May Day, it’s our very own day

Tuesday. May 1. May Day. Workers’ Day.

Despite the sad reality that I’m one of South Africa’s millions of un-unionised wage slaves and working on the most important public holiday of them all, I’m happy.

May Day is a big thing. Important.

May Day is special. May Day’s not a celebration of the birth or death of any deity. May Day doesn’t mark an auspicious date on a national calendar. May Day doesn’t pay homage to the passing of any king, any leader. May Day isn’t the beginning — or end — of a cycle of a planet’s movement around the sun.

May Day is different. May Day’s not a present, an act of benevolence by the haves towards their inferiors.

May Day was taken, not given. May Day’s a day of forced respect for the wretched of the earth. A holiday that was wrenched, by sheer, bloody-minded determination, from the hands of the ruling class. Earned — like everything else — the hard way.

May Day tastes of tear gas, sjamboks and flying stones. May Day smells of sweat. Blood. Shotgun pellets. May Day rings with the sound of a thousand voices singing in unison, chants from the picket line, sirens. Screams.

May Day doesn’t belong to borders, race, religion.

May Day belongs to a class. The class. It’s our thing. Not theirs.

My old man, Gerald, was a shipwright and a union man. So was his old man, Getacre. They both worked in the same shipyard that built the Titanic. When Getacre died, worked to death, Gerald was 13. Gerald left school. Took an apprenticeship and his father’s place at Harland and Wolff.

Before we left Belfast, Gerald was always on strike. When he wasn’t working in shipyards in Rotterdam. Nova Scotia. Durban.

The first book Gerald gave me was when he was at home during a strike. Earth, by Émile Zola. An 1887 novel about a French peasant revolt and shit-bucket protests was a bit of a weird choice of reading material for an eight-year-old. Then again, not.

My mom, Winnie, was in the union at Gallaghers, the cigarette factory she worked for in Belfast. Winnie smoked nearly as many Benson & Hedges cigarettes a day as she rolled.

Winnie got retrenched for the first time as a non-unionised shop assistant at Woolworths in Durban. Winnie joined the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union at CNA. Saccawu was there when Winnie got medically boarded for arthritis. Got paid out at 50. Beat the system.

My first boss, an allegedly progressive newspaper owner, employed me at R350 a month.

I was used as cheap labour. Promised an increase in six months. Looked at me like I was mad when I asked for it. Acted surprised when I went out for lunch and didn’t come back to work.

I became a union member in my second newspaper job. I got involved in starting one, the Association of Democratic Journalists, in my third job. We organised some newsrooms. Got kicked out of more. I went to work for the National Union of Metalworkers South Africa (Numsa) as my fourth job. Ended up in the peace unit of trade union federation Cosatu.

Back to May Day. There’s a Cosatu rally, at Curries Fountain Stadium, with a march first from the City Hall. Curries, the home of nonracial football in Durban back in the 1970s and 1980s, is the venue. Curries has a special place in the history of the union movement. Cosatu was launched at Curries. So was the Metal and Allied Workers Union, the predecessor of Numsa.

I don’t have to be there, and Cosatu has been reduced to an ANC cheerleader, but screw it, it’s May Day.

I’m late. The march has already left the City Hall by the time I get to the central business district. Taxis are a bit scarce, given the holiday.

The march is small, a handful really, compared with the May Day marches of the past. Then again, Cosatu was gutted as badly by the Decade of Daddy as the rest of South Africa. What’s left is not what was there before.

I hang back, waiting for the marchers to reach me. I’ll tag along for the last leg to Curries. I have my issues with Cosatu over the Daddy thing, but today isn’t about them. Today’s about us.

The front rank gets closer. There’s this white blur in the middle. Perhaps it’s Jeremy Cronin. I can’t think of any other wit ou that would be leading a Cosatu march.

The blur becomes a face. Jesus Christ. It’s Carl Niehaus. Carl’s all grins and stiff-legged toyi-toyi as he looks around for a TV camera. I’m seized by the urge to spew.

I spit on the pavement. Turn around. Head home.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Paddy Harper
Paddy Harper

Related stories


Subscribers only

Come what may, the UIF will pay

The fund – the main safety net for unemployed workers – will run at an almost R20-billion deficit

‘Terrorised’ family shines a light on traditional leadership for vulnerable...

The ambiguity between traditional and constitutional leadership has been exposed by the violent banishment of an Eastern Cape family

More top stories

Zondo commission: Molefe says Glencore sold Optimum to portray him...

Former Eskom chief executive paints himself as the victim of a plot at the hands of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s former business associates

Municipal workers convicted in R3.5m ‘Christmas cheer’ fund fraud scheme

A fund that was meant to provide much-needed, end-of-year cash for municipal workers was looted by the three signatories of the account

Tshiamiso Trust makes due on silicosis payout

Beneficiaries will now be able to apply to get money from the settlement almost two years after the Johannesburg high court ruled on the matter.

Shootings on Cape Flats claim 14 lives in less than...

At least 50 more police and other law enforcement officers were sent to the area in response to the spate of violence

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…