Public Holidays in South Africa

DateWeekdayHoliday nameHoliday type
Jan 1FridayNew Year's DayPublic Holiday
Mar 20SundayMarch equinoxSeason
Mar 21MondayHuman Rights DayPublic Holiday
Mar 25FridayGood FridayPublic Holiday
Mar 26SaturdayHoly SaturdayObservance
Mar 27SundayEaster SundayObservance
Mar 28MondayFamily DayPublic Holiday
Apr 27WednesdayFreedom DayPublic Holiday
May 1SundayWorkers' DayPublic Holiday
May 2MondayWorkers' Day observedPublic Holiday
May 8SundayMother's DayObservance
Jun 16ThursdayYouth DayPublic Holiday
Jun 19SundayFather's DayObservance
Jun 20MondayJune SolsticeSeason
Jul 18MondayNelson Mandela DayObservance
Aug 3WednesdayElection DayPublic Holiday
Aug 3WednesdayMunicipal ElectionsPublic Holiday
Aug 9TuesdayNational Women's DayPublic Holiday
Sep 22ThursdaySeptember equinoxSeason
Sep 24SaturdayHeritage DayPublic Holiday
Dec 16FridayDay of ReconciliationPublic Holiday
Dec 21WednesdayDecember SolsticeSeason
Dec 24SaturdayChristmas EveObservance
Dec 25SundayChristmas DayPublic Holiday
Dec 26MondayChristmas Day observedPublic Holiday
Dec 27TuesdayDay of GoodwillPublic Holiday
Dec 31SaturdayNew Year's EveObservance

The Origins of Public Holidays

Prior to 1910 when the Union of South Africa was officially established, each one of our four Colonies legislated which holidays would be designated public holidays. Cape Colony announced its public holidays, first in 1856 but amended them on occasion. The public holiday calendar was finally established in 1902 accordingly: New Year’s Day, the King’s Birthday, Good Friday and Easter Monday, Whit Monday, Queen Victoria Day on 24 May, Day of Ascension, Wiener’s Day the 1st Monday in October (after Ludwig Wiener who sponsored this in parliament) and Christmas Day. A “Second New Year” was celebrated on 2 January, mostly by the Coloured people, but this was never officially a holiday.

The other British colony, Natal established their public holidays in 1901 as follows: New Year’s Day, Good Friday and Easter Monday, Whit Monday, Queen Victoria Day on 24 May, Machaelmas on 29 September, King Edward VII’s Birthday on 9 November, and Christmas Day. All Saints’ Day on 1 November had previously been a public holiday in Natal.

Prior to the Second Anglo-Boer War, the Orange Free State had established the following public holidays: New Year’s Day, date the state signed the Bloemfontein Convention on 23 February, Good Friday and Easter Monday, Day of Ascension, Whit Monday, the State President’s Birthday, 16 December for Dingaan’s Day and Christmas Day.

During the years from 1903 – 1910 in the Orange River Colony, the Bloemfontein Convention holiday of 23 February was cancelled and 9 November, the King’s Birthday replaced the President’s Birthday. Three new holidays were also added: 24 May for Victoria Day, 1st Monday in August for Arbor Day and 26 December for Boxing Day.

During the period when the Second Anglo-Boer War broke out, the following public holidays were observed in the Transvaal Republic: New Year’s Day, 27 February Majuba Day, Good Friday and Easter Monday, Day of Ascention, Whit Monday, 10 October for State President’s Birthday, 16 December for Dingaan’s Day plus Christmas Day.  

During the years of 1903 – 1910 in the Transvaal Colony, Majuba Day was cancelled to be replaced by 24 May for Victoria Day, plus the President’s Birthday was cancelled and replaced by 9 November for the King’s Birthday. Dingaan’s Day on 16 December was kept, but Day of Ascension and 1st Monday in August for Arbor Day were both cancelled while they added Boxing Day.

Following Europe’s example, 1 May for Labour Day was treated for quite some time as a holiday off work in certain trades. Even though the trade unions tried their best to get Labour Day officially recognized as a holiday, it was never legally implemented. In the Cape, “Second New Year on 2 January was often celebrated as a holiday, especially in the Coloured community, with private businesses and shops being closed, but Government offices remained open, because it wasn’t officially a Union holiday. The Shop Ordinance of 1930 did recognize 2 January as a provincial holiday, allowing shops and other private businesses to be closed, and when Second New Year fell on a Sunday, the holiday was celebrated on 3 January.

It became necessary to create a uniform calendar for holidays upon unification. On 1 January 1911, No. 3 of the 1910 Public Holidays Act was implemented and the following public holidays were established:

  • New Year’s Day,
  • Good Friday and Easter Monday,
  • Day of Ascension,
  • 24 May for Victoria Day,
  • 31 May for Union Day,
  • 1st Monday in August for the King’s Birthday,
  • 1st Monday in October,
  • 16 December for Dingaan’s Day,
  • Christmas Day
  • and the day after for Boxing day.

