By Samukele Hadebe
This year’s International Workers’ Day on 1 May 2019 marked the 133rd anniversary of the celebration of Labour Day, also known as May Day. In Gauteng, all roads led to Katlehong’s Huntersfield Stadium, where a Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) rally was addressed by the General Secretary, Comrade Bheki Ntshalintshali.
The atmosphere at the stadium was celebratory and fiery speeches were punctuated with songs and dance, as well as slogans led by the event’s director of ceremonies, Comrade Amos Vusi Monyela, COSATU’s Provincial Chairperson. Perhaps the then forthcoming national elections on 8 May 2019 added excitement in both the speakers and the audience.
In his speech, Comrade Ntshalintshali reiterated the significance of Labour Day, especially in the South African context. He highlighted the strides that organised labour in South Africa has made, and elaborated on the emerging challenges that include the casualisation of labour and the system of labour brokerage. In line with the theme ‘‘Uniting Workers for Social and Economic Advancement’’, COSATU’s Comrade Ntshalintshali underscored the importance of workers’ unity. Messages of solidarity came in from the South African Communist Party’s First Deputy General Secretary, Comrade Solly Mapaila, and from the Secretary General of the African National Congress, Comrade Ace Magashule. Also gracing the occasion was Gauteng Premier, Comrade David Makhura.
Workers were generally livid about the lack of service delivery, as well as the rampant corruption exposed by the state capture. Political parties also made promises of service delivery, as they campaigned ahead of the then forthcoming elections. Winning the workers as voters became a preoccupation of competing parties – both pro-capital and pro-worker parties.
Although workers are the creators of wealth, in a capitalist system they continue to be deprived of the very basics of survival. Workers still suffer as a result of lack of access to housing, basic healthcare, affordable public transport, quality education, and even, security of tenure. But, the power of the workers lies in their unity. All the gains by the working class have, throughout history, not been from the benevolence of employers or the state, but have been achieved through the disciplined and united struggle of workers organised in their trade unions. In the South African context, recently workers pushed for the minimum wage and the National Health Insurance (NHI), among many historic achievements.
Capitalism remains the main obstacle tying workers to poverty – therefore, it is in their interests to abolish this exploitative system. “The chief thing in the doctrine of Marx,” Lenin wrote, “is that it brings out the historic role of the proletariat as the builder of socialist society.” Since capitalism has stripped millions of workers of their humanity, it is socialism that can restore the humanity of the working people. The proletariat, as the most revolutionary class as well as the most irreconcilable to capitalism bears the historic mission to change the world. The struggles by workers in the South African history bear testimony to the power of the unity of workers.
Notably, the 2019 Labour Day coincides with the centenary of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). The ILO has played a significant role in advancing workers’ solidarity and workers’ rights throughout its 100 years of existence. For workers in South Africa and in Southern Africa, 2019 also marks the centenary of the very first black trade union, the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union. Although, its founding leader, Clement Kadalie, was eventually deported to his home country, Malawi, he however, made a contribution by igniting black labour activism beyond South Africa.
As COSATU General Secretary, Comrade Ntshalintshali gave an account of the many workers’ achievements under the auspices of the federation, one could not help reminiscing on a number of achievements from the workers’ struggles in South Africa and globally. Indeed, he was very right when he said that workers had a lot to celebrate during the 2019 May Day.