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South Africa would have 11 more public holidays in addition to the 12 it has already if all the religious groups which made representations to the public holiday hearings held in Durban on Thursday were to get their way.
Not represented at the hearings was the Jewish community, which means that number could be even higher.
The Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities was in the city on Thursday to hear what local people would like when it comes to public holidays.
The hearings are part of a national roadshow investigating public opinion on public holidays. They follow several complaints that the current list of holidays favour Christians in a secular country.
More than 100 people representing several groups expressed their views at the public hearing in the city.
Committee member Dorasamy Moodley said the issue was delicate. “There have been complaints stating that, when it comes to public holidays, Christians are given preference over other religions,” he said.
Other complaints were the lack of recognition of other religious groups and the unfairness of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, which forces people who are not Christians to take leave when they want to observe their religious holidays.
eThekwini municipality councillor Sunil Kalicharan, a Hindu, said: “We are just asking for one holiday – we do not want to retract any of the Christian holidays, but the system as a whole must be fair.”
Ashwin Trikamjee, the president of the SA Hindu Mahasabha, along with members of the Hindu Youth Council, said it was business that did not want more religious holidays.
“Ten years ago, we made the same submissions and business refused. They said the economic repercussions would be too big.
Material wealth is not more important than spiritual wealth,” said an emotional member of the Hindu community.
“Exams are set on Diwali, and children, sisters and mothers cannot pray, when the day is meant to be dedicated to prayer,” she added.
Trikamjee, a practising lawyer, said employers threatened workers with dismissal or a pay-cut if they observed religious holidays.
African Christian Democratic Party member Wayne Thring said that Good Friday, Easter and Christmas were non-negotiable public holidays.
“We want Ascension Day back, because we were not consulted when it was taken away,'' Thring added.
eThekwini councillor Ismail Cassimgee, representing the Muslim faith, said all religions should be given an equal opportunity to celebrate their festivities. His group asked for Eid ul Fitr and Eid ul Adha to be made public holidays.
Other submissions included the following:
* The Rastafarians asked for five religious days to be observed by public holidays. They did not expect them all to be considered.
* A Shembe representative said his group did not necessarily want public holidays, but asked for two religious days to be made days of “condoned absence”. “If our submission is not considered, companies should at least consider giving employees two days a year for religious leave,” said the Shembe representative.
All groups emphasised that SA was a secular country and, although the country was 80 percent Christian, no religion was “better than the other”.
Hearings will continue around the country and the submissions will be presented to Parliament. - The Mercury