Another Christmas is safely behind us, finally putting to rest one of the great urban legends of South African government interference in ordinary people’s ordinary lives.
Back in August 2004, one Rufus Malatjie, chief director of legal services at the Department of Home Affairs, who headed a government task team evaluating the number of public holidays, was quoted by the Sunday Times, under the headline "Christmas may be cancelled", as saying that South Africa's 14 public holidays are up for review and "not one will be regarded as sacred".
According to the Sunday Times, Malatjie had warned the previous day, 31 July 2004, that Christmas Day, Easter and Youth Day, on which the June 16 1976 Soweto uprising is commemorated, were also not exempt.
“I cannot guarantee that we will still have the Christmas Day holiday,” he said. “At this stage anything is possible. There is no holiday that is regarded as being sacred. They are all being looked at.”
The story really began on 16 February that year, when the task team began conducting public hearings. The ambit of the hearings can still be found online at the Department of Home Affairs web site, although the orginal Sunday Times has disappeared from its former location.
Sheikh Achmat Sedick, secretary-general of the Muslim Judicial Council, was one of the participants in the hearings. He would later tell the Sunday Times that his organisation had made a submission and would expect to be involved in further consideration of holidays. He added that Christmas, Easter and other religious holidays were legacies of apartheid and mainly reflected the priorities of the Dutch Reformed Church, to which most white leaders had belonged.
The day after the Sunday Times article had appeared, on 2 August, the denials began to flow. ANC spokesperson Smuts Ngonyama said there was no possibility whatsoever that Christmas would be cancelled as a holiday.
"The ANC takes serious exception,” he huffed. “Such a report is aimed at creating confusion and mistrust of the ANC as a ruling party."
Ngonyama said the report was unfinished: "It should be first be presented to the minister and the Cabinet."
He said the official who had leaked the story to the press should do his work, hand over the report, and not comment to the newspapers.
"This is supposed to be the jurisdiction of the minister, not of an official."
The new Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula also weighed in: "I would like to reassure all of you that there is no such report which has been tabled before me," she told a parliamentary committee on 2 August.
The full denials also appeared in the ANC’s news briefing for 3 August 2004.
Ngonyama’s conspiracy theory behind the urban legend was not entirely misplaced. The task team had been appointed by Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the former Minister of Home Affairs, whose relationship with the ANC had been anything but amicable during his Inkatha Freedom Party’s participation in Government.
He had appointed the task team in November 2003 after complaints from the public that the South African calendar discriminated against religious groups and certain sectors of the population.
Malatjie told the Sunday Times that individual submissions at hearings held between February and April 2004 had ranged from calls for the cancellation of Christmas to proposals for additional holidays.
Strangely, after Ngonyama’s outburst, Malatjie was never heard from again in this context. Of course, by the time the denials had been issued, the original story was making its way round the world, and thence back to South Africa via numerous articles, newsletters, and other sources.
As a result, the urban legend wouldn’t go away. Right up to December 24 last year, it remained a topic of conversation among conservative white people, with even some of the more enlightened white South Africans still suspicious that the ANC wanted to take away the whites’ Christmas.
Grateful acknowledgement to Brian Chapman for archival material.