Youth Day: 16 June

The Hector Peterson Memorial in Soweto, South Africa
The Hector Peterson Memorial in Soweto, South Africa. Photo Wyatt Tyrone Smith; CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence.

In South Africa 16 June is a public holiday. It is commonly known as ‘Soweto Day’ because it commemorates the courage and sacrifice of hundreds of school children who came out on to the streets of Soweto in June 1976, in protest against being forced by the Nationalist ‘apartheid’ government to learn some subjects in Afrikaans. I remember it vividly as in the weeks and months that followed we met some of their leaders as they fled across the border into Botswana.

Youth Day in South Africa: 16 June

When the new post-apartheid government of Nelson Mandela came into power, one of their early pieces of legislation was to proclaim which days are to be public holidays. The result was 12 public holidays, some of them the traditional Christian holidays such as at Christmas and Easter, and also the internationally observed New Year and Labour Day in May. The other dates are specially linked to South African history.

South Africa’s Public Holidays

First there is 21 March, now called ‘Freedom Day’, the day that commemorates the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, when police fired on unarmed people campaigning against apartheid, killing 69 and injuring some 180.

Then after Youth Day (16 June) the next specifically South African holiday is Women’s Day on 9 August:

“Women’s Day forms part of South Africa’s Women’s Month, which provides an opportunity to pay tribute to the generations of women whose struggles laid the foundations for the progress made in empowering women and achieving gender equality to date.”

International Women’s Day Website

It actually commemorates the August protests of 1956 when women protested against being forced to carry passes.

On 24 September there is Heritage Day:

“Heritage Day is a South African public holiday celebrated on 24 September. On this day, South Africans were encouraged to celebrate their culture and the diversity of their beliefs and traditions, in the wider context of a nation that belongs to all its people.”

Wikipedia article

In fact this is a repurposing of a day that was important in Zulu areas of South Africa, because it was then that Zulus commemorated King Shaka. But, just as the new post-apartheid government did not want Afrikaner tribal celebrations (Day of the Vow, see below), it did not want to encourage a tribal Zulu event, so broadened the purpose to “heritage.”

Last, but not least

Finally there is ‘Dingaan day’ on 16 December, which is the day Afrikaners were determined to observe because of the vow that was made by the the Voortrekker leader in 1838 always to give thanks on that date for the victory of the Boers over the Zulus led by Dingaan at Blood River. Over 3,000 Zulus were killed in that battle. Ever afterwards Afrikaners felt bound to adhere to that vow, and called it the ‘Day of the Vow’ (Afrikaans: Geloftedag) up until 1994. Then Nelson Mandela’s government diplomatically allowed the date to continue to be a public holiday but renamed it ‘Day of Reconciliation’.

From all this, one can see how the public holidays which a government proclaims, and maybe funds, are an important statement of nation-building. It is also a way of passing on the history and heritage to the younger generation. I discovered this sharply in Durban when, in 1996, at the first observance of Youth Day, I realised that the teenagers in the youth club did not know the story of the Soweto protests that had happened before they were born, 20 years previously. 

Youth Day in Botswana

In a less politicised environment, I had celebrated Youth Day, on a different date, in August, in Botswana. There it does not relate to anything historical. It was simply a good day in early spring, before the summer rains, to bring together youth groups from across the country in lively festivals that included much singing and dancing and traditional food.

The UK, being so hidebound by tradition, rather misses out youth celebration or even nation-building festivals. The closest we come to tribal festivals is Burns Night for the Scots, St Patrick’s Day for the Irish, St David’s Day on 1 March in Wales, and St George’s day in England, but none of these have a focus on youth. 

“Penny for the Guy, Missus?”

A British festival that is hugely enjoyed by children is the scary Guy Fawkes night on 5 November. This commemorates the political event of 1605 when the entire government, political, financial, and ecclesiastical (the Who’s Who of Jacobean London, in fact) narrowly escaped being blown up by gunpowder hidden in a cellar under the houses of Parliament by some daring Roman Catholic conspirators. A year later, Bishop Lancelot Andrewes preached a sermon in the presence of King James:

“This day was meant to be the day of all our deaths…. This mercifull and gracious Lord hath so done His marvellous works, that they ought to be had, and kept in remembrance. Of keeping remembrance, many wayes there be: Among the rest, this is one, of making dayes; set solemne Dayes to preserve memorable Acts, that they be not eaten out, by them, but ever revived, with the returne of the Year, and kept still fresh in continual memory…. We have therefore well done and upon good warrant, to tread in the same steps, and by law to provide, that this Day should not die, nor the memorial thereof perish, from our selfes or from our seed, but be consecrated to perpetual memory, by a yearly acknowledgement to be made of it through all generations.”

In gratitude to God for not being blown up on 5 November he thought it right to bind future generations to the political feuds of his era. I must admit that in my childish enjoyment of bonfire night I never thought then that there could be other views of that event, until I met some Roman Catholics from the South East who said they did not dare to go out on bonfire nights. Perhaps it is a good thing that, under the influence of the American merchandise sold for spookiness, Hallowe’en is now taking over that November festivity.

Public Holidays: for Good or Ill?

In pondering how public holidays can be used to bind future generations to a particular nationalistic viewpoint, it can be noted that Putin used the occasion of the Victory celebrations of 9 May (commemorating the end of World War II) to bind Russian patriots to his war plans against Ukraine. Patriotic commemorations are at risk of manipulation by nationalistic political leaders – by Nazis, in fact.

Bring out your maypoles!

So what is a good balance between a festival that enhances the morale of the young by educating them about past patriotic sacrifice, and one that brainwashes them, basically to make it easier to recruit them into warfare, as needed? To steer away from narrow nationalistic celebration, the way forward is to support the worldwide festivals, such as International Women’s Day of 8 March or Labour Day of 1 May. Or the special days promoted by health charities, such as Parkinson’s Awareness Day 11 April, or breast cancer week in October.

However, there is a special value of celebrating with the young. There is a still glowing corner in my memory for those dance festivals in Botswana, which attracted children even from the remotest parts of the Kalahari.