Following the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994, 1 May was inaugurated as an official national public holiday. Known as International Workers’ Day (also as May Day), the holiday is widely celebrated, with as many as 80 countries honouring the date and what it stands for.
The history of Workers’ Day goes back to the 1886 Haymarket Affair in Chicago, where police tried to disperse a large crowd of striking workers (they were protesting for a shorter work day of eight hours). A bomb was thrown at the policemen by an unidentified assailant, and law officers then proceeded to fire live ammunition at a defenceless crowd of unarmed strikers (sound familiar?).
Though, it wasn’t until 1891, after successful annual demonstrations on 1 May around the globe, that Workers’ Day was formally inducted into the official calendars of many countries. Since then, Workers’ Day has been used by the working class across the world, South Africa included, to emphasise the need to establish fair labour practices and employment standards. In our nation, the Communist Party, trade and labour unions were heavily entrenched in the fight against Apartheid. Thus, it was of little surprise that our democratic government chose to commemorate this day and its ideology after the fall of the oppressive regime.
While this public holiday doesn’t quite receive all the fuss it rightly deserves, it serves as a stark reminder to governments of the power of the working class. (To commemorate the day, some of the museums in Cape Town are closed on Workers’ Day).