Equal weight must be given to holidays of other faiths or else Good Friday and Christmas as paid public holidays must be “reviewed”.

This is the suggestion of the South African Law Reform Commission in response to a discussion paper on Statutory Law Revision. This is in respect of legislation administered by the Department of Home Affairs, which administers public holidays.

According to the research conducted by Maureen Moloi, the purpose of the Public Holidays Act is to make provision for a new calendar of public holidays and to see that these are paid holidays.

Moloi stated that the two main public holidays observed by Christians were Good Friday and Christmas. She said that as paid public holidays, these created a differentiation between those who practised Christianity and those who practised other religious faiths in the country, whose faith-based occasions were not included in the holidays.

Eid-ul-Fitr and Diwali, for instance, which is celebrated by Muslims and Hindus respectively, are not recognised as public holidays. Instead the observers of both religions have to apply for an annual day off from work, sometimes as unpaid leave.

Problems have also arisen where tests and examinations for pupils and students clashed with their days of celebration.

The researcher said this provision was a violation of Section 9(3) of the Constitution. It amounted to direct discrimination on the basis of religion and belief.

The commission is now appealing for public comment on the issue – the deadline is June 30.

According to Moloi: “There is an element of prejudicial treatment in that the two main Christian holidays are declared as paid public holidays and adherents of other religions, who celebrate other faith-based holidays, are disadvantaged in that their holidays are not declared public holidays and they do not have an automatic benefit of pay on those days.

“This section should be reviewed,” she wrote, adding: “It is suggested that either these holidays be reviewed or that equal weight be given to holidays of other faiths.”

The department pointed out that research was conducted in this regard, and in most countries there was no balance between different faith groups. It requested that the commission investigate and consult the public on the matter and provide recommendations for consideration. Until this process is completed, the department will not consider any substantive amendments to the Public Holidays Act.

According to a statement issued by the secretary of the commission, Nelson Matibe, the commission has been mandated by the cabinet with the task of revising the South African statute book. Its aim, he said, was to identify and recommend for repeal or amendment legislation, or any provision in legislation, that was inconsistent with the equality clause in the Constitution.

Professor Brij Maharaj, an executive member of the South African Hindu Maha Sabha (SAHMS), agreed with the commission’s submission that declaring only Christian public holidays was discriminatory and in violation of the constitution.

“The Maha Sabha believes that religious holidays are important and equal weight should be accorded to festivals of other faiths,” he said. “The reality is that, except for rhetorical homage on Heritage Day, minority cultures and faiths are largely invisible in South Africa. The ANC government has acknowledged that there was a need to reconsider SA’s national holidays.”

Maharaj has identified a solution. “While the SAHMS recognises and respects all faiths, it respectfully submits that Boxing Day and Easter Monday have little or no spiritual significance. The Sabha respectfully submits that these two holidays should be re-allocated for Diwali and Eid, respectively. Such a declaration would be reasonable, logical and pragmatic and would address the bias and discrimination against minority faiths in terms of the Public Holidays Act.”

Maharaj added that declaring a national holiday for Diwali and Eid would increase recognition, respect, reconciliation and understanding of South Africa’s religious and multicultural diversity.

Moulana Abdullah Khan of the Jamiatul Ulama KZN said: “I don’t support that every religious holiday should be a public holiday. We are a multicultural and multi-religious society. If every religious holiday is public, it will be a loss of revenue to South Africa.

“With regard to Eid and Diwali, those worshipping these days should only have the day off.” Khan added that due consideration must be given by employers to accommodate employees celebrating their religious holidays.

The spokesman for the Catholic Church, Archbishop William Slattery, thought along similar lines: “I appeal to government to allow others to celebrate their religious days, but these holidays must only be applicable as days off to those who celebrate it and not to everyone. There are so many religious groupings in South Africa, imagine if every religious holiday was a public one. Where would it stop? What would happen to our economy?”

Slattery added that because 73 percent of South Africans were Christian, Good Friday and Christmas must continue to be national public holidays.

Stakeholders can submit their comments to [email protected] or by logging on to the website www.justice.gov.za.

Proposed new calendar

The Commission for Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities has held numerous public forums around the country addressing the |issue of public holidays.

During these events, members of various religious organisations and interested parties voiced their concerns and gave recommendations. Some of these were compiled in a |report by the commission.

It was titled “Public Holidays versus Religious/Cultural Holidays”.

Among its recommendations, it stated that the Department of Home Affairs and the government should:

l Restructure public holidays.

l Cluster some of the existing public holidays.

l Remove some of the existing public holidays and replace them with new holidays.

l Declare some of the existing |public holidays to be non-public |holidays but half days where people can be released early on those days.

l Do away with the provision that if a public holidays falls on a Sunday, then such a holiday is moved to a |Monday.

l Amend the Public Holidays Act by removing Family Day, Boxing Day and the Day of Reconciliation.

l Amend the act by adding religious holidays of the following religions: African traditional religion, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Bahai, Rastafarian and Buddhism; and allot each of these religions only one day.

l Capture other important |holidays of religious groups on the calendar, not as public holidays, but for the public to be aware of those days.