The Story Behind May Day

The struggle for a shorter workday, a demand of major political significance for the working class dates back to the 19th century.

On 7 October 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, in the United States of America and Canada resolved that eight hours should constitute a legal day’s labour as of 01 May 1886. The Federation also recommended to workers organizations under their jurisdiction that they abide by this resolution by the said date. Since then May Day has been celebrated on 01 May annually.

The first recorded celebration of May Day in South Africa is reported by Ray Alexander to have taken place in 1895 which was organised by the Johannesburg District Trades Council.

It would not be until 1928 that May Day would be taken up by African workers en masse. In that year thousands of African workers took part in a mass May Day march that dwarfed the small Labour Party’s demonstration which consisted of white workers only.  Between 1928 and 1948 May Day became an annual event, drawing workers of all races.

On the 64th Anniversary of May Day, in 1950, the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) called for a May Day strike to protest against the Suppression of Communism Act. The strike resulted in police violence that led to the death of 18 people across Soweto.  Nelson Mandela, later South Africa’s first democratically elected President, sought refuge in a nurses’ dormitory, overnight, where he sheltered from the gunfire.

Following the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994, 1 May was inaugurated as an official national public holiday.

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.

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