Opinionista Styli Charalambous 14 May 2019

Public holidays: Enough already, South Africa

Five out of eight weeks in April and May have harboured a public holiday, wreaking havoc with our ability to do business. Three of them occurred midweek – a phenomenon that incentivises the taking of additional leave days by a large chunk of the diminishing working population that supports our frail economy. We need an intervention.

When tradition and customs for the sake of it start to become a cross too heavy to carry, we owe it to ourselves to assess their suitability in the modern day. Many business owners will attest to the savage impact these holidays have had – an already impotent economy kicked right in the bollocks by the arch-nemesis of the business owner: the public holiday.

That the repair operation on our economy will require a huge effort by many South Africans is a given. But not all the repair work needs to be heavy lifting. With some smart lawmaking, we can stimulate growth and investment (putting aside whether GDP is the best measure of an economy’s health and whether higher GDP growth could even save an economy as structurally rotten as ours). I intend to propose an example of said smart lawmaking.

Back in the day

The adoption of public holidays in South Africa can be traced back to our English overlords who exported the concept to these shores when the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910. Along with the familiar religious holidays, other days off included the King’s Birthday and surprisingly, Dingaan’s Day celebrated on 16 December. But one can imagine how public holidays (or bank holidays as they are known back in the UK) would be welcomed by the majority of workers stuck in sooty, carbon-emitting industrial factories or the multitude of mines, hauling around bags and crates before the advent of machines. Apart from the ever-decreasing number of mineworkers, today’s employee is more likely to suffer death by a thousand doughnuts than physical overexertion at work.

How much does a holiday cost the economy?

In 2011 when Kgalema Motlanthe unexpectedly added another public holiday to the mix, BDO South Africa estimated the cost to the GDP was R7-billion in lost revenue. Seeing as our GDP has barely shifted from those levels, and then making some assumptions around profit margin and effective tax rates, the lost VAT and income tax to the state for a public holiday amounts to almost R500-million. And when one considers South Africa has 12 or 13 of these per year, the cost starts to stack up for an economy and tax base that is being maintained by a small number of workers relative to the adult population.

While the number of holidays per year varies by country, and 12 is by no means the outlier number, we need to factor in the fragile state of our economy, unemployment rates and evolution of the workplace from over a century ago. We simply have to reduce the number of holidays that ground our productivity to a halt and figure out smarter ways of celebrating and remembering important junctures in our road to democratic freedom.

Looking around

Excluding the world’s two most competitive economies, the USA and China, the analysis of some countries’ paid holidays (annual leave and public holidays) points to one possible solution. The UK has only eight Bank Holidays per year but compensates with 28 days paid annual leave. France loads up with 30 annual leave days on top of 11 public holidays. By comparison, South Africa is behind the curve with paid annual leave days.

A decent proposal

By amputating say, five or six, public holidays from our calendar and replacing them with a consummate rise in annual leave days, workers would be, at a minimum, no worse off than they are currently – hopefully placating the unions. Businesses would at least be given the chance to restore some semblance of normal trading, and possibly even score a hat-trick of wins as more trading days = increased business profits = the increased likelihood of sustainability and/or bonuses for workers.

While we’re at it

If we’re going to propose amending the Public Holidays Act of 1994, we might as well do the job properly. I suggest the following rules also be considered to add more pulleys to carrying the deadweight of public holidays:

  1. Mid-week holidays are the Devil’s work! Public holidays must either be taken on a Monday or Friday, as it is in the UK, to avoid serial extended leave-taking.
  2. No more than two public holidays in any single calendar month. That may mean having to choose between God and celebrating Freedom Day, in some years. We have to put food on the table and neither God nor Madiba would want to see us go hungry.
  3. April and December are the most challenging months to our productivity and these need to the most attention:
    1. Given most people do not actually bother attending a church on Good Friday, and Family Day can be embraced by all, let’s scrap Good Friday as a holiday and compensate by adding an extra day’s annual leave for religious purposes for anyone who wishes to take a day off to celebrate. They can still attend church and the rest of us heathens can keep the course.
    2. December 16 is hands down the biggest impediment to getting anything done in December. The psychological start to summer holidays starts gnawing at people’s brains with many checking out mentally from mid-November. Business meetings have the same chance of happening as a Jacob Zuma admission of guilt – maybe less.
  4. In an election year, you simply cannot add another holiday when a holiday already exists to celebrate the holiest of election days. FFS, do we really need to spell that out?! Either that or election days must be moved to Saturdays.
    1. If however, elections do remain a working day holiday, we should definitely make it compulsory for every adult to vote. If you get a day off to vote, you’d better get your backside to the voting station.

Another way to remember

This proposal might anger those who’ll feel that some really important days will be cut from the remembrance calendar. The truth is that with the kind of tormented past South Africa has, we could fill many more days with events that should be honoured, and heroes that fell in the pursuit of freedom. And yet, most of us barely remember what holiday it is when we do get the day off anyway.

Could we look ourselves in the mirror if we cut, say, Youth Day from the list of public holidays? Or could we rather find another way to remember the Soweto uprising of 1976? Perhaps with a youth sports centre and coding academy in Soweto, paid for by the R500m in recouped taxes – every year. Or the new jobs created for the 50% of youth unemployed today, whose lives will be ruined by this anchored economy that might soon run out of reserves to pay for an ever-increasing social grant system. We need to find other, better ways to remember this and other holidays. Documentaries and books could be commissioned that are included as setworks in schools, and we could still partake in an hour shutdown at lunch on those days. The point is that there are better, more effective (and cheaper) ways to remember these moments and people of our history.

Sounds great, so what next?

We’d need a minister, a deputy minister or member of parliament to read this proposal and be moved enough to introduce a bill to Parliament for assessment and feasibility. If all goes well, it gets published in the Government Gazette for public opinion and debated in the National Assembly, before hopefully getting signed by the president.

So, next time you pop over to social media, why not tag your favourite minister or, heck, @PresidencyZa. We might just find ourselves able to make a meaningful contribution to the arduous task that is fixing South Africa’s economy. DM

After having qualified as a Chartered Accountant, Styli Charalambous is now fully reformed and passionate about the media business following a stint in the London banking scene. He is now the publisher and CEO of Daily Maverick.

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