Youth Day – South Africa

June 16

With the coming of summer, many students are struck with a debilitating illness known as cantgotoschoolitis. Symptoms may include inability to pay attention in class, wandering eyes, and an overactive imagination.

With students yearning so badly to get out of class, it’s hard to believe that on this day in 1976, many young students gave their lives fighting just to receive a fair and equal education.

In 1953, the white Apartheid government of South Africa passed the Bantu Education Act, which created a curriculum intended to reduce the aspirations and self-worth of the country’s black students.

As the Minister of Native Affairs and future Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd explained,

“When I have control of native education I will reform it so that Natives will be taught from childhood to realise that equality with Europeans is not for them…” (Apartheid South Africa, John Allen)

The supposed benefit of the Act was that it increased the number of black students able to attend school; the reality was that it provided no additional resources for the expansion. As a result, by 1975 the government was spending R644 per white student and R42 per black student.

The final straw came in the 1970s when the Apartheid government announced instruction would no longer take place in South Africa’s many native languages, but only in English and Afrikaans.

As one student editorial proclaimed:

“Our parents are prepared to suffer under the white man’s rule. They have been living for years under these laws and they have become immune to them. But we strongly refuse to swallow an education that is designed to make us slaves in the country of our birth.” (South Africa in Contemporary Times)

The conflict came to a head on June 16, 1976 when a group of students held a protest against the educational system in Soweto. When students refused to disperse, police unleashed tear gas. Students responded by throwing rocks; police, by firing bullets. At least 27 students were killed in the massacre, including a 12 year-old boy named Hector Pieterson.

A string of protests and riots engulfed the region. June 1976 is considered one of the most divisive and tragic months in South African history.

After the fall of the Apartheid government in the 1990s, South Africa chose to dedicate June 16 as Youth Day, in memory of those who died in the Soweto Riots, and those who devoted their lives to the long struggle for equal education and the abolition of apartheid.

Tweeda Newa Jaar – South Africa

January 2


In Cape Town one day isn’t enough time to celebrate the New Year. So residents celebrate Tweede Nuwa Jaar, “Second New Year.”

On this day thousands line up along the streets to watch, or participate in, one of the most fascinating New Year’s celebrations in the world. The world-famous Coon Carnival.

Regarding the name, says one participant:

“The Americans come and they don’t want us to use the word Coon because it’s derogatory for the people. Here Coon is not derogatory in our sense. For us the minute you talk Coon, he sees New Year day, he sees satin and the eyes and mouth with circles in white, the rest of the face in black, like the American minstrels.”

Yes, on this day Cape Town musical groups called troupes or kaapse klopse don colorful uniforms inspired by American minstrels of the previous century. They paint their faces bright white and march down the Bo-Kaap part of the city. It has been called “a riot of color and sound” and, though it has no equal, might be compared in feel to the Mardi Gras celebrations in Brazil.

The celebration has been shunned by some members of the upper echelon, who prefer the more refined Malay Choirs and Christmas Bands. But in 1996 when Nelson Mandela put on the outfit of a minstrel troupe to open the Carnival, the traditional march outgrew its working class roots and gained a little more acceptance among the intellectual elite.

Denis-Constant Martin writes in Coon Carnival: New Year in Cape Town

“To the sounds of wind instruments, ghoemas, and tambourines, they march, dance and sing along Darling Street, past the Grand Parade, into Adderley Street, up Wale Street, into Chiappini Street, then Somerset Road and to Green Point where they go into the stadium for the second round of competitions.”

These troupes are from different parts of the city, and can number over a thousand members. To become part of a troupe all you need’s a uniform. You can beg or buy them from the group captain or bargain with him for a price. Indeed that’s how the groups make their money, from the sale of uniforms. Without a uniform, you’re not in the band, period.

The colorful outfits change each year and were inspired by the American minstrels who visited Cape Town in the mid to late 1800’s. They would smear burnt cork on their face to simulate “black face.” Locals imitated the outlandish dress, hat, and umbrella, but reversed the make-up to wear “white face” and the carnival was born.

The significance of January 2nd is that it was the one day of the year slaves were given holiday. Today the parade is an expression of the joy of life, of victory over the struggle of slavery and then apartheid, and a symbol of freedom and independence.

With the popularization of the carnival though, residents are concerned about the ideals the parade represents. Writes Joel Pollak

There is a widespread fear that organizing the Coon Carnival to appeal to foreign tourists and commercial sponsors would mean taking it away from the local communities that have kept it alive for over a hundred years, in effect reserving the best seats for tourists just as they were once reserved for whites at the segregated stadiums.

Time will see what’s in store next for the Minstrel Carnival, as city officials call it now.

