Many might consider South Africa’s 12 public holidays per year to be too much, arguing that it hurts production and GDP – while others argue the opposite.
Compared to the rest of the world, South Africa actually sits almost on average, with the worldwide average being 11 public holidays.
South Africa, Kenya, Finland, and Russia are among those that have 12 public holidays, while the countries that enjoy the average number of 11 holidays include Canada, Italy, and Singapore.
Workers in most European countries enjoy 10-14 public holidays a year. The UK, however, is not so holiday-minded, with only eight. Surprisingly, while there are 11 federal holidays in the USA, zero are compulsory and the number of paid holidays workers get is at the employer’s discretion.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, Myanmar holds the top spot with 30 public holidays, while Sri Lanka, Iran, India, and China have 29, 27, 21, and 17, respectively.
The table below shows a selection of countries with the most public holidays.
|Country/Countries||No. of public holidays|
|India, Kazakhstan, Egypt||21|
|Colombia, Philippines, Lebanon, Trinidad and Tobago||18|
|China, Hong Kong||17|
|Thailand, Turkey, Pakistan||16|
|Japan, Malaysia, Argentina, Lithuania, Sweden||15|
|Indonesia, Chile, Slovakia||14|
|South Korea, Austria, Belgium, Norway, Taiwan, Nepal||13|
|Finland, Russia, South Africa, Italy, Greece, USA, Spain||12|
|Singapore, Denmark, France, UAE, Morocco, Czech Republic, Luxembourg||11|
|Fiji, Germany, Australia||10|
The cost of a public holiday
Whether or not a public holiday helps or harms a given economy is a contentious debate – with some authorities saying it promotes extra spending in an economy by boosting domestic tourism, retail sales, hospitality, and catering industries.
In 2011, Italy added a one-off holiday to mark the 150th anniversary of Italian unification. Analysing the economic data around the holiday three years later, Francesco Maria Esposito, then at the Catholic University of Milan, found a small but positive impact.
A separate study, also conducted in Italy, showed that a paid day off positively impacted staff morale – finding that workers were more productive the day after a holiday because they were “rested and relaxed”.
In contrast, others say it hurts the more significant contributors to GDP, such as manufacturers and mining. In 2011, when Kgalema Motlanthe unexpectedly added another public holiday to South Africa’s calendar, BDO South Africa estimated the cost to the GDP was R7 billion in lost revenue, Daily Maverik reported.
Similarly, consultants at PwC, considering the impact of adding an extra bank holiday in the Australian state of Victoria, advised that the costs outweighed the benefits, leaving a $150 million hole in the economy (R1.74 billion) even after increased consumer spending.
“An extra holiday might be good for people’s well-being and provide a temporary lift to the tourism sector, but it’s another cost on business,” said research firm Bagrie Economics’ managing director Cameron Bagrie.
“If we want to see a sustained recovery in the tourism sector, people will need money in their pockets. The best way to achieve that is getting the economy working and people back into paid employment,” He added.
A possible solution
While the number of holidays per year varies by country, and 12 is by no means the outlier, the fragile state of South Africa’s economy and the high unemployment at present should be considered when looking at the number of public holidays.
Many have argued that South Africa needs to reduce the number of holidays that puts the brakes on our productivity and figure out better ways of celebrating important events that have taken place on our road to democratic freedom.
One decent proposal to consider is to reduce the number of public holidays while increasing the number of leave days workers get per annum.
Excluding the most competitive economies, China and the USA, the table below shows some countries’ public holidays compared with the number of annual leave days sourced from Daily Maverick.
The comparison shows that the UK has only eight Bank Holidays per year but compensates with 28 days of paid annual leave. France has 30 annual leave days on top of 11 public holidays – highlighting that South Africa is behind in paid annual leave days.
This suggests that, by removing some public holidays from our calendar and replacing them with an equal rise in annual leave days, South Africans would be no worse off than they are currently – while mitigating the negative impacts of a complete standstill in production for a whole day.
Alternatively, In 2021, FlySafair tabled a proposal with the Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA) to see public holidays in the middle of the week be moved to a Friday or Monday. The airline company argued that this adjustment would boost tourism and reduce midweek disruptions and avoid serial extended leave-taking that stall business.
Unfortunately, the TBCSA told BusinessTech that “the process to have this discussed by tourism stakeholders stalled as a result of the pandemic, and that the TBCSA and its stakeholders will continue to lobby for this in the future”.
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