South African Workers' Day is celebrated on 1 May. The date is also celebrated around the world as International Workers Day. The commemoration of such a day is to bear testament to the vital role workers have played in fighting for human rights and social justice over decades when workers protested for better wages and working conditions.
Black South Africans worked under inhumane and harsh conditions under apartheid rule particularly in the mining and agricultural sectors. They were subjected to gross human rights violations, unfair labour practices and minimal wages which saw the birth of labour and trade unions.
Labour activism dates back as early as the 1840s, when the first unions were formed. However most major industrial unions were only organized after World War I. The formation of the unions were either in support of or opposition to racial privileges claimed by whites. Until 1979 black unions were not recognized by the government and they were not granted with labour law protection. Of the 172 registered trade unions in 1977 that were eligible to bargain collectively, 83 were white, 48 were coloured, and 41 were open to whites, coloureds, and Asians.
The South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), was formed in the early 1950s and became the leader of the antiapartheid struggle in the black labour movement. Many of its leaders were often arrested and harassed for political agitation. In 1960 a ban was placed on the orgnisation of black workers into trade unions. During this period students from various Universities around the country began to form wage commissions and to help workers understand their situation better as well as make representations to the various wage board hearings for better working conditions. Several huge strikes were successfully organized. In the 1970’s government recognized the need to exert greater control over labour activities and to improve government-union relations. In 1977 it established a Commission of Inquiry into Labour Legislation, headed by Professor Nicolas Wiehahn. The Wiehahn Commission recommended the legalization to enable black unions to be organised, in part to thereby bring labour militants under government control. The government recognized black unions in 1979 and granted them limited collective bargaining rights. In the same year, the government established a National Manpower Commission, with representatives from labor, business, and government, to advise policy makers on labour issues.
Black union membership soared during the 1980s. New labor confederations included the nonracial COSATU, which was affiliated with the ANC and the SACP; the PAC- affiliated to the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu); and the IFP affiliated to the United Workers Union of South Africa (UWUSA). By 1990 COSATU, the largest of these, had more than thirty union affiliates with more than 1.3 million members.
Formation of the unions contributed to labour successes. Real wages for black manufacturing workers were raised an average of 29 percent between 1985 and 1990. Overall wage increases, outside agriculture, rose by 11 percent during 1985 alone, and this annual rate of increase accelerated to 17 percent in 1990. However, by the early 1990s violence erupted during some labor actions. Violence had been part of labour's history of confrontation where some employers used force to suppress labour militancy and strikers often used violence against non-striking workers. A memorable and one of South Africa's most violent strikes took place at a gold mine near Welkom, in the Orange Free State in 1991. More than eighty miners died in clashes between strikers and non-strikers. Like many other violent strikes, this clash initially concerned economic issues, but it escalated because of political, ethnic, and racial grievances.
In the face of much opposition the South Africa working class has been at the forefront of the struggle for a democratic, non-racial, non-sexist, prosperous and united nation. After the establishment of the new Constitution the position of workers improved through the Labour Relations Act and the Basic Conditions of Employment Act. Improved working conditions for domestic workers and farm workers were also included with the introduction of minimum wages.
Through the efforts of workers and the commitment of their organizations, Workers' Day reminds us that humanity will not be free of oppression and exploitation unless all workers are treated with mutual respect, justice and equality. It also draws awareness to the many challenges that still confront the working class.