May Day: A tale of two rallies

Workers’ Day events provided opportunities for election campaigning, as well as a chance for some to capitalise on the crowds and make some much-needed money.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) held competing rallies yesterday, with members from both dressed in the red of the international workers’ movement.

Cosatu held its main event at the Sugar Ray Xulu Stadium in Clermont, Durban, and speakers included President Cyril Ramaphosa, Cosatu’s first female president Zingiswa Losi and South African Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande. Workers were called on to support the ANC in the 8 May general election.

1 May 2019: (From left) Cosatu president Zingiswa Losi, President Cyril Ramaphosa and Minister of Transport Blade Nzimande at the Cosatu Workers’ Day event in Durban. (Photograph by Mlungisi Mbele)

The main Saftu event took place at the old Peter Mokaba Stadium in Polokwane. Federation president Mac Chavalala and National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) general secretary Irvin Jim were the main speakers. The working class were called on to vote for the new Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party (SRWP) formed by Saftu-affiliated unions.

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Despite the Durban heat, Ramaphosa wore a red leather National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) jacket for the rally. He acknowledged the unemployment crisis and vowed to address it by attracting investment. He also acknowledged the extent of corruption and promised a crackdown.

Nzimande called for workers to give the ANC “a decisive victory in the election” and directed Nehawu to organise and ensure that South Africa gets national health insurance. Speaking in isiZulu, Nzimande said. “If you [Nehawu] don’t rise and mobilise to get national health insurance, there will be no health insurance.”

1 May 2019: Phakama Bhadulana attended Cosatu’s rally in Durban ‘to celebrate the rights of workers’. (Photograph by Mlungisi Mbele)

The rights of workers

Phakama Bhadulana, a 24-year-old farm worker in a red sun hat and ANC neck scarf, said the focus should be on paying workers a decent salary. “I am here to celebrate the rights of workers. For me, Workers’ Day means the employer should know the rights of workers.”

She explained that she works six days a week in hot weather, yet her salary is not enough to take care of her family. “I get paid R18 an hour, we work hard. I work eight hours on weekdays and five hours on Saturdays.” This works out to R810 a week.

Queen Zondi, 39, sat next to neatly packed hotdogs and a bucket full of ice and cans of cooldrink. She said that as an unemployed graduate, the rally was an opportunity for her to make money for her four kids. “When people are enjoying Workers’ Day, I am thinking about working and making money.”

Zondi, who completed her electrical engineering degree at Elangeni College in Durban, took a taxi from her home in Ntuzuma township to the stadium. “It’s R300 from Ntuzuma to the stadium and R300 to go back.” She highlighted that the lack of basic services such as water and electricity drastically affect her ability to prepare and sell food. “We would love for the president to help us with water. When I left home to come to the stadium, there was no water. Even here [at Clermont], we struggled to get water to make the meals. We had to buy one bucket of water for R30.”

1 May 2019: Nozibele Mabizela did not attend Cosatu’s May Day rally in Durban and said she was only wearing an ANC T-shirt that day as a garment, not to show support. (Photograph by Mlungisi Mbele)

Tired of government promises

A short walk from the stadium, 65-year-old Nozibele Mabizela, a sangoma, did not attend the rally. Standing in the doorway of her rented room, she told New Frame she was tired of the promises made by government.

“He [Ramaphosa] was here two weeks ago, but we are never happy to go there and talk with him, because what are we going to talk about. They only want us when we are voting. We’ve been voting, but we get nothing,” she said. Mabizela, in an ANC T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of Ramaphosa’s face, said she was only wearing it to cover herself, not to show support.

She added, with some bitterness, that Workers’ Day means nothing to her as she is unemployed and has no water. “I am not working. I am old. Yes, I get R1 800 [an old age pension], but that’s not enough.”

Mabizela pulled up her traditional red and white cloth, worn as a skirt, to show her swollen knee. She explained that she can’t fetch water and has to hire young boys to fetch water for her.

Her neighbour, Doreen Mthembu, 61, had to cover the roof of her shack with black plastic after the floods two weeks ago. “We don’t sleep at night because of the wind. All things inside [the shack] are now rotten,” she said. She has temporary jobs and doesn’t earn enough money to build a proper home. “I am crying on Workers’ Day,” she said.