Heritage/Braai Day – South Africa

September 24

We have 11 different official languages but only one word for the wonderful institution of braai. It’s braai in Xhosa, it’s braai in English, it’s braai Afrikaans…All it calls for is come with your friends and family, have a little fire, and braai…That should make you proudly South African.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu

The 24th of September was once known as Shaka Day, in honor of the Zulu king, but these days it’s celebrated throughout South Africa on as Heritage Day, or Braai Day. Today the “Rainbow Nation’s” near 50 million people come together to partake in the country’s national past time.

According to

“Cooking food on an open fire is an international phenomenon, but to braai is a truly unique South African past time that penetrates racial, cultural, religious and social boundaries.”

Heritage Day–or Braai Day as it’s been called the last few years–is one of several holidays that came into being with the fall of the Apartheid government in the 1990s. These new holidays sought to remember dates that resonate with all South Africans.

Braai Day Video – 2009

Other national holidays include:

March 21: Human Rights Day

In memory of the sacrifice of 69 protesters killed by police on this day in 1960. The demonstrators were protesting the infamous pass laws. In the wake of the Sharpeville Massacre, the government outlawed black political organizations.

April 27: Freedom Day

The anniversary of the first truly free election in South Africa in 1994.

June 16: Youth Day

Dedicated to those his lost their lives in the protests and riots of 1976, fighting for equal education.

August 9: National Women’s Day

When 20,000 women marched to Pretoria’s government buildings in 1956 to protest the pass laws.

Women’s ‘Repeal the Pass Laws’ flyer

December 16: Day of Reconciliation

Both the anniversary of the beginning of the armed anti-Apartheid movement in 1961 and of the defeat of the Zulu army at Battle of Blood River in 1838. That South Africans have their different reasons for remembering the date underscores its true purpose: to come to terms with the country’s often brutal past of racism, violence, and injustice.

Women’s Day – South Africa

August 9

South Africa’s Women’s Day recalls the 20,000 woman-strong march in Pretoria on this day in 1956.

The marchers protested amendments to the Urban Areas Act, which, among other things, reserved urban living spaces for white South Africans, and required black men in cities and towns to carry special passes with them at all times or be subject to arrest. Originally enacted in 1923, the Pass Laws were expanded in the 1950s to require all black South Africans over 16 to carry the pass. Bearers had to have their passes approved each month by their employer–employers who, by South African law, could only be white.

As a gesture of unity against apartheid, tens of thousands of black South African women converged on the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the seat of the South African government, and delivered a petition with 100,000 signatures to the Prime Minister’s door.

The Pass Laws were not repealed until 30 more years of struggle, protest, and bloodshed.

Years later, the song chanted by the women that day, Wathint’ abafazi, wathint imbokodo” (“When you touch a woman, you strike a rock”), has become the motto of the women’s movement in South Africa and continues to be a symbol of women’s strength against racism and sexism.

Women’s anti-Pass Law Campaigns in South Africa

Nelson Mandela’s Birthday

July 18 (not an official holiday in South Africa)

“We must accept the fact that in our country we cannot win one single victory of political freedom without overcoming a desperate resistance on the part of the Government, and that victory will not come of itself but only as a result of a bitter struggle by the oppressed people for the overthrow of racial discrimination…

The theory that we can sit with folded arms and wait for a future parliament to legislate for the ‘essential dignity of every human being irrespective of race, colour, or creed’ is crass perversion of elementary principles of political struggle.”

The Shifting Sands of Illusion, Nelson Mandela, June 1953

Mandela’s story is legendary, not only for the 27 years he spent in prison, but for the reasons he arrived there and for his singular journey since.

Mandela was arrested on Sunday, August 5, 1962 for speaking against the government in public and leaving the country illegally, for which he was sentenced for five years.

“While serving this sentence, he was tried again for more serious charged connected with his leadership of the armed resistance group, Umkhonto we Sizwe. He and his colleagues were convicted of terrorism, narrowly escaping execution, receiving life sentences instead.”

Nelson Mandela: the Early Life of Rolihlahla Madiba, by Jean Guiloineau and Joseph Rowe

Terrorism? Yes, in a post-9-11 world, heads of state downplay that for nearly three decades Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Nelson Mandela had been deemed a terrorist by the apartheid “justice” system.

Nelson Mandela stamp, Soviet Union, 1988

During his imprisonment the island on which Mandela was held—Robben Island—became known as “Mandela University.” The political prisoner educated other inmates who then continued the struggle against racism outside the prison walls.

“Did they imagine we might forget him and his companions if they banished him to this island? And did they imagine we could forget the misery of our lives?”

A Pilgrimage to the Isle of Makana, from Call Me Not a Man, by Mtutuzeli Matshoba

The famous cry “Free Nelson Mandela” really meant “Free South Africa”. On February 11, 1990, the first half of that long sought prize came to pass. Since 1966, not so much as a photograph had been taken of Mandela. His release was broadcast around the world.

