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For the sake of our multicultural heritage, minority faiths should be given their own public holidays


Brij Maharaj is a geography professor at University of KwaZulu-Natal and an executive member of the South African Hindu Maha Sabha. He writes in his personal capacity.

The reality is that, except for rhetorical homage on Heritage Day, minority cultures and faiths are largely invisible in South Africa.

Twenty-six years into democracy and South Africans of different colours, languages, religions, cultural roots and geographical origins are still trying to find each other, seeking common ground, while sometimes appearing to be residing on different planets. (There are rumours that racists, hankering for a return to the old South Africa, plan to colonise Venus, our “sister planet”, and are “likely to live high above the ground”.)

The ultimate quest is that from this melting pot, a common cultural heritage will emerge. Invariably, there have been robust public debates about what form this should take. Columnist Pearl Boshomane Tsotetsi has argued that “we have turned our own cultures into costumes, and on that day, those beautiful, bright colours and intricate patterns feel about as meaningful as Halloween or fancy-dress outfits”.  

There are also some justifiable concerns about how Heritage Day has been reduced to Braai Day – the insult to vegetarians must be noted, and there is no intention here to curry favour. The president is promoting Jerusalema, but this columnist has two left feet.

The importance of heritage is emphasised in the preamble to the National Heritage Resources Act (1999), and its purpose was to “encourage communities to nurture and conserve their legacy so that it may be bequeathed to future generations. Our heritage… helps us to define our cultural identity and therefore lies at the heart of our spiritual wellbeing and has the power to build our nation. It has the potential to affirm our diverse cultures, and in so doing shape our national character. Our heritage celebrates our achievements and contributes to redressing past inequities. It educates, it deepens our understanding of society and encourages us to empathise with the experience of others.”

The escalating levels of anarchy, corruption, crime, violence, wanton vandalism and hooliganism eroding the social fabric of our country reinforce the urgent need for moral, religious and cultural rejuvenation in South Africa. 

Their religious and cultural heritage (in all facets) was the bedrock for South African Indians since 1860, which enabled them to survive colonial and apartheid atrocities. Transcending linguistic, religious and class differences, this resilient community participated actively in the freedom struggle for democracy, and their rich cultural and religious heritage contributes to the multicultural diversity of the rainbow nation.

This was acknowledged by Nelson Mandela: “Our lands are graced by temples, altars and shrines built by the indentured labourers who first brought Hinduism to these shores and those who followed them. They testify to the indomitable spirit with which they sustained community and religion under adverse circumstances.”

Notwithstanding those implicated in corruption (and who will hopefully soon be wearing orange overalls), philanthropy, welfare, charity and voluntarism are important facets of the heritage of South African Indians of all faiths, which rekindles a sense of civic responsibility and enhances social cohesion.

(Against this background and history, it is an indictment that a community that produced leaders in the mould of Yusuf Dadoo, Monty Naicker and the Reverend Bernard Sigamoney is unable to resolve reports of conflicts between elements in the Hindu, Muslim and Christian groups, which is often linked to ignorance and intolerance. As Judge Chiman Patel reminded us: “Bigotry and hatred are a travesty of religion as anyone who is truly religious can never hurt anyone else, as all people are part of the one Divine, and all are bound together by their own divinity.” Swami Vivekananda asked: “What good is it if we acknowledge in our prayers that God is the father of us all and in our daily lives do not treat every man as our brother?”)

The apartheid government did its utmost to destroy the cultural and religious artefacts of the Indian community by not only suppressing political freedom, but also stifling religious choices in favour of a narrow Calvinist agenda, which was implicitly anti-Hindu and anti-Islam. Under apartheid, the Indian community suffered as forced removals were instigated through the Group Areas Act of 1950. Temples, mosques, halls and other cultural institutions were destroyed in areas such as Cato Manor, Riverside and Clairwood.

In 2012 the ANC government acknowledged there was a need to reconsider SA’s national holidays. The South African calendar follows a Western Christian ethos, which is also reflected in the determination of public holidays. However, Boxing Day and Easter Monday have little or no spiritual or scriptural significance.

In a noble gesture, the ANC government provided constitutional recognition for the Indian languages (Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Guajarati, Urdu and Sanskrit). Furthermore, according to the South African Constitution, freedom of religion and worship is guaranteed, and all faiths are equal, regardless of their following. However, such constitutional recognition is meaningless unless the state actively supports the teaching of these languages and religion at school and university level.

Indian languages were eliminated from the university curriculum at the former University of Durban-Westville about 20 years ago. Also, the teaching of Indian languages has been derogatively downgraded to an after-school, extramural activity – an insult to a community whose strong historical heritage has contributed significantly to South Africa’s multicultural diversity.

While South Africa is a secular state, Mandela had emphasised that in South Africa, “there shall also be a social order which respects completely the culture, language and religious rights of all sections of our society and the fundamental rights of the individual”. A key issue is, in what ways have minority groups and their faiths/cultures in South Africa been portrayed in the national psyche?

The reality is that except for rhetorical homage on Heritage Day, minority cultures and faiths are largely invisible in South Africa. This can be exemplified by the unceremonious closure of the Indian Cultural and Documentation Centre in Derby Street, Durban (since reopened, but relegated without any government support) and the undermining of Indian languages in the school curriculum.

This can be further illustrated by the failure to recognise important festivals in the Muslim and Hindu faiths, compared with successful multicultural societies such as Singapore, Malaysia and Mauritius. Given that it is the dominant faith in South Africa, recognition of Christian holidays is important. However, there was failure to declare even one holiday for the minority faiths, which would be Diwali and Eid.

In 2012 the ANC government acknowledged there was a need to reconsider SA’s national holidays. The South African calendar follows a Western Christian ethos, which is also reflected in the determination of public holidays. However, Boxing Day and Easter Monday have little or no spiritual or scriptural significance.

The South African Hindu Maha Sabha made a submission to the government that these two holidays should be reallocated for Diwali and Eid, respectively. Such a declaration would be reasonable, logical and pragmatic, and would address the bias and discrimination against minority faiths in terms of the Public Holidays Act 36 of 1994.

Diwali is known as the Festival of Lights and is universally regarded as the most important religious celebration in the Hindu almanac. Tamaso ma jyotir gamaya – lead us from darkness to light –  is an important concept in Hinduism and is the essence of Diwali, a celebration of the triumph of righteousness over evil. Eid marks the end of the Ramadan fast for spiritual purification as well as expressing gratitude to “Allah for the Qur’an, which was first revealed towards the end of Ramadan”.

Declaring a national holiday for Diwali and Eid would increase recognition, respect, reconciliation and understanding of SA’s religious and multicultural heritage; help to realise the mission of the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities to “promote and protect the rights of cultural, religious and linguistic communities”; translate the noble intentions of the Bill of Rights and Constitution pertaining to minorities into reality; go a long way towards reducing racism, prejudice and xenophobia; and promote reconciliation, tolerance, harmony and social cohesion. DM


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  • Well, I would ask for a holiday recognising the Pagan religion’s beliefs too – but since Christianity appropriated most of them anyway, we get most of them anyway 9we just don’t call them Xmas or Easter)……..As for the idea that SA ultimately becomes a melting pot of common cultural heritage, I think it’s a wonderful thought, but will be no more than that until people can stop screaming ‘Cultural Appropriation!’ at anyone who dares to try it…

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