If tradition and customs become too heavy a cross for their own sake, we owe it to ourselves to examine their suitability for the present day. Many business owners will attest to the devastating impact of this holiday – an already impotent economy that has been kicked right in the butt by business owners’ nemesis, the public holiday.
It goes without saying that the repair work on our economy will require enormous efforts on the part of many South Africans. But not all repair jobs have to be difficult. With smart legislation, we can boost growth and investment (aside from whether GDP is the best measure of an economy’s health, and whether higher GDP growth could salvage even an economy as structurally rotten as ours). I intend to propose an example of this intelligent legislation.
Back in the day
The introduction of public holidays in South Africa can be traced back to our English overlords exporting the concept to these shores when the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910. Surprisingly, apart from the well-known religious holidays, the King’s birthday was one of the other days off, Dingaan’s Day is celebrated on December 16th. But one can imagine how public holidays (or bank holidays as they are known in the UK) would be welcomed by the majority of workers, stuck in sooty, CO2-emitting industrial factories or the myriad of mines, lugging sacks and crates around before the advent of the Machinery. Aside from the dwindling number of miners, today’s worker is more likely to die from a thousand donuts than the physical strain of the job.
How much does a vacation cost the economy?
When Kgalema Motlanthe unexpectedly added another bank holiday in 2011, BDO South Africa estimated the cost to GDP at R7 billion in lost revenue. Given that our GDP has changed little from these levels and some assumptions have been made about profit margin and effective tax rates, the lost VAT and income tax for the state for a public holiday amounts to nearly R500m. And when you consider that South Africa has 12 or 13 of these a year, the costs of an economy and tax base sustained by a small number of workers compared to the adult population are staggering.
While the number of vacations per year varies from country to country and 12 is by no means the outlier figure, we must consider the fragile state of our economy, unemployment rates and workplace trends of over a century ago. We simply need to reduce the number of holidays that grind to a halt our productivity and find smarter ways to celebrate and commemorate important crossroads on our road to democratic freedom.
Apart from the world’s two most competitive economies, the US and China, analysis of some countries’ paid leave (annual leave and public holidays) points to a possible solution. The UK only has eight public holidays a year but compensates with 28 days of paid annual leave. France charges with 30 days of annual leave in addition to 11 public holidays. In comparison, South Africa is behind the curve in paid annual leave days.
A decent suggestion
By removing, say, five or six public holidays from our calendar and replacing them with a total increase in annual vacation days, workers would at least be no worse off than they are now – which would hopefully appease the unions. Businesses would at least have an opportunity to restore some semblance of normal trading and possibly even a hat-trick of profits, as more trading days = higher corporate profits = the increased likelihood of sustainability and/or employee bonuses.
where we are at right now
If we propose an amendment to the 1994 Holiday Act, we might as well do the job right. I suggest also considering the following rules to add more roles to carry the deadweight on holidays:
- Midweek holidays are the devil’s work! Public holidays must be taken on either a Monday or Friday, as is the case in the UK, to avoid a series of extended leaves of absence.
- No more than two public holidays in a calendar month. This can mean that in some years you have to choose between God and celebrating Freedom Day. We must put food on the table, and neither God nor Madiba want us to go hungry.
- April and December are the most challenging months for our productivity and these require the most attention:
- Since most people do not bother to attend a church on Good Friday and Family Day can be embraced by all, we are eliminating Good Friday as a public holiday and compensating by adding an extra day of annual religious leave for all who want to take a day off to party. You can still go to church and the rest of us heathen can stay the course.
- December 16 is undoubtedly the biggest obstacle to getting anything done in December. The psychological start to the summer holidays is starting to gnaw at people’s brains, and many are mentally checking out by mid-November. Business meetings have the same chance as an admission of guilt from Jacob Zuma—perhaps less.
- In an election year, you simply cannot add another holiday when there is already a holiday to celebrate the holiest of all election days. FFS, do we really have to spell this?! It’s either that or election days have to be moved to Saturdays.
- However, if elections remain a working day, we should definitely introduce compulsory voting for every adult. If you have a day off to vote, you better get your ass to the polling station.
Another way to remember
This proposal could anger those who feel some really important days are being left off the commemorative calendar. The truth is that with the kind of haunted South Africa’s past, we could fill many more days with events that should be honored and heroes who fell in the pursuit of freedom. And yet most of us hardly remember which holiday it is when we have the day off anyway.
For example, could we look in the mirror when we remove Youth Day from the list of public holidays? Or could we rather find another way to commemorate the 1976 Soweto uprising? Perhaps with a youth sports center and programming academy in Soweto paid for by the R500 million in refunded taxes each year. Or the new jobs created for the 50% of today’s unemployed youth whose lives are being ruined by this entrenched economy that may soon run out of reserves to pay for an ever-expanding welfare system. We must find other, better ways to remember this and other holidays. Documentaries and books could be commissioned to be included as setworks in schools and we could still attend an hour lunch break on those days. The point is, there are better, more effective (and cheaper) ways to remember those moments and people in our history.
Sounds great, so what next?
We would need a minister, deputy minister or member of parliament to read this proposal and be moved enough to present a bill to parliament for evaluation and feasibility. If all goes well, it will be published in the Government Gazette on Public Opinion and debated in the National Assembly before hopefully being signed by the President.
So next time you check out social media, why not tag your favorite minister or heck @PresidencyZa. Perhaps we just find ourselves in a position to make a meaningful contribution to the arduous task of repairing South Africa’s economy. DM