Before the Union of South Africa was established in 1910 each of the four Colonies had its own legislation on public holidays. That of the Cape Colony was promulgated in 1856, but was amended from time to time and after 1902 the calendar of holidays was as follows: New Year’s Day, King’s Birthday, Queen Victoria Day (24 May), Good Friday, Easter Monday, Whit Monday, Ascension Day, first Monday in October (`Wiener’s Day’, instituted in 1889 and often so called after its parliamentary sponsor, Ludwig Wiener) and Christmas Day. `Second New Year’ (2 January) was celebrated, especially by the Coloured population, but was not an official holiday.
Natal, the other British colony, adopted the following holidays in 1901 : New Year’s Day, Good Friday, Easter Monday, Whit Monday, Victoria Day (24 May), Michaelmas (29 September), King’s Birthday (9 November, Edward V11) and Christmas Day. Previously 1 November, All Saints’ Day, was also a holiday in Natal.
The Orange Free State shortly before the Second Anglo-Boer War had the following list of holidays: New Year’s Day, 23 February (birthday of the State -signing of the Bloemfontein Convention), Good Friday, Easter Monday, Ascension Day, Whit Monday, State President’s Birthday, Dingaan’s Day (16 December) and Christmas Day.
In the Orange River Colony (1903 – 1910) 23 February was abolished and the President’s Birthday was replaced by King’s Birthday (9 November) while three new holidays were added: Victoria Day (24 May), Arbor Day (first Monday in August) and Boxing Day (26 December).
The Transvaal Republic at the time of the outbreak of the Second Anglo-Boer War observed the following list of public holidays: New Year’s Day, Majuba Day (27 February), Good Friday, Easter Monday, Ascension Day, Whit Monday, State President’s Birthday (10 October), Dingaan’s Day (16 December) and Christmas Day.
In the Transvaal Colony (1903-1910) Majuba Day was replaced by Victoria Day (24 May) and the President’s Birthday by King’s Birthday (9 November), 16 December was retained as Dingaan’s Day, but Ascension Day was omitted and Arbor Day (first Monday in August) aswell as Boxing Day were added.
Following the example of Europe, the First of May (`Labour Day’) in practice was for a considerable time treated as a holiday in certain trades. Although the trade unions did their best to obtain official recognition for this day, it was never legalised. In the Cape, 2 January or `Second New Year’, as celebrated particularly by the Coloured community, was in practice treated as a public holiday by the closing of shops and private offices, but not of Government offices, since it was never recognised as a Union holiday. In terms of the Shop Hours ordinance (1930) it was recognised as a provincial holiday and shops, etc. were closed, even on 3 January whenever 2 January fell on a Sunday.
Unification made it essential to introduce a uniform calendar of holidays. The Public Holidays Act (No. 3 of 1910) which came into operation on 1 January 1911, provided for the following public holidays: New Year’s Day, Good Friday, Easter Monday, Ascension Day, Victoria Day (24 May), Union Day (31 May), King’s Birthday (first Monday in August), First Monday in October, Dingaan’s Day (16 December), Christmas Day and Boxing Day.
On 7 April 1925 a committee of the House of Assembly was appointed for the purpose of introducing a more suitably arranged calendar of public holidays. The committee drafted a bill proposing the following amendments: Van Riebeeck Day (first Monday in March), May Day (first Monday in May), Union Day (first Monday in June), Empire Day (first Monday in August), Spring Day (first Monday in October), Voortrekker Day (16 December). Boxing Day was not recommended again. The bill was not, however, proceeded with.
On 28 April 1936 the House of Assembly once more appointed a Select Committee to revise the public holidays. The Committee recommended the following changes: Van Riebeeck Day (first Monday in March), Easter Monday (second Monday in April), Union Day (first Monday in June), King’s Birthday – Empire Day (first Monday in August), Commemoration Day (first Monday in October), Voortrekker Day (16 December), Labour Day (26 December). The recommendations of the two Committees of the House of Assembly indicate that they agreed only on New Year’s Day, Good Friday, Easter Monday (in 1936 the second Monday of April was proposed), Ascension Day, Union Day (in 1925 and 1936 the first Monday in June was proposed) and Christmas Day.
