By Trevor Ngwane
May Day was officially declared a holiday in South Africa in 1994 with the demise of apartheid and the emergence of a democratic order. The labour movement played a heroic role in the anti-apartheid Struggle and fought hard to force the racist white regime to have May Day recognised.
Today, poverty, unemployment and inequality is very high, the working class and the poor face many existential challenges and the ANC government is failing on many levels. Is May Day, International Workers’ Day, worth the celebration? Do workers have anything to celebrate after 29 years into democracy?
There was a time in history when the ANC leadership looked down upon workers and peasants.
These “ama-respectable” – educated upper-class Africans – tried hard to distinguish themselves from the commoners. They demanded better treatment as subjects of the British Empire.
Around 1910, the ANC, then called the South African Native National Congress, sent delegations of gentlemen clad in coat tails to the queen of England to plead their case and prove their cultural superiority and civilisation.
Frantz Fanon wrote that during the colonial era, “the European elite undertook to manufacture a native elite” who served as functionaries of the colonial administration. In South Africa, these “exempted” Africans helped to facilitate the domination and exploitation of the industrial working class and the rural proletariat by the white capitalist ruling class.
However, elements of this African petty bourgeoisie also participated in and sought to lead the Struggle against colonial rule. Many of them joined the ANC. After decades of waging gentlemanly campaigns, the ANC changed its tactics away from petitions and delegations. There was a “turn to the masses” in the early 1950s partly as a response to the National Party’s assumption of power and adoption of apartheid as official state policy.
Despite its radicalisation, led by its Youth League, the ANC remained an organisation led by the African petty bourgeoisie albeit having somewhat cured itself of its superior and disdainful attitude towards the masses. It had noticed the 1946 African mineworkers strike in which the power of the workers was demonstrated.
The workers showed their power again in the 1973 Durban strikes after a long lull, mainly due to apartheid repression, the turn to armed struggle, and the petty bourgeois neglect of consistent political work among workers. The “white Left” played an important role in the formation of trade unions and rebuilding an organised labour movement.
The ANC was nowhere to be found, including in the 1976 Soweto student uprising. The strikes and student protests gave a boost to the Struggle against apartheid. However, in the 1980s the ANC put itself at the head of the movement partly due to its ability to receive in exile and make guerrillas of the radicalised and persecuted Soweto students.
The labour movement was at the centre of the upsurge of the Struggle in the 1980s. Workers led this Struggle and put their political stamp on it. When the National Forum and the United Democratic Front were formed, the principle of “working class leadership of the Struggle” was popular and widely accepted, including by middle-class leaders of the mass movement.
Great anti-apartheid mobilisation in the townships and villages was often led by working-class leaders such as Moses Mayekiso, who was general secretary of the Metal and Allied Workers Union and was central to the Alexandra 1986 Six-Day War in which apartheid security forces fought community activists, leaving 19 people dead.
The Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu) was formed in April 1979, based upon the principles of strong shop-floor organisation, worker control and independence. In 1985, Cosatu was formed by Fosatu unions and other unions emphasising the principle of industrial unionism.
Cosatu soon fell under the influence of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the ANC, culminating in the federation adopting the Freedom Charter, thus laying the foundation for the establishment of the ANC-SACP-Cosatu Alliance.
The powerful South African labour movement that challenged and won against the guns and gallows of the apartheid monster was contained, tamed and emasculated by its membership of the alliance in which it was subjected to leadership by the ANC petty bourgeois and aspirant black bourgeoisie.
Cosatu leaders were reluctant to mobilise strikes and other mass action to challenge the increasingly anti-working class policies of the capitalist ANC government. The ANC implemented neoliberal economic policies including privatisation, commercialisation and financialisation with little effective resistance by Cosatu and the broader working-class movement.
The ANC passed anti-strike laws, imposed wage freezes on public sector workers and implemented austerity measures. There is little for the working class to celebrate in this year’s May Day because the ANC has proven to be the downfall of the labour movement.
Ngwane is Director of the Centre for Sociological Research and Practice, University of Johannesburg.