The recent proposal by the South African Law Reform Commission (SALRC) to remove Good Friday and Christmas as public holidays on the SA calendar, has triggered criticism around the country. Is the proposal as innocuous as it presents, or is there a greater agenda at work?

According to the SALRC, an advisory statutory body responsible for identifying and revising laws that are at odds with the Constitution, “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.” The SALRC accordingly suggests that either these holidays be reviewed, or that equal weight be given to holidays of other faiths. (SAHLRC Discussion Paper 133: Project 25: “Statutory Law Revision: Legislation Administered by the Department of Home Affairs”, p 56. See link to Discussion Paper here.)

At first glance, what the SALRC is proposing may seem “only fair”. It sounds so reasonable, so tolerant, so “nice” that we may easily be persuaded that what they are proposing, is okay – in any event not worth a fight. Surely, there are bigger battles to fight. Surely, it is not a “biggie” to God whether we spend Good Friday and Christmas at work or at home – what is a big deal to Him, is that we use these days to remember and commemorate what He has done for us (whether at work or at home). Other Christians still may argue that the days designated on our calendar as Good Friday and Christmas are historically not accurate, and that for this reason they are not really worth fighting over.

The truth of the matter however is that what the SALRC is proposing, is far more serious than we may at first suspect. This is not simply about Christian holidays. This is (also) about the wave of secular humanism that is sweeping our country and that seeks to, bit by bit, remove Christianity from our society – as is happening in other countries in the West also. We should also not be so quick to believe that this is simply about giving equal treatment to all religions. No, it is (also) about establishing a new religion for South Africa, namely secular humanism.

In international news this week, one of Pope Francis’ new cardinals (Cardinal Francis Xavier Kriengsak Kovithavanij, the archbishop of Bangkok) was reported to have said that “secularism is ‘a devil’ that presents an appealingly ‘nice’ face to the world”. I find myself in agreement with the cardinal’s comments.

As Christians, we cannot afford the “nice face” of secularism to seduce us into surrendering that which we hold dear, our Christian heritage – because that is what it will be, a surrender and a loss for Christianity in South Africa. We should not be duped into believing that this cry for equality will have the result of keeping our own rights as Christians perfectly in tact while also extending rights to others. History has shown that, what at first sight appears as a claim simply for equality, all too frequently is a claim for (or has the result of) preferential treatment for the minority groups who made these claims in the first place and, though small in number, whose scream is often the loudest. And so, as Christians we need to be very careful before we conclude that this is not a fight to pick, lest we lose everything and lest our freedom to believe and honour God with our lives becomes something that is confined to the private sphere of our homes.

(The details of the e-mail address to which and cut-off date by which written comment on the SALRC’s recommendations can be submitted, appear at the bottom of this article).

The reasons for the change

This is not the first time that attempts are being made to remove Christian holidays from our national calendar. With the advent of our constitutional democracy in 1994, the calendar was changed to include days that “would be meaningful to all South Africans”. Already at that time, Ascension Day was completely removed and Easter Monday was changed to Family Day, leaving two Christian holidays only on the calendar (namely Good Friday and Christmas). The other 10 public holidays on the national calendar, are all secular holidays.

As recently as 2012, the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (“the CRL Commission”) held countrywide consultative public hearings (without specifically inviting the church’s input however) to assess the need for a review of public holidays. Their review followed four complaints received from individuals, who complained that Christian public holidays amounted to unfair discrimination in that it favoured Christianity as a religion and furthermore “deepened religious divides”. Following a “Hands off Christmas and Good Friday!” protest by Christians at Constitution Hill, the matter was dropped.

It would appear as if the SALRC’s current review of the two remaining Christian public holidays on the calendar, stem from the same considerations as before and as such, require closer scrutiny in this article.

Firstly, our Constitutional Court has repeatedly held that the constitutional demand for equality does not necessarily imply sameness of treatment. In each case, we have to examine the impact of the discriminatory action upon the particular people concerned to determine whether its overall impact is one which furthers the constitutional goal of equality or not. Where a law differentiates between different groups of people, a relevant question is whether the regulation is arbitrary or manifests ‘naked preferences’ that serve no legitimate governmental purpose.