The House of Assembly appointed a committee on 7 April 1925 to establish a more appropriate calendar for public holidays. The committee came up with a bill that proposed the following changes:

  • 1st Monday in March for Van Riebeeck Day,
  • 1st Monday in May for May Day,
  • 1st Monday in June for Union Day,
  • 1st Monday in August for Empire Day,
  • 1st Monday in October for Spring Day,
  • 16 December for Voortrekker Day.

Boxing Day was not in the proposal. However, the bill was not passed.

The House of Assembly set up another Select Committee on 28 April 1936 to recommend revisions to the public holidays.

After convening, the committee proposed that the following changes be made:

  • 1st Monday in March for Van Riebeeck Day,
  • 2nd Monday in April for Easter Monday,
  • 1st Monday in June for Union Day,
  • 1st Monday in Aubust for King’s Birthday (Empire Day),
  • 1st Monday in October for Commemoration Day, 16 December for Voortrekker Day,
  • 26 December for Labour Day.

In looking at the recommendations of both House Assembly Committees you can see that the only holidays they agreed on were New Year’s Day, Good Friday and Easter Monday (in the 1936 proposal it was to be celebrated the 2nd Monday of April), Day of Ascension, Union Day (proposed as the 1st Monday in June in both 1925 and 1936), and Christmas Day. 

No. 3 of the Public Holidays Act of 1910 stayed in place until a 3rd Commission of Inquiry was gathered in 1949. This time it was different because it wasn’t an official parliamentary committee. The commission was made up of Dr. S.H. Pellissier, who was chairman, W.A. Campbell, C.L. Henderson, Dr. E Greyling, Prof. H.B. Thom, Col. A.Y. St. Leger, and Prof. J.C. van Rooy. They collected a huge volume of written and oral evidence on the subject of public holidays and divided them into three different classifications: days of cultural or historical significance, religious days, and days of relaxation. They wanted to mainly consider days that meant something of significance to the nation and carried an powerful message; holidays that were characterized as historic, cultural, or religious should fall if all possible on the exact dates of the commemorated events. To cause as little disruption as possible, days not associated with specific dates should be on Mondays and the holidays should as much as possible be evenly distributed throughout the year.

Certain holidays were accepted as fairly obvious: New Year’s Day, Good Friday and Easter Monday, Day of Ascension, Union Day, 16 December and Christmas Day. Other days prompted much discussion with a lot of evidence being gone over. There was overwhelming evidence favouring 6 April for Van Riebeeck Day; English- and Afrikaans speaking people were mostly in agreement on this day. Other names being suggested were Settlers’ Day and Founders’ Day, but “Van Riebeeck Day” won out. The Commission suggested having King’s Birthday moved from the 1st Monday in August to the 2nd Monday in July, since no particular date is associated with this holiday and the move would facilitate a more even distribution. Regarding Settlers’ Day, they couldn’t find an appropriate historical date to accommodate both the British settlers that arrived in 1820 and the 1849-51 settlers in Natal. With the need for even distribution, it was decided to recommend the 1st Monday in September.

Requests to recognize Kruger Day on 10 October had often been made to the Government. Other names like Kruger-Steyn Day, Heroes’ Day (already being used) and Commemoration Day were on the recommended list. There was a preponderance of evidence favouring “Kruger Day” yet the Commission made it clear that there was no intent to only pay homage to President Kruger, but that since this day is his birthday, Kruger would be regarded as “generally symbolizing Afrikaner heroes, and his birthday would become the day on which other heroes would be remembered as well, those who held the same principles in life as Paul Kruger.”

Although 16 December was obviously accepted, there were discussions about what the name of the day should be. Many on the committee felt that Dingaan’s Day, which it had always been called, might give the impression that it conveyed esteem for Dingaan, or it might cause antipathy against the Whites among the Bantu. “Voortrekker Day” was thought to be too vague, or would communicate a feeling of hero-worship for the Voortrekkers. Therefore, “Day of the Covenant” was recommended, which was approved and introduced.

Two days were omitted, 24 May for Empire day and 1st Monday in October for Wiener’s Day.

The latter was deemed as of no importance. Empire Day occurred in May, which was already full of holidays; moreover, the Empire was nearly a relic of the past, from a South African’s point of view. Many people, when asked about this, said that Empire Day was an anachronism now in South Africa and should be omitted, as long as another day was chosen to symbolise the ties the country has with other Commonwealth countries.                                                                                                                                               

The Commission felt that retaining King’s Birthday would work. Parliament accepted all these recommendations and the 1952 Public Holidays Act No. 5 came into effect on 1 April 1952, with these public holidays now offical:

  • 1 January for New Year’s Day,
  • 6 April for Van Riebeeck Day,
  • Good Friday and Easter Monday,
  • Day of Ascension, 31 May for Union Day,
  • 2nd Monday in July for King’s Birthday,
  • 1st Monday in September for Settlers’ Day
  • , 10 October for Kruger Day,
  • 16 December for Day of the Covenant,
  • 25 December for Christmas Day and
  • 26 December for Boxing Day.

The Commission also recommend that effect be given to certain aspects of the Sunday observance acts, which should apply to Good Friday, Day of Ascension, the Day of the Covenant and on Christmas Day, to prevent undesirable things from happening on those days.