindu and Muslim feasts were
not. Jewish groups quickly joined the call.

South Africa's odd mix of celebrations is in part a legacy of the
country's troubled political history. The former white rulers, closely
tied to the Dutch Reformed Church, ordered holidays on the major Christian
feasts. But after the transition to democracy in 1994, the African
National Congress, with its communist history, quickly elevated Women's
Day and Workers' Day. Former president Nelson Mandela, in an effort to
compromise, ordered that a traditional Afrikaaner holiday marking a Boer
victory over the Zulus at Blood River in 1838 should remain on the
calendar but be renamed Reconciliation Day.

Unlike Canada, where some holidays shift dates each year (Thanksgiving,
for example, lands on the second Monday of October), most of South
Africa's holidays commemorate specific dates and do not shift. When they
fall on a Tuesday or Wednesday, many workers take a really, really long
weekend.

Mr. Malatjie and his colleagues from the ministries of Education, Labour,
Finance, and Environment and Tourism have received submissions from more
than 50 interested groups and held hearings in all nine provinces. Now
they must make recommendations to cabinet, which will make the ultimate
decision on which holidays, if any, get the chop.

Mr. Malatjie hopes it will all be wrapped up by Christmas -- but then,
that particular holiday is a bit of a sore subject itself. After a recent
public hearing, the meticulous lawyer told reporters that every holiday is
being considered equally.

"I cannot guarantee that we will still have the Christmas Day holiday," he
said in response to a specific question. "At this stage, anything is
possible. There is no holiday that is regarded as being sacred. They are
all being looked at."

South Africa's determinedly sensationalist media turned those comments
into massive front-page headlines warning that Christmas might be
cancelled. Radio call-in shows were quickly clogged by irate Christians,
who make up three-quarters of the country's population, as well as by
Muslims who insisted that Eid al-Fitr be added to the holiday calendar.

The government went on the defensive, and Mr. Malatjie has been taking
pains to make clear that no decisions have yet been made. "It's a matter
of looking into it," he said recently.

Privately, he reckons Christmas is safe. "You can't cancel Christmas;
people will cry foul. It's not possible," he said in an interview.

But the country could go the way of neighbouring Mozambique, where the
ruling party, Frelimo, which also has a strong socialist background, did
away with Christmas some time ago. Mozambicans still get Dec. 25 off, but
it's called Family Day.

One proposal Mr. Malatjie is considering is the redistribution of
holidays, since the vast majority are clumped together between April and
June, the South African autumn. He said there is also the possibility that
the task force will find that the country needs yet more holidays.

And he knows that his final report, whatever its conclusions, will win him
few friends.

"There will be one sector that will say, 'Yes, we are happy,' " he said
with a sigh. "But not everyone."