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Originally born from the protracted struggle for workers’ rights and social justice of the late 1800s, Workers’ Day has been an international holiday in many countries since 1891. In South Africa, a country with its own long and sordid history of labour and social conflicts, Workers’ Day has been officially recognised and observed since the first democratic elections in 1994. The holiday serves both as a celebration of workers’ rights and as a reminder of the critical role that trade unions, the Communist Party and other labour organisations played in the fight against Apartheid.
Worldwide Labor Struggles
The rise of industry throughout the 1800s brought with it a great deal of exploitation and abuse of labour forces around the world, triggering a decades-long battle for improved working conditions, new labour laws and other steps toward social justice. The conflict reached a flashpoint on May 4, 1886, with what would eventually become the basis for International Workers’ Day: the Haymarket Affair. After calling for an eight-hour workday to become standard effective May 1, labour unions and workers throughout the United States went on strike when their demands were not met.
Three days later, an otherwise peaceful protest rally in Haymarket Square in Chicago, Illinois, was disrupted by the blast of a dynamite bomb constructed by labour activists. The explosion was followed by an exchange of gunfire between police and demonstrators, eventually leaving seven police officers and at least four civilians dead. Though the bombing represented a short-term step backward in the labour struggle, the event became a landmark moment in the quest for an eight-hour work day and other advances in labour protections. The Haymarket Affair became the basis for International Workers’ Day, celebrated in many countries throughout the world. The day has since come to be most closely associated with labour organisations, socialists, anarchists and communists.
Labor and Apartheid
Workers’ Day in South Africa holds its own cultural significance, as the public holiday has come to signify not only the sacrifices made on the long road toward fair employment standards, but also the bitter battle against Apartheid in which trade and labour unions played a key role. Because South Africa’s working classes were those most oppressed by Apartheid, the struggle for better working conditions and the struggle to overthrow systemic segregation became closely linked. Before the elections of 1994, labour and trade groups often used Workers’ Day as a symbol to rally the population against the segregation and oppression of the Apartheid system, organizing demonstrations and encouraging widespread resistance.
Workers’ Day Celebrations
In the modern South Africa, Workers’ Day celebrations generally revolve around rallies and marches held throughout the country in support of furthering the rights of workers and other groups who still face oppression. The Congress of South African Trade Unions, the largest of the country’s unions, holds rallies in provinces throughout the country. The largest rally is held at Curries Fountain Stadium in Durban, a city in which massive strikes in 1973 united more than 100,000 workers in a large-scale display against poor wages and working conditions, humiliating racial discrimination and other oppressive practices.
The South African President, as well as the President of the African National Congress, the General Secretary of the South African Communist Party and other prominent government and labour leaders often make appearances and speak at various rallies in Durban, Cape Town, Polokwane and other areas throughout the country. In recent years, Workers’ Day has also been used to shine a light on South Africa’s continued problems with unemployment and economic inequality, lingering racial and ethnic conflicts and various forms of discrimination.