Cheryl Kahla
Deputy Online News Editor
3 minute read
1 May 2022
10:33 am

Is it Workers’ Day or May Day? The violent struggle for an eight-hour workday

Cheryl Kahla

1 May is celebrated as Workers' Day in South Africa. It is also referred to as May Day and Labour Day in other parts of the world. Here's why.

Melbourne poster, dated 1856. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

1 May is celebrated as Workers’ Day in South Africa. It is also referred to as May Day and Labour Day in other parts of the world.

In addition, the American Federation of Labour chose the date to promote the eight-hour workday in the United States – more on that later.

Let’s look at the origins of Workers Day from three perspectives.

Workers Day, 1 May: Origin

Workers’ Day and Labour Day in South Africa

Workers’ Day is celebrated in South Africa to commemorate the role played by Trade Unions, the Communist Party and other movements during apartheid.

Following the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994, May 1st was inaugurated and officially recognised as a public holiday.

The struggle for better working conditions is linked to the struggle to overthrow apartheid and end segregation because SA’s working classes were the most oppressed during the previous regime.

Today, Workers’ Day in South Africa signifies the sacrifices made on the long road toward fair employment standards.

So what is May Day?

We’ll have to dig deeper into the history archives for this one. The demand for a shorter workday dates back to the late 1800s.

British origin

During Brittain’s Industrial Revolution, an average working day could range from anywhere between 10 and 16 hours.

In addition, a workweek consisted of six days, and child labour was a common practice.

In 1817, Robert Owen proposed the idea of an eight-hour workday under the campaign slogan, ‘Eight hours’ labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest’.

In the United States

The campaign for an eight-hour workday made its way to the States when The Federation of Organised Trades and Labor Unions revived the 8-hour workday campaign in October 1884.

Growing discontent among employees led to widespread strikes on 1 May 1886, culminating in the Haymarket Riot (also known as the Haymarket Massacre) in Chicago four days later.

A violent riot broke out when an unnamed person threw a dynamite bomb at police who confronted protesters.

Eight people were killed and several others injured.

In South Africa

The Johannesburg District Trades Council reportedly organised the first recorded celebration of May Day in South Africa in 1895.

The next celebration was 15 years later when British labour and socialist leader Tom Mann travelled to South Africa in 1910.

Mann criticised the South African Labour Party for its treatment of African workers and called on the white labour movement to organise among Africans in the labour force.

This was followed by the Mineworkers Strike (also known as the July Strike) in 1913 and the Railway Strike in January 1914, which led to the growth of the Labour Party.

The Freedom Charter and Congress Alliance

In June 1952, almost two months after May Day, the largest scale non-violent resistance ever seen in South Africa began to take shape.

The campaign – led by African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Indian Congress (SAIC) – was the first of its kind pursued jointly by all racial groups.

Three years later, the Freedom Charter was born, and the Congress Alliance was formed between the anti-apartheid forces of the 1950s. The Alliance consisted of:

  • The African National Congress
  • South African Indian Congress (SAIC)
  • South African Coloured People’s Congress,
  • South African Congress of Democrats
  • The South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU)

However, the apartheid government then intensified its banning orders on any political activist belonging to the Alliance.

Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, James Moroka and 17 others were tried under the Suppression of Communism Act. They were all sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment with hard labour, suspended for two years.

The Suppression of Communism Act forced activists to go underground. This led to Umkhonto we Sizwe turning to Communist parties for financial aid.

Later on, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki were handed life sentences at the Rivonia Trial, partly because of this Act.