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“There is a train that comes from Namibia and Malawi
There is a train that comes from Zambia and Zimbabwe
There is a train that comes from Angola and Mozambique
From Lesotho, from Botswana, from Swaziland
From all the hinterlands of Southern and Central Africa
This train carries young and old, African men
Who are conscripted to come and work on contract
In the gold and mineral mines of Johannesburg
And its surrounding metropolis, sixteen hours or more a day
For almost no pay”

These are lyrics from Stimela, a song about the apartheid migrant labour system that was written by Hugh Masekela in 1974. This migrant labour system relegated men across Southern Africa to cheap black labourers on whose exploitation the South African economy was built upon. While the working conditions of the working class have improved drastically over the last five decades, and we can now commemorate and celebrate Workers’ Day, on days like this, one is caught between celebration and despondency.

Celebrating Workers’ Day in a country currently sitting with an increasing unemployment rate of 32.1%, the majority being young black women, where even when you are employed, you are most probably one pay cheque away from poverty and so deeply indebted that retirement is a luxury you cannot even dream of, is an irony that is not lost on many of us. 

Even after 30 years of democracy, South Africa’s economy is still divided along lines of race, class and gender, our society remains the most unequal country in the world, and the legacy of apartheid exploitation has arguably shaped today’s labour landscape and its present challenges. There is, therefore, still a lot to be done and Workers’ Day should serve as a significant day for us to take stock of the progress of the gains and losses for workers’ rights, as well as a time to assess the conditions and aspirations of workers in South Africa and around the world. It is also an important moment to reflect on what it means to be a worker in South Africa today, and what the social, economic, and political conditions are in the lives of the working class. 

In thinking about issues in the current labour system, these questions immediately came to mind:  What does it mean to be a worker in South Africa today? Is May Day still important for workers and the working class? What is the state of collective bargaining today?

Beyond my own thoughts about these issues, I was curious about what workers thought and to hear insights from their lived experiences. I reached out to a few trade union members of different ages, genders and across different sectors, and the insights from these conversations highlighted that multiple considerations, and multiple intersections encapsulate the lived realities of the working class in South Africa.

Saftu shopstewards in King Williams Town at the May Day rally that was addressed by Zwelinzima Vavi. Photo by Mzi Velapi

The identity of a worker is complicated

Being a worker in South Africa today is an almost undefinable experience, as it means different things to different people. A white male CEO in South Africa will conceptualise being a worker very differently to a black male miner. For some, whether they are a high or low income earner, being a worker is something that is marked by a sense of pride. They take joy in being able to participate in economic activity, especially because South Africa has such high levels of unemployment, and getting a job in this country, any job, is an achievement. Being a worker for some is also about democratic participation and active citizenry, it makes them want to vote, want to have a say in national and political processes and collectively want to contribute to making our society better and more just.

Being a worker in South Africa
is still reminiscent of being
a wage slave, chasing an unattainable
cost of living, where one is in
an indefinite survival mode

On the other hand, for some, being a worker in South Africa is still reminiscent of being a wage slave, chasing an unattainable cost of living, where one is in an indefinite survival mode. Many workers continue to experience challenges in the labour market, beyond the scarcity of decent jobs, with many experiencing issues such as low wages, the gender pay gap and the precarity of work continuing to persist. Outside of the formal sector, informal workers remain extremely vulnerable, as the sector remains largely unsupported by the state. This reflects an economy where the rights and dignity of many workers remain stifled, and workers are continually reduced to cogs in the capitalist machine, requiring a constant, never-ending negotiation for better conditions and recognition of rights.

And so, as we observe Workers’ Day, it is important to acknowledge these contradictions, address both old and new forms of inequality and celebrate the gains and possibilities of the working class who are the backbone of this country’s economy.

The relevance of Workers’ Day

Reminding ourselves of where we come from is not only about reflecting, but also about looking forward, because as we celebrate the achievements of the labour movement, we are reminded of what can be achieved with the power of mass collective action. Workers’ Day therefore remains relevant and necessary for ongoing political mass education. This is especially important for the youth, who constitute the majority of the workforce and are needed as active, engaged participants in the labour movement.

Conversations need to
happen outside of the
choir of the converted

To sustain this relevance though, more conversations need to happen outside of the choir of the converted (i.e. the so-called “left”), with unconventional stakeholders,  un-unionised workers and workers across sectors. There also needs to be a shift towards emerging labour issues; for example, the gig economy and automation of work are still relatively new labour rights considerations. As the workplace becomes increasingly virtual with the integration of technology and work, there inevitably comes a need to redefine what is work, who is a worker, who is an employer, and what worker rights look like in the digital age.

Cosatu used May Day to campaign for the ANC for the upcoming general elections. Photo by Sharon McKinnon

By expanding the conversation to include this changing nature of the workforce and engaging a wider, non-traditional range of stakeholders, Workers’ Day can continue to be a significant day for the labour movement, and an opportunity to strengthen working class solidarity, now and in the future.