The history of May Day in South Africa is closely associated with that of the struggle against apartheid
By Musawenkosi Cabe / The Dawn News / May 1, 2018
May Day marks the renewal of vows by the working class to continue its fight against its exploitation by the capitalist class.
Before May Day or Workers Day, in South Africa, comes Freedom Day, April 27 – a milestone in South African history – marking the first time in history when Black people could participate in the general elections and decide who would lead the country. In 1994, after the historic elections, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela became the first Black president, as the ANC emerged victorious.
However, over two decades after that momentous event, millions of people feel that their lives have not been substantially transformed for the better. Most Black people continue to be landless, poor, unemployed and homeless, and feel that they have been neglected by the ruling class. Incidentally, Abahlali Basemjondolo (a shack dwellers movement), celebrates Unfreedom Day instead of Freedom Day every year.
Workers Day, or as it known across the world, May Day, has a special place in the history of the liberation movement in South Africa and its contemporary politics. The aftermath of the 1973 Durban Strikes by African workers led to the formation of the Congress of South African Trade Union (COSATU) in December 1985. In 1986, on the 100th anniversary of the Haymarket Affair, COSATU demanded that the day be recognized as a public ‘paid’ holiday, Workers Day. As a recognition of the working class struggle for a shorter workday, a national stay away on May 1 was called.
Official historical reports indicate that over 1.5 million heeded the call made by COSATU to stay away from work. Even the most conservative organizations joined the mass protest. Feeling the impact of the stay away, South African industries began to recognize the day as a paid holiday. Premier Foods was the first major company to do so and others soon bowed before the inevitable..
However, it was in 1994, post-apartheid, that May Day was officially recognised by the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), as a national holiday. Of course, the ANC went on to adopt neoliberal and anti-worker policies, and many associated with it were complicit in the massacre of African workers in Marikana – who were demanding a living wage.
Similarly, COSATU too has undergone a sea change. Its recent role in the drafting of anti-worker laws that will end up affecting the rights of workers to strike and implementing ‘slave’ wages has been a disappointment, as has its move of distancing itself from the historic strike called by the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU).
Given the fact that South Africa is the most consistently unequal society in the world, May Day continues to be commemorated by the working class in South Africa – as a form of protest against the anti-worker policies – through rallies that seek to raise consciousness amongst workers and the poor.
At the moment, these issues have come to the fore in a bus strike, which has been on for nearly two weeks. According to the National Union of Metal Workers (NUMSA), the bosses are negotiating in bad faith and unwilling to accept the demands for better working conditions sought by the workers. NUMSA will use May to reflect on strategies to intensify the strike and advance the demands of the workers.
May Day is also when organized labour movements mourn those that have fallen during the fight for securing the interests of the working class. From the Haymarket Martyrs to the Marikana Martyrs, those who lost their lives in advancing the class struggle are remembered in South Africa.
May Day is a profoundly important day, a reminder to the whole world that the struggle against imperialism, neoliberalism, patriarchy, and class exploitation is international and that the working class must stand in solidarity to dismantle class exploitation.