Workers protesting Photo: SA History Online
International Workers’ Day is celebrated globally on 1 May every year. In South Africa, where it follows so closely after Freedom Day on 27 April, it takes on a more nuanced meaning.
Both days are imbued with meaning and symbolism. May Day, as it is often called, came out of labour, socialist and communist movements in the 19th century who lobbied and agitated for greater worker rights. The 8-hour workday we all know so well (at least for the professional class) and the concept of having the weekend off – comes directly from that activism. In South Africa, the first celebration of Workers’ Day took place in 1895, organised by the Johannesburg Districts Trade Council. Soon after it drew valid criticism, like all things in South Africa, for neglecting the rights of Black workers after which white labour movements were urged to include and organise with black workers. Inroads were developed slowly or not at all, but as time passed and with the growth of the Struggle, black workers and multiracial unions became a critical linchpin in the anti-Apartheid movement. In 1964, on May Day a mass strike resulted in police violence leading to the death of 18 Sowetans. Nelson Mandela was in Soweto at the time, taking shelter in a nurse’s dormitory overnight with the sounds of gunfire piercing the air.
The South African communists who had organised the May Day strike were forced to dissolve by the Apartheid regime, and the ANC took over all future May labour protests. In honour of those slain in Soweto, the ANC called for May Day to be celebrated as Freedom Day in future.
It seems that Freedom and workers’ rights are more closely intertwined than mere calendar proximity. The Defiance Campaign, the Freedom Charter and trade union alliances were born out of South African workers’ and democratic struggles. The culmination of these protests resulted in a majority of South African workers staying away from work on 1 May, in effect turning it into a public holiday. Soon, large companies declared it (and 16 June) as paid holidays with many following suit.
Freedom Day eventually came a few days before May Day, in 1994, giving all South Africans the franchise and officially, and legally, ending Apartheid and white supremacy. However, as many have come to recognise, the fruits of freedom have not been equally shared amongst all South Africans. Large scale inequality in income and wealth has, in fact, grown since the 1990s. Unemployment, poverty and inequality is our ‘triple national threat’. And even in a democratic South Africa, with a laudable constitution and a pro-worker labour legislation, workers are still abused, marginalised and treated unequally. Black South Africans earn, on average, 1/5th of what a similarly qualified and experienced white South African earns. Disparities in pay for equal work between different genders still exist. The gender pay gap in South Africa is estimated to be between 15-17% according to the University of Johannesburg. “This implies that a South African woman would need to work two months more than a man to earn the equivalent salary that he would earn in a year.” This does not only mean less pay in a woman’s take home salary, but reduced pension contributions and any other company-related benefits her male equivalent would be earning.
Putting numbers aside, the communicative value of this message to working women is intensely negative as it is inherently emotionally unfair. Further, in most workplaces, the burden lies on the woman herself to, first, uncover that a gap exists (discussing remuneration remains a taboo) and then, secondly, to motivate for why she should be paid the same salary as her male counterpart. These structural factors are antithetical to equality in freedom.
And the workplace, in general, has not yet fully grappled with the challenge of inclusive spaces for LGBTQIA+ persons. While there are increasing levels, relatively, of acceptance for lesbian and gay individuals, transgender persons in the workplace particularly still choose to conceal their gender identity because “the South African mindset is not as progressive as the South African constitution”. Personally, I know of a transgender individual coming out to their colleagues and employer to strong negative reactions – colleagues asked the transgender person to be physically relocated, in effect removed from sight. The individual was isolated in other ways as well. This anecdote shows that we are far from true freedom, in general, and especially around freedom in the workplace.
In the larger national context, workers’ influence is showing itself again. Following the cabinet reshuffle and the subsequent fallout, we now see COSATU, part of the governing party alliance, joining the call for President Zuma to resign from office, in a statement on 4 April 2017. And while political machinations will unfold, it is interesting to observe that this action by workers resulted in the President asking to discuss with the union the reason for their statement.
We hold no romantic view of politics, nor labour movements or ideologues of any kind. The observation about worker influence in forming and influencing freedom, especially as we head to those landmark days in our national calendar, nevertheless remains symbolic.
Ayesha Fakie is the Head of Programme for the Sustained Dialogues programme at the IJR