After the country’s first truly-democratic elections in 1994, Mandela became South Africa’s first black President.

Youtube: Free Nelson Mandela

Freedom, however, is not a moment but a journey. As late as 2008, due to red tape and lack of oversight, Mandela and other members of the African National Congress were still on the U.S. terrorist watch list.

“In the 1970s and ’80s, the ANC was officially designated a terrorist group by [South Africa’s] ruling white minority. Other countries, including the United States, followed suit.” — USA Today 4/30/08

“It is frankly a rather embarrassing matter that I still have to waive in…the great leader, Nelson Mandela.” — Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice

Mandela and the ANC were removed from the list by a special bill signed by President Bush in July 2008, just prior to Mandela’s 90th birthday.

In South Africa, celebrants “thank Madiba” (Mandela’s honorary title) on July 18th with acts of charity and good deeds, from cleaning cemeteries to painting hospitals.

Meanwhile, in the country of Ghana…

President John Evans Atta Mills on Friday called on Ghanaians to observe Saturday, July 18, 2009 as Nelson Mandela International Day to commemorate his leading role in Africa’s liberation struggle… “The day is Mr. Nelson Mandela’s birthday and those observing this day are required to contribute 67 minutes of their time to the service of their communities in recognition of the 67 years Nelson Mandela has spent in serving humanity.”

Ghana News Agency, July 17, 2009

1961 Nelson Mandela Interview

Freedom Day – South Africa

April 27

Today is Freedom Day in South Africa, a country that doesn’t take freedom for granted. Freedom Day celebrates South Africa’s first democratic elections, held on this day in 1994.

Voting began on April 26, for the elderly, the ill, and pregnant women. The general election was held from April 27 to April 29, and was open to all South Africans 18 and older, regardless of race. Prior to the election, non-whites had limited voting rights. Under the apartheid system that ruled the country since 1948, voting was essentially restricted to white South Africans.

That’s not to say there were free elections before 1948. The Dutch East India Company established the first “refreshment station” on the Cape in 1652. In the 19th century, British settlers arrived in increasing numbers, and black rights gradually eroded.  Blacks and Indians were excluded from government in 1910, when the Union of South Africa was formed. Later laws required black South Africans to carry special passbooks and banned them from owning property outside of certains “reserves”. These reserves made up only 13% of the land area of South Africa, despite the fact that blacks made up an overwhelming majority of South Africa’s population.

After the National Party came to power in 1948, several laws restricted rights even further: the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949, the Immorality Act of 1950, the Population Registration Act, and the Group Areas Act, which forced black South Africans to move out of neighborhoods that were designated as “white only”.  Future laws segregated virtually every aspect of South African life, from elementary schools to swimming pools.

Signs of Apartheid - Durban Beach, 1989
Sign of Apartheid, 1989

No one event brought about the end of Apartheid. The struggle combined international pressure from both governments and corporations, economic sanctions, internal boycotts, and other forms of resistance. Apartheid laws fell one by one, the African National Congress was reinstated as a legal organization, and in 1990 Nelson Mandela was released from prison.

Mandela became the first black President of South Africa after the election of 1994. He was inaugurated on May 10. Every year since, South Africa has celebrated April 27 as Freedom Day.

This year’s Freedom Day celebrations “happen on the eve of the biggest sporting event, the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup, which will for the first time take place on African soil.” — Gauteng province to host the Freedom Day national celebrations

[For Americans: Soccer is a big sport in much of the world outside the States. Much like basketball except it’s played outdoors on grass and players can’t use their hands.] Like many new holidays, traditions are still being formed:

“The only thing I’m not sure about is how we are supposed to celebrate Freedom Day. I know and respect everything associated with the day but for me it is just a public holiday where I chill and do whatever. On the odd occassion, I will watch SABC 2 to hear and see what rallies are happening…”

Celebrating Freedom Day –

Others call April 27 “unFreedom Day”, using the holiday to comment on the sharp divide between the rich and poor still all-too evident in South Africa.

“There are many in South Africa who feel that Freedom Day is a cruel joke which attempts to gloss over the true social concerns of citizens. Abahlali baseMjondolo, which means “shack dwellers” in isiZulu, is an intellectual movement formed in early 2005 in Durban, South Africa. To counteract Freedom Day, a day that actually reminds the poor in South Africa just how un-free they are, Abahlali spread the realities of UnFreedom Day through educational discussions, meetings and creative expression in films and music. UnFreedom Day has also begun to take on a positive meaning, a reminder of just how strong and united the movement has become.”

Alex J. Hyatt – unFreedom Day in South Africa

Freedom Day: 27 April

South Africa Split on Freedom Day