South Africa


Traditional leaders campaign for another South African public holiday – to honour ancestors

Traditional leaders campaign for another South African public holiday – to honour ancestors
Contralesa’s Zolani Mkiva said Ancestors' Day would be a day of 'reflection, prayer, appeasement of our ancestors', and a day to 'honour our forefathers and foremothers'. (Photo: Gallo Images / Netwerk24 / Felix Dlangamandla)

If Contralesa has its way, South Africa will have another public holiday added to the 12 on the calendar. It would be Ancestors’ Day on 8 May, dedicated to ‘reflection, prayer and appeasement of our ancestors’.

The Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa) is calling on the government to declare Ancestors’ Day, on 8 May, a national public holiday, to honour and observe African spirituality.  

In May 2021, Contralesa, with the support of the National House of Traditional Leaders and the National Khoisan Council, took the decision to officially inscribe 8 May as Ancestors’ Day, according to Contralesa secretary-general Zolani Mkiva. The official inauguration of Ancestors’ Day was held at the Mathibela Royal Palace in Mpumalanga on 8 May 2021, by Contralesa in partnership with Castle Milk Stout. 

“We believed it should not only end there, where [8 May] is merely recognised as Ancestors’ Day. We think it needs to be taken further, and be made a public holiday,” Mkiva told Daily Maverick on Friday.

Contralesa is calling for Ancestors’ Day to be declared a national public holiday, which acknowledges and celebrates African spirituality and its role through ceremonies and rituals that honour one’s ancestors, he said. 

Mkiva described it as a day of “reflection, prayer, appeasement of our ancestors”, and a day to “honour our forefathers and foremothers”. 

He added that while Ancestors’ Day involves some ritual performances, people are expected to select the ways in which they want to remember and reflect on their own ancestors. 

“We will not prescribe to people [what must be done on Ancestors’ Day], because it goes in accordance with the rituals and customs of each and every family.” 

South Africa has 12 public holidays in 2022, including an additional day off on Monday, 2 May in observance of Workers’ Day on1 May. This is in line with the Public Holidays Act 36 of 1994 which determines that whenever any public holiday falls on a Sunday, the following Monday is deemed a public holiday.  

A quick search shows that compared with other countries, 12 public holidays per year is by no means an outlier number. Countries including Kenya, Finland, Italy and Angola enjoy 12 public holidays, too. The UK has eight bank holidays per year, while the US has 11 federal holidays. Egypt has the most public holidays in Africa – 21. 

There are longstanding debates over the number of South Africa’s public holidays, with Christian holidays a contentious issue over the years.

Read a Daily Maverick column. here: “From our archives: Public holidays – Enough already, South Africa

Speaking to Daily Maverick, Mkiva said Ancestors’ Day must “not be singled out because of issues over adding another public holiday” to South Africa’s calendar. 

“It must not just be looked at in isolation, it plays a bigger role – we must now begin to liberate the mind and interact with the indigenous knowledge systems, as well as the African wisdom,” he said. 

Mkiva said it was “fundamental” that South Africa has one day out of 365 that is dedicated to showing respect to and acknowledgement of African spirituality and heritage.  

“It’s important that we have a transformed calendar for South Africa that finds an expression to the African majority.”

Mkiva added that the misconceptions about African traditional beliefs are a “result of miseducation and what [was] done by colonialism to terrorise and brutalise [the African] belief system and culture”.

“With establishing Ancestors’ Day, we are beginning a process of the liberation of the mind, so that we can be able to re-educate society,” explained Mkiva, who said he hoped it would be a catalyst for broader social acceptance of people who practise African spirituality. DM


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  • Johan Buys says:

    Why not? We already have about 11 working days worth of loadshedding so far this year lost, what is another day? Let’s just make every Friday a public holiday – that will appease the ancestors and give Eskom a break. Business will retrench 20% of the workforce so those people can celebrate their ancestors with the other 40% unemployed. Do it properly man, no half measures….

  • Joseph Gaylard says:

    Would make a lot of sense for Ancestors day to replace Christmas Day.

  • Geoff Krige says:

    With the wide diversity of people in South Africa perhaps it is time to completely restructure public holidays. It has previously been suggested that South Africa should scrap public holidays completely, and replace them by requiring employers to add 5 days, or 7 days to annual leave. It should not be possible to accumulate these days, but they should be taken at any time during the year when the employee is required by tradition or by faith to celebrate some important aspect or event relating to their culture or religion or lifestyle. This would help the economy by allowing continuous operation. This would help road traffic congestion by spreading the times when non-religious sun-seekers head for the coast. This would help workers by allowing them to select their own important days. This should be a win-win all around.

  • Rory Macnamara says:

    Sure give it to them once they tell us which other holiday they want to forfeit! we have far too many public holidays in SA and another one would add to reduced productivity and the economy declines, again!

  • Stephen Kettlety says:

    We neither need or can afford another public holiday, we already have 9 to many. Especially one to appease a bunch of dead people. This countys economy is already in the toilet, the last thing any bussiness needs is another day of no turnover and / or extra costs.

  • Pet Bug says:

    Call Heritage Day: Contralesa Day (we all forget what that public holiday is about anyway) but on a Monday in … ummm September?
    Meanwhile scarp Human Rights Day, Youth Day and Women’s Day – and if Unions scream blue murder, replace with one Monday holiday for all three. Call it Monday Rights Day.

  • Christopher Bedford says:

    So apparently SA is a non-discriminating democracy when it suits us. When we want cushy paid ‘traditional’ positions such as tribal chieftainships, it suits us better to be a traditional feudal autocracy. I get it.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    Going for the easy ways to gain support again …yawn.

    It’s mind boggling how many innovative ways can our people come up with for destroying the future for everyone in this country.

    I’m all for worshipping ancestors. Here’s an idea – do it on a weekend, or take a day’s leave.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    “Mkiva said it was “fundamental” that South Africa has one day out of 365”

    As there is no particular day and the practice clearly has no belief overlap, why not take advantage of an existing Christian holiday? There is no rule I’m aware of that forces one to practice a particular belief system on any given holiday.

  • Rob Wilson says:

    We have too many public holidays already. They should all be on a Friday or Monday and this mid week nonsense should stop.

  • Graeme J says:

    We need to take a page out of the book of the Brits and have all our public holidays on a Monday (max one a month and call it a “bank holiday”). Spread them evenly out across the year. It really doesn’t matter the actual day we celebrate Sharpville, Soweto, Bloedrivier, etc.. It’s the principle involved.

    And as for the religious holidays, drop the lot of them. The religious texts themselves don’t call for a public holiday to celebrate their various issues, it’s just the religious leaders that think it is a wonderful opportunity to promote their specific beliefs.

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