Act No. 3 of 1910 remained unchanged until a third commission of inquiry was appointed in 1949, but this time it was not a parliamentary committee. It consisted of Dr. S. H. Pellissier (chairman), W. A. Campbell, Dr. E. Greyling, C. L. Henderson, Col. A. Y. St. Leger, Prof. H. B. Thom and Prof. J. C. van Rooy. The Commission obtained a great volume of oral and written evidence regarding holidays of three classes: religious days, days of historical or cultural significance, and days for relaxation. The main considerations were that certain days must have a content and significance for the nation and carry an edifying message; holidays of a religious and historic or cultural character should preferably fall on the exact dates of the events commemorated. To cause the least possible disruption, days not connected with specific dates should fall on Mondays and, furthermore, holidays should as far as possible be distributed evenly over the months of the year.
Days such as New Year’s Day, Good Friday, Easter Monday, Ascension Day, Union Day, 16 and 25 December were accepted as more or less obvious holidays. Other days were extensively discussed and much evidence was led. The evidence in favour of Van Riebeeck Day, 6 April, was overwhelming; Afrikaans- and English speaking people were in the main agreed on this day. Names also suggested were Founder’s Day and Settlers’ Day, but the vast majority were in favour of `Van Riebeeck Day’. The Commission recommended that King’s Birthday be transferred from the first Monday in August to the second Monday in July, since this day is not attached to any particular date and this would furthermore give a more even distribution. With respect to Settlers’ Day it was not possible to find a suitable historical date to fit both the 1820 British settlers and those of 1849-51 in Natal. For the sake of even distribution the first Monday in September was recommended.
Regarding Kruger Day, requests for the recognition of 10 October had frequently been put to the Government. Alternative names such as Heroes’ Day (which was already in use), Kruger-Steyn Day and Commemoration Day were recommended. Evidence given was preponderantly in favour of ‘Kruger Day’ although the Commission emphasised that it was not the intention to pay homage only to the memory of President Kruger, but rather that, since the day is associated with his birthday, Kruger `is to be regarded as theembodiment of Afrikaner heroes in general, so that hereby his birthday also becomes the proper day on which to remember other heroes who subscribed to the same view of life as Paul Kruger’.
While 16 December was accepted for obvious reasons, discussion centred entirely round the name of the day. It was felt that the formerly accepted name, Dingaan’s Day, conveyed the impression to the uninitiated that it involved esteem for Dingaan, or that it could rouse antipathy among the Bantu against the Whites. The name `Voortrekker Day’ was felt to be too vague, or to convey a sense of hero-worship of the Voortrekkers. `Day of the Covenant’ was therefore recommended, approved and introduced.
Empire Day (24 May) and the so-called `Wiener’s Day’ (first Monday in October) were omitted. The latter is of no import. Empire Day fell during May, a month already overloaded with holidays; furthermore, the Empire, from the South African point of view, was practically a thing of the past. Many witnesses, when questioned on this point, expressed the view that Empire Day had become an anachronism in South Africa and could be omitted, provided some other day was retained to symbolise the ties with other countries of the Commonwealth.
The Commission anticipated that the retention of King’s Birthday would meet the case. All the recommendations were accepted by Parliament and in the Public Holidays Act (No. 5 of 1952), which came into force on 1 April 1952, the following public holidays were laid down: New Year’s Day (1 January), Van Riebeeck Day (6 April), Good Friday, Easter Monday, Ascension Day, Union Day (31 May), King’s Birthday (second Monday in July), Settlers’ Day (first Monday in September), Kruger Day (10 Oct.), Day of the Covenant (16 December), Christmas Day (25 Dec.) and Boxing Day (26 Dec.).
Effect was also given to the Commission’s recommendation that certain provisions of the Sunday observance acts should be applicable to Good Friday, Ascension Day, the Day of the Covenant and Christmas Day, in order to prevent undesirable practices on these days. A ban was placed on the organisation, direction or control, or participation in or attendance at horse or dog races or any public entertainment or contest where admission is paid for. This Act also applied to the territory of South-West Africa and Marion and Prince Edward Island. After the coming of the Republic this Act was amended by Act No. 68 of 1961, which substituted Republic Day for Union Day, and Family Day for the Queen’s Birthday.