South Africa's National Holidays

A Look at the Significance of South Africa's Seven National Holidays

Nelson Mandela
Mandela Day is celebrated on July 18. Per-Anders Pettersson / Getty Images

When Apartheid ended and the African National Congress under Nelson Mandela came into power in South Africa in 1994, the national holidays were changed to days that would be meaningful to all South Africans.

March 21: Human Rights Day

On this day in 1960, the police killed 69 people at Sharpeville who were participating in a protest against the pass laws—laws that demanded Blacks always carry passes. Many protesters were shot in the back. The carnage made world headlines. Four days later, the government banned Black political organizations and many leaders were arrested or went into exile. During the Apartheid era, there were human rights abuses by all sides; the remembrance of Human Rights Day is but one step to ensure that the people of South Africa are aware of their human rights and to ensure that such abuses never again occur.

April 27: Freedom Day

This was the day in 1994 when the first democratic election was held in South Africa, an election when all adults could vote irrespective of their race, as well as the day in 1997 when the new constitution took effect.

May 1: Worker's Day

Many countries around the world commemorate the contribution made by workers to society on May Day (America doesn't celebrate this holiday because of the day's communist origins). It has traditionally been a day to protest for better wages and working conditions. Given the role that trade unions played in the fight for freedom, it is unsurprising that South Africa commemorates this day.

June 16: Youth Day

On June 16, 1976, students in Soweto rioted in protest against the introduction of Afrikaans as the language of instruction of half their school curriculum, sparking eight months of violent uprisings across the country. Youth Day is a national holiday in honor of all the young people who lost their lives in the struggle against Apartheid and Bantu Education.

July 18: Mandela Day

On June 3 2009 in his State of the Nation address, President Jacob Zuma announced "the annual celebration" of South Africa's most famous son—Nelson Mandela.

"Mandela Day will be celebrated on the 18th of July each year. It will give people in South Africa and all over the world the opportunity to do something good to help others. Madiba was politically active for 67 years, and on Mandela Day people all over the world, in the workplace, at home and in schools, will be called upon to spend at least 67 minutes of their time doing something useful within their communities, especially among the less fortunate. Let us wholeheartedly support Mandela Day and encourage the world to join us in this wonderful campaign."

Despite his reference to wholehearted support, Mandela Day failed to become a national holiday; but Nelson Mandela International Day was established by the United Nations in November of 2009.

Aug. 9: National Women's Day

On this day in 1956, some 20,000 women marched to the Union government Buildings in Pretoria to protest against a law requiring Black women to carry passes. This day is celebrated as a reminder of the contribution made by women to society, the achievements that have been made for women's rights, and to acknowledge the difficulties and prejudices many women still face.

Sept. 24: Heritage Day

Nelson Mandela used the phrase "rainbow nation" to describe South Africa's diverse cultures, customs, traditions, histories, and languages. This day is a celebration of that diversity.

Dec. 16: Day of Reconciliation

Afrikaners traditionally celebrated December 16 as the Day of the Vow, remembering the day in 1838 when a group of Voortrekkers defeated a Zulu army at the Battle of Blood River, while ANC activists commemorated it as the day in 1961 when the ANC started to arm its soldiers to overthrow Apartheid. In the new South Africa, it's a day of reconciliation, a day to focus on overcoming the conflicts of the past and building a new nation.

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Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "South Africa's National Holidays." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Boddy-Evans, Alistair. (2023, April 5). South Africa's National Holidays. Retrieved from Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "South Africa's National Holidays." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).