Fight over religious holidays


The debate on religious holidays continued in Cape Town on Thursday when the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities gathered to hear local representations. Pheagane Moreroa, CEO of the Commission told the gathering that the hearings were about nationbuilding and strengthening social cohesion.

According to Moreroa, while it was impossible to make everyone happy, it was important to hear what people had to say. However, he added, it was important to find out exactly "how big this national outcry" regarding our public holidays was. As such, the commission will hold hearings in five more provinces before presenting a report to the Presidency and parliament by October.

Among those who made themselves heard at Thursday's hearing was the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) who felt the hearing could be seen as a threat to their religion and vowed to take to the streets if that was the case. "The ACDP will fight any attempt to change or remove Christmas or Good Friday. Even if we have to take our fight to the streets, even if we need to toyi-toyi, march," the party said.

Moreroa hastened to reassure them, saying: "Moenie worrie nie, [Don't worry], this is not about attacking Christianity." At present, South Africa had 12 public holidays on the calendar and Moreroa said the commission had received many complaints that there was a bias favouring Christianity.

Among the Muslim groups who were present was the Al Jama-ah Party and the Claremont Main Road mosque who took different views on the recognition of Eidul Adha and Eidul Fitr as official public holidays. Party leader, Ganief Hendricks, said when the Public Holidays Act was debated in 1994, 20 groups were identified as "clamouring" for recognition of their cultural and religious holidays.

"The way out was to make provisions in the [act] for those communities to exchange the official public holidays, that they do not embrace, with holidays dear to their hearts," said Hendricks, adding that the Employment Equity Act makes provision for employers to consult employees on making use of the act. According to IOLL, he said the commission was not doing its job and should have promoted existing legislation instead of embarking on public hearings..


In its submission, the Claremont Main Road Mosque (CMRM) took a different position, siding with the position of the United Ulema Council of South Africa (Uucsa) in saying that the two Eids should recognized as religious holidays. but not be declared as official public holidays. Imam Dr Rashid Omar provided two reasons for this position:

"If the government recognizes our two Eids, it will allow Muslim employees the liberty of celebrating their festive occasions without fear of jeopardising their employment or of disadvantaging them in anyway. Furthermore schools and tertiary institutions will be obliged to ensure that no examinations or critical assessments are scheduled on Eid days," the alim stated in their submission.

Secondly, he said: "It is not practical to ask the government to make our two Eids official public holidays, since to be fair to other faith traditions, it will have to provide similar recognition to them, and this will only add an unreasonable number of public holidays to an already congested public holidays schedule. For example, the South African Hindu Maha Sabha has already called for Deepavali to be declared a public holiday and the African Christian Democratic Party have called for the reinstitution of Ascension Day as a public holiday."

As such, CMRM called on Muslims "to build on their wonderful legacy of creativity and ingenuity in negotiating their Eid leave requests with their employers amicably. We furthermore, re-affirm the Islamic work ethic - that labour is an act of worship (`ibada) similar to prayer and fasting through which an individual can attain the pleasure of God."

Unlike Al-Jama-ah who had taken a swipe at the commission, the CMRM commend the CRL Commission "for taking on this challenging issue and for the religious sector and civil society’s constructive engagement in this consultative process. It is critical that such mutual and cooperative engagement is lauded and replicated in other spheres of interaction between government and the citizenry," the CMRM submission concluded.