1 May 2019: Saftu president Mac Chavalala speaking at the federation’s May Day celebrations in Polokwane, Limpopo. (Photograph by Gulshan Khan)

Militant language

The language at the Saftu rally was militant. Chavalala listed the federation’s success in various battles around insourcing, unfair dismissals and salary increases. He said, “it has become crystal clear that the working-class vote has allowed the ANC to become the worst butcher post-1994. We cannot, as workers, vote for more neoliberal policies or a capitalist-inspired government.”

He added that, “The time has come for the working class to realise that our struggle is not only about confronting the logic of capitalism at workplaces, but we have a responsibility, especially as Saftu, to vote for a party that is going to abolish capitalism and replace it with socialism.”

In an interview with New Frame, Jim said, “Workers are celebrating this May Day against a backlog of a failed negotiated settlement to deliver to our people. We have close to 40% of unemployed people, which includes those who are actively looking for jobs and those who’ve given up, and we have millions in poverty. And of course, the ANC traded a liberation for just a political settlement.”

Jim added that, “Everything under apartheid is still the order of the day, because what they [the ANC] did was to replace a white regime with a black regime. The working class since 1994 have been victims of an untransformed South African economy that has led to massive job losses, casualisation of work and labour brokers.

“The ANC is saying black African people deserve R20 an hour. They went beyond the point of duty in serving white monopoly capital. They’ve tampered with the constitutional rights of workers, which is to organise.”

1 May 2019: (Left to right) Esther Masemola, Meltar Sebesho and Lycia Madiseng, community health workers from Marishane, were attending a Workers’ Day event for the first time. (Photograph by Gulshan Khan)


Esther Masemola, 51, Meltar Sebesho, 50, and Lycia Madiseng, 36, decided to attend a May Day event for the first time. “We would see it on television,” said Madiseng.

They come from Marishane in Sekhukhune District Municipality, Limpopo. They work as community health workers at Marishane Clinic, where they assist nurses, tend to sick and old people in their homes and help with medication. What finally pushed them to attend the rally is that they are not happy with the stipends they receive from the Department of Health.

They received a stipend of R3 500 for the first time in April, after receiving less than R2 000 a month for years.

Masemola and Sebesho have been volunteering as community health workers for seven years and Madiseng, who supports 10 or more family members at any given time, has been a volunteer community health worker for the past 11 years. “The department must absorb us now,” said Madiseng.

Masemola, a mother of three, has one child studying at Tshwane University of Technology. “Life is very difficult. I am struggling to afford essentials. We are tired of stipends and we are tired of being slaves.”

Sebesho, a single parent of four with two grandchildren, has two children at college. When asked how she gets by, she said, “Yoh, I’m so struggling. I’m really struggling. I am assisted by Sassa [South Africa Social Security Agency] money. Without it, I can’t imagine how life would have been.”

1 May 2019: Soldier Big Dog from Senwabarwana in Limpopo performing at the Polokwane May Day event. (Photograph by Gulshan Khan)

Unorganised workers

Soldier Big Dog, 36, who is affectionately known as Biggie, performed at the Polokwane rally. His song, Marikana, which starts with gunshots, met with considerable emotion. Biggie comes from the dusty and destitute rural area of Senwabarwana, which falls under the Blouberg Local Municipality in Limpopo.

“The only time you would say you have money in my village is when you go and chop firewood and sell to the community or make a kraal for people’s goats,” said Biggie. “The ruling party is failing the young generation. If tertiary education was free when I finished school, I believe I would be far by now because I still love education.”

Outside the stadium, New Frame spoke to Lucky Malasa, 32, one of the millions of unorganised workers in South Africa. He works as a vendor and sells cooldrinks, snacks, chips and energy drinks.

He comes from the Sekhukhune region in Limpopo. As a young boy, he dreamt of becoming an electrical engineer. But tough circumstances forced him out of school and he started his vending business in 2009, “after there was constantly no food at home”.

He quit school in form 3, now grade 10. On average, he makes about R1 500 a month. “If I was not a vendor, my life would have been more difficult. I would be starving,” he said.

The May Day rally was a good day for Malasa. His cooldrinks had already run out by 11.30am, forcing him to go back to Polokwane city to buy more stock.

He was pleased to be having a good day financially and to be meeting and engaging with other workers. “Workers’ Day is a nice time for me,” Malasa said. “This day allows us as workers to be together.”

1 May 2019: Lucky Malasa sells drinks and snacks outside Saftu’s rally in Polokwane, Limpopo. (Photograph by Gulshan Khan)
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