By Imraan Buccus
May Day seems to have lost its gravitas. In light of widespread unhappiness with the proposed minimum wage this May Day is particularly joyless.
May Day holiday in our democratic history than the one we observe today. The economy is limping, job creation is static, unemployment is rising and our national politics is in self-destruct mode.
Then there are the spectres of Nkandlagate, Guptagate and Marikana, which represent the tragedy of post-apartheid South Africa – the desperation of disempowered workers, living in squalid informal settlements, and doing dangerous work deep underground, earning a pittance while the management and shareholders rake in millions each year.
What does May Day mean for South Africa today?
Peter Linebaugh, the US radical historian who has been called the “world’s greatest living historian”, has written a superb series of articles on May Day.
He shows the holiday has its roots in the woodland cultures that grew up in the vast forests of ancient Europe. It was a spring festival, celebrating the bounty of nature.
With the rise of capitalism, elites, desperate to impose a “proper work discipline” on the people, sought to repress the festival. It was in this repression that it began to be identified as a workers” holiday.
Since that first call by utopian socialist Robert Owen, to the Chicago labour unions of machinists and blacksmiths, that led to the momentous demonstration by 100 000 workers in New York City in 1872, winning the right to mark May Day as a workers’ holiday has been a painful and long process.
Following the 1889 International Socialist Congress, a series of huge workers demonstrations shook the US and most of Europe. It became a national event with resounding success in Russia and Brazil in 1881.
In South Africa, workers, under the banners of the Social Democratic Federation, the Industrial Socialist League and the SA CP, filled squares in the major urban centres, where Jewish leaders, such as AZ Berman, and their Muslim counterparts, such as Abdullah Abdurahman, led workers arm in arm with Clements Kadalie and John Gomas.
For workers, colour, religion and creed meant nothing, they were brothers in struggle; they had nothing to lose but their chains.
Workers and workers’ parties came to power in many countries following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. This was followed by Mao’s worker and peasant excesses and Fidel Castro”s triumph over the dictator Batista. There were successes and failures, victories and disappointments, new challenges and questions.
There were also the realities of the technological revolution, the rise and fall of Stalinism, the splits and revisions, the so-called clash of civilisations, the globalised triumph and collapse of sections of financial capital, epitomised by the 2008 crash.
Perhaps the greatest theme linking the global struggle to be able to celebrate May Day as a workers’ holiday was the demand for an eight-hour day – eight hours for rest, eight for work and eight of free time. This demand was eventually won in many countries, but often at cost and with much blood.
Today workers face the future head-on. Their new struggles are against unemployment, retrenchments, full pensions, equal pay for equal work, and human treatment of non-unionised workers.
The workers are older these days, with a sprinkling of young people who have lost their jobs to cheap imports of final products and extremely cheap labour, new technologies, casualisation and multiskilling.
Outside India and China, which are now the workshops of the world, the problems faced by many of the young have more to do with their not being able to find work than enduring exploitation at work.
From the US to England and South Africa, millions of young people confront a life of unemployment. This is the great challenge of our times. And it is one we in South Africa are failing, virtually completely, to get to grips with.
Here the workers congregate with their banners in stadiums and squares to listen to their political leaders romanticising the achievements of the present government as we prepare to cast our votes.
South African workers have honed a dual consciousness – a workers’ consciousness that makes them proud of being workers who strive for a better life through struggles, and a nationalist consciousness that has made them key voters for the ANC.
They have invested their faith and belief in one of the most organised worker federations in the world. And while trade unions often continue to do a good job in representing the workers, they have failed to make a real connection with the struggles of the unemployed.
Most workers live in communities beset with unemployment, poverty, retrenchments and lack of service delivery. South Africa’s army of unemployed has nothing to lose but its chains.
* Imraan Buccus is Al-Qalam
Editor, research fellow at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Social Sciences, and academic director of a university study abroad programme on political transformation