Do South Africans really care about the history behind our public holidays?

What are your Youth Day long weekend plans? Commemorating the event or just taking the opportunity to relax?

Most people I know don’t really pay attention to the aim and history of public holidays. In fact, I usually need to google to tell them exactly why we get certain days off work.

Every time a public holiday rolls around, we’re usually reminded of its origins through a political party or organisation’s celebrations covered in the news. For most, it just means a little extra rest or maybe a chance to visit faraway friends or family.

This begs the question, shouldn’t there be more awareness campaigns or community events arranged for these days? Or are they just convenient excuses to give people time off work and do a little promotion for certain organisations or institutions?

There are a few commemoration days that do stand out due to their violent origins – Youth Day, celebrated on 16 June, and the Day of Reconciliation, 16 December.

When I started doing research on Youth Day in South Africa and the Soweto uprisings, I was stunned.

Here are a few facts about Youth Day and the events it commemorates:

• It commemorates the Soweto uprising of 1976 where schoolchildren protested against Afrikaans as a medium of instruction for certain subjects in school.

•  It is observed on different dates and to commemorate various events by 18 countries around the world, with the United Nations celebrating it on August 12.

• The Soweto uprisings reportedly started on June 13, with a secret meeting to organise the march. Chaos broke out on June 16 and lasted until June 18.

• Official reports state that 23 people died during the uprisings but experts estimate that it could have been between 200 and 700. Around 1 000 people were injured.

• The Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum was opened near the location where he was shot in Orlando West. it has become a major tourist attraction and Hector’s sister, Antoinette, who is seen in the iconic photo, is a tour guide there. 

Reading about the actions of the police, the retaliation, the way the victims died made a deep impact on me. The writers captured a bit of the chaos, the desperate actions of the schoolchildren to escape injury or death and the uneasy atmosphere of apartheid Soweto.

In certain articles you could, with a bit of imagination, hear the gunshots ring out, the children screaming and crying, see smoke spiralling into the sky.

The dedication of the schoolchildren to the cause and to their education and their initial peaceful intentions are something I think the youth of today can take lessons from.

Read more about the June 16 uprisings on Wikipedia and SA History Online.

My advice is, instead of just enjoying a day off (if you’re lucky), find out why the public holiday was instituted. You just might learn something amazing…like I did.


Retha Nel

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