Celebrating a white Christmas: A cause to question the South African calendar
By David Letsoalo
Our Constitution guarantees the freedom for everyone to practise their religious, spiritual and cultural beliefs. But truth be told, there has been a de facto preference of Christianity over all other religions and spiritual practices. This is evident not only in the broader society but in government, business and ironically, even the judiciary itself.
It boggles the mind why the South African courts close on Christian holidays such as Good Friday and Christmas.
The calendar of South Africa has zero regard for African spirituality despite this being an African country. This is the common story in almost all Afrikan countries even post-independence, where Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) have continued to eclipse the Afrikan belief systems.
There is a discord as human rights appear so prominently in the Constitution yet are so very absent in practice. We have to realise that Africa is still a colonised continent in many respects, particularly on the cultural and economic fronts.
African leaders have over the years been satisfied with the badge of political office, while they showed no appetite of ‘returning’ to the cradle or source in terms of which Afrikan values, epistemologies, culture and spirituality take the centre stage.
It is lamentable that we have been wired to think and behave in terms of foreign constructs and frameworks. We have become spontaneous and willing actors on the stage constructed by others. In other words, we continue to allow others to determine our actions, attitudes, behaviours, moral standards, and ultimately, our destiny.
In this scheme of things, foreign religions and culture have dislodged our own cultures, and thus, gotten embedded in our lives just as the colonisers had planned and desired centuries ago. By implication, cultural, mental and spiritual colonisation has become systemic and institutionalised. To paraphrase the late cultural legend, Bra Hugh Masekela, the colonisers do not have to do anything anymore to force their cultures down our throats, we simply volunteer.
Metaphorically, we live in the belly of the beast. Even the most staunch, hard-core and venerated Afrikanists and race-conscious leaders in Afrika have found it difficult to free themselves from this spiritual-cultural bastille, despite their consciousness, awareness of the need to decolonise and, in particular, the urgency of the call for reversal, which in the South African political parlance rests in the expression “Mayibuye iAfrika”. In other words, there needs to be a deliberate and concerted effort to research the pre-colonial spiritual or religious practices of the indigenous peoples of this continent.
I do not think it is surprising that despite fighting colonial powers in the liberation struggles, post-independence Afrikan leaders ignored or turned a blind eye to the cultural or spiritual aspect of colonisation, hence they remained Christians, Muslims and so forth. The great and inimitable Thomas Isidore Noel Sankara grew up in a Christian set-up and was initially urged to study theology and become a priest.
The likes of Anton Lembede, Robert Mugabe, Kenneth Kaunda, Robert Sobukwe, Stephen Biko and many others had Christianity as their centre. The role of Eurocentric education and schooling via the missionary schools should not be underestimated in this regard. Its influence is omnipresent in our contemporary society.
The post-1994 dispensation in South Africa still reflects the colonial and apartheid elements and traits in the broader society. To this end, the society continues to experience the stranglehold of Christianity in the operation of government or public service and the wider society. While the Constitution of the apartheid South Africa was explicit in stating that “South Africa is a Christian country”, the present Constitution is silent on this. However, the practical reality out there confirms the original apartheid position in as far as this aspect is concerned.
What we refer to as “weekends”, are, in fact, religious holidays which essentially render a biblical acknowledgement of the notion of Sabbath.
The so-called festive period is premised on Christian celebrations or holidays, in particular the Easter long weekend and December/Christmas holidays. Added to this, the celebration of the New Year on January 1 is a further indication of colonial domination since the new year in the Afrikan context is celebrated in September, at least as per the Royal Calendar of Kemet.
It is surprising, or perhaps not surprising at all, that even though the Constitution does not require our calendar to enlist the Christian holidays, the post-1994 government under the leadership of the ANC has, for the past 26 years, embraced the apartheid calendar almost as was, particularly as regards exclusive or preferential embracing of Christian holidays over other religions.
One may thus be pardoned if one were to assert the view that South Africa has essentially not yet become an “Afrikan” country to the extent that it has culturally, spiritually and epistemologically remained leashed to a foreign or colonial past.
For Afrika to return, and Azania to be born, we should at least mentally and symbolically travel back to our roots and centre our orientation and approaches to that world view. We should search for the spiritual elements that had held Afrikan people together before the distortion-laced dispensation of colonial and apartheid hegemony.
Our knowledge or epistemologies, languages, cultures and spirituality have been pushed to the periphery or ruthlessly erased in favour of the conqueror-oppressor’s. The latter have found full expression in our calendar, whilst there is absolutely no regard nor acknowledgement of anything Afrikan in our calendar.
The work of entities such as Zindzi Mandela Foundation are examples of a conscious effort to return to the Afrikan calendar. However, given the colonized and anti-black nature of our society, such efforts are unlikely to get any support from either government and business. It is about time that this anomaly gets fixed in order for Afrika to be reflected in our calendar, or at least that this religious bias be unlocked.
Can we even begin to imagine our calendar or our society without Christmas and Easter seasons? This proposition is close to the imagination of chicken with teeth. This is mainly because we are so ingrained to this colonial construct that any attempt will be outrightly dismissed and scoffed at.
Despite a lot of questionable things having been committed in the Christian world, these have not ignited any decisive attempt to question or dismiss the religion by the ruling elite. However, the slightest defect on the part of Afrikan spiritual practitioners is promptly attacked with venom.
The fact that the correctional services and defence forces have full-time chaplains, who are basically Christian functionaries which exclusively play a role in our Public Service, reveals this religious bias. As regards the prisons, this bias flies in the face of Section 14 of the Correctional Services Act. The constitutionality of this arrangement should therefore be put into question. I look to a decolonised situation where an Afrikan spiritual leader or entity is also afforded a place in our public service, especially in the prisons and army establishments.
One of the most disappointing decisions of the Constitutional Court is where (in 1997, as per Laurence v the State) the court failed to declare the special place of Sunday in our calendar as unconstitutional. This is one of the instances that exemplifies how entrenched colonialism is in our society and government despite our Constitution being secular or at least being silent on the country being a Christian society.
As the nation descends into the December festive period, commonly known as the “Christmas season”, we brace ourselves for excessive spending and loss of many lives resulting from alcohol abuse, road accidents and many other factors. It is important that we remember that there is nothing in our law (except colonisation) that forces us to have this so-called festive period exclusively. Fundamentally, these festivities are occasioned by un-Afrikan events.
There is thus a moral, historical and constitutional need for revision of this calendar to acknowledge the spiritual and epistemological grounding of Afrikan people before the colonial onslaught which entrenched the Abrahamic religious precepts. Importantly, there is a compelling case for us to point out the baseless preference accorded to Christian holidays in this constitutional democracy that is purported to be premised on the notion of “a free, open and equal society”.
I know this is a long short, which must be articulated to ignite the consciousness of our people. While still in this status quo, please take care of yourselves and your families during the coming “festive season”.
David Letsoalo is a Sankarist, an activist and Law academic