History of May Day in SA

2017-04-26 06:02

IN Western countries the struggle for a shorter workday, a demand of major political significance for the working class dates back to the 1800s.
On 7 October, 1884, the Federation of Organised Trades and Labor Unions in America and Canada resolved that eight hours should constitute a legal day's labour as of 1 May, 1886.

In South Africa British labour and socialist leader Tom Mann, on a visit in 1910, criticised the South African Labour Party for its neglect of African workers, and urged the white labour movement to begin to think seriously of organising African workers.

The outbreak of World War 1 in August 1914 had profound consequences for the development of socialist labour politics in South Africa. Before the war, Labour was the predominant party’s political voice of organised white labour in South Africa gaining the support of the majority of the English speaking working class and making inroads into the Afrikaans working class as well as the middle class.

The 1913 mineworkers strike, as well as the strike by railwaymen called for support of the war and those who were anti-war. 
In 1916, May Day was a small affair, celebrated by a social and a visit to the graves of workers killed in the 1914 strike.  

The Internationalist Socialist League (ISL) was formed in 1916 and in 1917 May Day acquired new international significance as a result of the Russian Revolution.

In South Africa the ISL organised a May Day rally, where for the first time an African, Horatio Mbelle, an articled clerk, was billed as one of the speakers.
The rally, however, never took place as mobs of soldiers and civilians filled the streets, preventing the rally from taking place

After the war there was resurgence in the militancy of the white labour movement, and May Day became an annual event, but it was a white labour affair.
It would not be until 1928 that May Day would be taken up by African workers en masse. In that year thousands of African workers took part in a mass May Day march that dwarfed the small Labour Party’s demonstration which consisted of white workers only.

On the 64th anniversary of May Day, in 1950, the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) called for a May Day strike to protest against the suppression of Communism Act. The strike resulted in police violence that led to the death of 18 people across Soweto.  

Nelson Mandela sought refuge in a nurses' dormitory, overnight, where he sheltered from the gunfire.

Less than two months later, the CPSA was forced to dissolve, and the ANC took over the planning for a “day of mourning” for those who died in the May Day strike. 

This was followed by the Congress of the People, in 1955, where the Freedom Charter was born. It served to consolidate an alliance of the anti-apartheid forces of the. 

The South African labour federation Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), formed in December 1985, demanded that May Day be recognised as a public holiday, Workers’ Day, and called for a stay-away.

Subsequently, more than 1,5 million workers observed Cosatu’s call, joined by thousands of pupils, students, taxi drivers, hawkers, shopkeepers, domestic workers, self-employed and unemployed people.

The majority of South Africa’s workers had unilaterally declared the day a public holiday and stayed away from work.

Premier Foods became the first large employer to declare 1 May and 16 June paid holidays.
Following this many other companies followed suit and 1 May is a national public holiday.

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