Friday, September 22, 2006

Heritage Day is Sunday (Monday)

Heritage Day is Sunday (Monday)

Six years ago today was the first and only time I've ever started "spring break" in September! So I had two spring breaks in 2000: March and September. That's because I was in the southern hemisphere from July to November 2000, as an exchange student from UMSL to the University of the Western Cape.

For spring break, myself and four other exchange student guys -- one from U of Montana but originally from Minneapolis; one from U of Oklahoma but I think from Anchorage, AK; one from Mizzou but from Kansas City; and the fourth from Germany -- went on a 10-day guided tour, a safari of sorts except that we traveled within the mercifully malaria-free zone of western South Africa and southern Namibia. That included hiking down (and then back up!) Fish River Canyon; several days in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park; and whitewater rafting on the Orange River above Augrabies Falls.

Anyway, it was a pretty cool trip, but what I wanted to talk about mainly is the interesting way post-apartheid South Africa deals with public holidays.

The day we left for the trip was Heritage Day (observed). Technically it's September 24th each year, but since the 24th was a Sunday, then Monday the 25th was the legal holiday. I rode Cape Metrorail (3rd class, in fact), a very cheap but rather scary commuter rail service that serves most of the major townships and suburbs of Cape Town.

But what I didn't realize is that on a holiday, the stop adjacent to UWC (called Unibel), is unstaffed. So you can't buy tickets. Nevertheless, I had a full backpack on, and I had to get into the city. And it turned out the train on that leg was a holiday shuttle, so I had to get off at Bonteheuwel (a "coloured" township) to buy a ticket upstairs, then dash downstairs to the platform to catch the next train into Cape Town central station.

That train, of course, was packed with people! It was so crowded, and I had been running with a huge backpack on, so I just about collapsed. Which would have been ok, since people were packed like sardines, I wouldn't even fall over.

It felt like the train creaked under that weight, and as we stopped at the next few townships, even more people got on! Finally, we reached the city, and then I had to walk 8-10 blocks to the travel agency "in Long Street" where we were to meet our tour guide and his kombi (what folks down there call Toyota or VW minibuses). Usually, these vehicles provide cheap public transport and are also packed like sardines; but of course this was an all-white crew heading on a tour, so it was plenty of space for five.

Anyway, Heritage Day is just one of the holidays created in the post-apartheid era. I believe it was created anew, as a celebration of all aspects of SA heritage and history.

But most of the other holidays were either unofficial events of the freedom struggle, or official white Afrikaner observations, or an awkward combination of the two.

They include:

March 21st: Human Rights Day -- originally commemorated the bloody Sharpeville Massacre of March 21, 1960;
April 27th: Freedom Day -- the anniversary of the first democratic elections, well within memory for most of us: April 27, 1994;
May 1st: Workers Day -- like most of the world outside the U.S., South Africa celebrates the contributions of workers and organized labor on May Day;
June 16th: Youth Day -- originally Soweto Day, in memory of the bloody Soweto Uprising of June 16, 1976 -- 30 years ago this year;
August 9th: Women's Day. Honors the women's march on the government buildings in Pretoria against apartheid laws, August 9th, 1956 -- 50 years ago;
September 24th: Heritage Day;
December 16th: Day of Reconciliation -- originally celebrated as the Day of the Vow by Afrikaners, remembering the day in 1838 when a group of Voortrekkers defeated a Zulu army at the Battle of Blood River. Now its goal is promoting national unity and reconciliation.

There are lots and lots of problems with public policy, public health, and economic development in the "new" South Africa, but the way they've dealt with public holidays is admirable and progressive.

1 comment:

Travis Reems said...

A Freedom Day would benefit the US, perhaps on September 11, each year.