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Public holidays: positive discrimination?

Rousseau is a voluntary exile from professional philosophy, where having to talk metaphysics eventually became unbearably irritating. He now spends his time trying to arrest the rapid decline in common sense exhibited by his species, both through teaching critical thinking and business ethics at the University of Cape Town, and through activities aimed at eliminating the influence of religious ideology in public policy. When not being absurdly serious, he’s one of those left-wing sorts who enjoys red wine, and he is alleged to be able to cook a mean Bistecca Fiorentine.

The exercise of considering whether South Africa’s public holidays discriminate against non-Christians should also consider that not only is discrimination sometimes justifiable, but if we are going to revise our public holidays, there might well be more important issues to consider in doing so. 

The commission with the improbably long name (more formally known as the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities, or CRL) is currently holding public hearings on South Africa’s calendar. Following the receipt of four complaints from members of the public, the CRL has set out to determine the extent to which religious bias informs the public holidays we get to enjoy, and which we don’t.

On the one hand, the debate seems easy to resolve. We’re not officially a Christian country, so on the face of it, having Good Friday and Christmas Day as two of the 12 public holidays is surely discriminatory in that it privileges one religion over others. If you include Family Day – surely Easter Monday in all but name – a full quarter of the holidays are Christian, and none represent other faiths.

If this discrimination is thought unmerited or wrongful, we’d have two options. We could try to represent all faiths, or we could resolve to represent none. Then again, it is also possible to argue that the discrimination is warranted, seeing as roughly three-quarters of South Africans claim to be Christian.

You might not expect to hear this from an atheist, but I’m rather sympathetic to the claim that it’s not unfairly discriminatory to allocate two of the 12 public holidays to the Christian faith. Religion, per se, does not justify public holidays, even if your religion regards certain days as holy. But sometimes tradition, history or heritage does seem to do so, when it can plausibly be argued to represent a significant majority of a population.

In the case of South Africa, three-quarters of the country appear to self-identify as Christian, and therefore three-quarters of the country happen to regard the same days as holy. Seeing as many of them won’t be showing up for work on those days in any event, it seems to make perfect economic and moral sense to recognise that day as special. For most of the country, in other words, it is indeed special.

Not recognising those days as special could simply mean that additional, non-official public holidays would be the result. If these two (perhaps three) days are indeed the most holy days in the year for Christians, a possible alternative would be to let people choose to take these days as part of the 12 holiday days everyone is entitled to, on days of their choosing. But why create the logistical nightmare of forcing this large community to co-ordinate their holidays in this way?

Second, if all holidays are a matter of choice, it’s not only the co-ordination of them between family, friends and communities that’s an issue – we might also suspect that some people would end up getting no public holidays at all. It’s one thing for an employer to pressure someone to work on an official public holiday – easier still would be for an employer to keep refusing to allow someone to take any self-designated day off. Having 12 pre-identified days makes everyone’s planning easier, and makes it more difficult for employers to exploit their staff.

So, however we resolve the public holiday debate, giving everyone 12 days off on days of their own choosing seems the worst possible choice we could make. Our alternatives, as mentioned above, are to include all religions or to include none. Including all of them is clearly out of the question, unless by “all” we mean some limited set, rather than all. Deciding on who gets to be included in that limited set would require some discrimination, though, and seems to get us back to square one – who gets to decide which religions are privileged, and why?

If, as suggested above, making these decisions is premised on popularity, then we should bear in mind that we might sometimes need to revise which public holidays are celebrated and which not. If South Africa eventually becomes a majority Muslim or Jewish country, for example, the holidays should change accordingly. This is perhaps the main issue: such a revision will be unpopular and divisive, and therefore unlikely to occur.

So we might want to consider the discrimination to be unjustified, and resolve that public holidays need to be entirely detached from religious holy days. Then, the days would never need changing and would be selected on a more principled basis. They could be arranged in such a way that the impact on the work week – and the economy – is minimised. Public holidays in the middle of the week invariably result in absenteeism on adjacent days, and this problem could be resolved by stipulating holidays on “the third Monday of June”, for example, rather than on a fixed date.

As indicated earlier, though, arguments that the current arrangements are discriminatory (coming from both other faiths and non-believers) seem to my mind overstated. Discrimination is not always wrong, though it’s easy to understand a non-Christian religious person feeling more aggrieved in this case, seeing as to all intents and purposes having two Christian days recognised where no other faith has a day does appear to present Christianity as the de facto national religion.

Debating this issue on the grounds of discrimination seems to result in more heat than light. We’re becoming a nation of complainers, always on the lookout for who is abusing our dignity or denying some putative right. If there is a slight to other faiths and no faith here, it’s a minor one. But if we are to consider whether the current public holidays are the right ones, there are serious issues to debate – most importantly how we can derive maximum public benefit at lowest cost to the economy. Let’s hope the commission takes the opportunity to consider those issues, rather than being exclusively concerned with religious (and non-religious) sensitivities. DM


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