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.

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Paddy Harper
Paddy Harper
Storyteller.

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