In this case, it cannot be argued that the differentiation is arbitrary or has a ‘naked preference’ for Christianity. In terms of the last census, 79.8% of South Africans self-identify as Christians, 15.1% has no religion, 1.5% follows Islam, 1.2% Hinduism, 0.3% Africa religion 0.3% and 0.2% Judaism. It would be fair to say that around the world, there is a direct correlation between the majority religion of the country and the religious days that are set apart as public holidays in that country. Even so, it must be borne in mind that of the twelve public holidays on our calendar, only two are Christian. The other ten, which are all of a secular nature, include days like Worker’s Day, Youth Day and National Women’s Day. By parity of reasoning, employers, the elderly and even men could argue that they are being discriminated against because they do not have a special public holiday dedicated to them!

One could only imagine the impact on our already suffering economy if, in the name of equality, we were to give a public holiday to every group in our society! It simply does not make sense for almost 80% of the (Christian) population to take a day off for a religious holiday that is observed by less than 20%. On the other hand, Christian holidays are observed as public holidays largely as a matter of economics and viability. It is impractical for most businesses to remain open when 80% of their employees / clients are on holiday.

What the SALRC seems to overlook also, is that section 2(2) of the Public Holidays Act specifically provides that “any public holiday shall be exchangeable for any other day which is fixed by agreement or agreed to between an employer and employee”. In other words, the same Act that provides for two Christian public holidays on the national calendar, gives non-Christian employees the right to, instead of Good Friday or Christmas, request paid leave on another day (e.g. Ramadan for Muslims, or Diwali for Hindus). The majority of employers in South Africa has no problem with such request and displays a great degree of tolerance towards people of different religions in their workforce.

Absent proof of the discriminatory impact that Christian public holidays have on others, it is hard to accept that these holidays serve to “deepen religious divides”. In this regard, it is worth noting the statement of Moss Ntlha in his capacity as General Secretary of TEASA (and who himself also forms part of the leadership team of Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA)) as follows: “The transformation project we embarked on as a nation in 1994, set about to end tyranny as we had under Apartheid. To suggest that the peaceful and voluntary celebration of Christian festivals by the overwhelming majority of South Africans is oppressive and an affront to religious minorities is ludicrous. It is like suggesting South Africans must stop singing ‘Nkosi sikeleli Afrika, a song sung by the people of South Africa in their struggle against apartheid simply because it is a Christian hymn and therefore oppressive to non-Christians.”

Incidentally, in a recent interview on Watchmen on the Wall, Rev. Kenneth Meshoe pointed out that already people are saying that our national anthem is a Christian song and that we should change it so that we have a secular song that will embrace everybody. According to Rev. Meshoe, “we have to remind South Africans that, in spite of what people might be saying, we are not a secular state … and the fact that we have ‘Nkosi’ in our Constitution (“God bless you”), is an example and a proof that we are not a secular state. A secular state does not make reference to God in their Constitution.”

Our country has more than its fair share of headaches at the moment. Crime continues to surge, our economy is in dire straits, poverty and unemployment remain huge challenges, not to mention the power crisis that negatively affects all South Africans across the board. These are some of the areas that require our country’s urgent attention – not whether to abolish Christian public holidays.

A Christian response  

How then should we respond to the possible removal of Christian public holidays that honour the religious beliefs of nearly 80 percent of the population, from our national calendar? Should we turn the other cheek? Not this time. We have to respond – before worst things happen.

Pray, we must, but this is also an opportunity for us as Christians to take action and to use our freedom to protect our freedom and our faith. Take action by:

  • Submitting written comment and representations with regard to the SALRC’s recommendations, by e-mail to gmoloi@justice.gov.za by no later than 31 May 2015;
  • Joining Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA) as a Christian organisation that works to protect and promote freedom of religion and the autonomy of the church in South Africa, by signing up on its webpage here;
  • Making a donation to FOR SA to assist in its work to protect, and serve as a voice for, religious freedom in SA;
  • Following FOR SA on its Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/FreedomOfReligionSA) for the latest updates on religious freedom and related issues.
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