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Guide to public holidays in South Africa for 2024

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Wondering what our South African public holidays are, and what they were created to celebrate? Let’s explore!

Many of our public holidays have deep roots in our country’s social and political struggles. For instance, Freedom Day is about remembering our first democratic elections in 1994, while Youth Day pays tribute to the young adults who fought and died for equal education during the Soweto Uprising. Days that we as a country should remember and celebrate as important moments in a difficult past.

2024 calendar with South African public holidays circled

New Year’s Day (January 1)

New Year’s Day in South Africa is a festive occasion celebrated globally, signifying the start of a new calendar year. Similar to traditions worldwide, South Africans usher in the New Year with parties, family gatherings, and spectacular fireworks displays. The day holds universal significance, allowing people to reflect on the past, set goals for the future, and embrace the promise of a fresh start.

Human Rights Day (March 21)

March 21st, Human Rights Day in South Africa, serves as a solemn remembrance of the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960. This tragic event unfolded when police fired on a peaceful anti-passbook protest in Sharpeville, resulting in 69 deaths and 180 wounded. The brutality of it became an early catalyst for the global anti-apartment movement, which was so influential in finally winning freedom.

Human Rights Day stands as an important reminder of the country’s struggle against apartheid and emphasizes the principles of human rights, equality, and dignity for all. It fosters reflection on the progress made and the ongoing commitment to a just and democratic society.

Children and adults running. A still from video 'Sharpeville: A Model Township

A still from video ‘Sharpeville: A Model Township’, 17 March 1990

Good Friday and Easter Monday

Good Friday, a Christian holiday observed worldwide, commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. In many South African households, it is a day for religious reflection and rituals. 

Easter Monday follows Easter Sunday, extending the holiday period for reflection, family gatherings, and outdoor activities. While not tied to specific historical events in South Africa, these days are marked by a blend of Christian traditions and leisure. You’ll find people in many parts of the country celebrating outdoors with friends and family, at beaches, parks, and other public spaces.

Freedom Day (April 27)

April 27th, Freedom Day, holds immense significance in South Africa, marking the transition from apartheid to democracy. It commemorates the first non-racial, democratic elections in 1994, symbolising the end of apartheid and the dawn of a new era of freedom, equality, and unity. 

Freedom Day is a time for reflection on the sacrifices made during the struggle for democracy and a celebration of the principles that underpin the country’s foundation.

South Africans celebrating Freedom Day

Workers’ Day (May 1)

May 1st, Workers’ Day, globally celebrates the labour movement, and in South Africa, it honours the 1973 labour strike in Durban. This strike, fueled by protests against poor working conditions and apartheid restrictions on labour unions, marked a pivotal moment in the labour movement’s history. Workers’ Day underscores the contributions of labourers, advocating for fair practices and improved conditions while commemorating the historical struggles for workers’ rights. There’s still more to be fought for, in our unequal and 

Men marching in the  1973 labour strike in Durban
Coronation Brick workers on North Coast Road, Durban labour strike; image courtesy of David Hemson

Youth Day (June 17)

Youth Day on June 16th pays tribute to the pivotal role played by young people in the struggle against apartheid, particularly during the Soweto Uprising in 1976. The day emphasizes the importance of education, unity, and the rights of young South Africans. 

The Soweto Uprising, sparked by protests against mandatory Afrikaans instruction, resulted in tragic confrontations with the police. Youth Day commemorates the bravery and sacrifice of the youth, serving as a reminder of the ongoing commitment to education and social justice.

Youth protesting during the 1976 Soweto Uprising

Creator: City Press | Credit: Getty Images; Copyright: 2013 Gallo Images (PTY) LTD

National Women’s Day (August 9)

National Women’s Day, observed on August 9th, commemorates the 1956 women’s march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria. The march protested against apartheid’s pass laws, part of the significant contributions of women to the struggle for freedom and equality in South Africa. 

This day celebrates the strength and resilience of South African women, emphasizing gender equality and acknowledging the pivotal role they played in shaping the nation’s history.

Protesters at the 1956 Women's March

Protesters at the 1956 Women’s March; image sourced from The Civil Rights Movement of South Africa

Heritage Day (September 24)

Heritage Day, officially recognized as a public holiday in 1996, encourages South Africans to celebrate their diverse cultural heritage. Initially rooted in Shaka Day, which commemorated the Zulu king Shaka Zulu, Heritage Day expanded to include all cultural traditions in the post-apartheid era. On this day, people embrace and share their cultural practices, fostering understanding and unity among different cultural groups.

Day of Reconciliation (December 16)

The Day of Reconciliation, observed on December 16th, calls for reflection on South Africa’s history of division and conflict. Initially known as the Day of the Vow, commemorating the Battle of Blood River, it was transformed post-apartheid to promote national unity and reconciliation. 

The day symbolizes the country’s commitment to overcoming historical divisions, fostering forgiveness, and building a more inclusive and harmonious society.

Christmas Day (December 25)

Christmas Day in South Africa blends Christian traditions with cultural celebrations. Commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, it holds deep spiritual significance for many. In this multicultural and multi-religious society, Christmas involves festive decorations, family gatherings, and the exchange of gifts. We also have Christmas markets dotted around the city (although they’re not as impressive as the European markets, a lot smaller scale), and a switching on of the lights.

Christmas lights in Cape Town

Day of Goodwill (Boxing Day) (December 26)

The Day of Goodwill, observed on December 26th, aligns with the global tradition of Boxing Day. Rooted in acts of charity and kindness, South Africans use this day to give back to their communities. While the historical origins of the term “Boxing Day” are debated, its emphasis on charitable actions resonates with the broader values of social responsibility and community involvement. It serves as a meaningful addition to the holiday season, reinforcing the spirit of generosity and goodwill.

If you want to give back on Boxing Day, your community will likely have an initiative to join — or you can check out our guide on where to volunteer in Cape Town.

Celebrate our public holidays

While there aren’t public events to join for every public holiday in South Africa — particularly not outside of the cities — every workplace should provide leave on these days.

Celebrate with your friends and families, look into the history of these days and why they’re so important to us, and consider doing some good for your fellow South Africans.

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