UNITED: The leader of Saftu, Zwelinzima Vavi, is seen outside the Department of Health and Human Settlements. Saftu organised marches in various cities for a living wage, not a minimum wage. Pictures: Nhlanhla Phillips/ African News Agency (ANA)

May Day this year comes during Saftu, Numsa and other stakeholders rejecting the minimum wage offer of R20/hour which was meant to be implemented the day after tomorrow (on May Day).

It's an old truism that the Left focuses on the distribution of wealth and the Right on its production. It is true, as the Right argues, that a single-minded focus on the distribution of wealth will soon lead to a state without the resources to meet basic needs. 

It's also true, as the Left argues, that a single-minded focus on the generation of wealth will lead to great inequality and, ultimately, social crisis and instability.

There is broad agreement now that SA needs a minimum wage. For a number of countries around the world, including Brazil, the minimum wage has been a vital part of their success.

In Brazil, it has improved the circumstances not just of people with formal employment, but also of their families and communities. It allows people to ensure the health of their families, to educate their children and to support local businesses in their own neighbourhoods.

A national minimum wage of R3 500 a month would move GDP growth to about 2.9% by encouraging more spending. There is doubt about whether the much higher amounts demanded by Saftu would be sustainable, but May Day is no doubt a good time to intensify this debate in an attempt to see an overall improvement in the lives of the working class and the poor.

The tragedy of post-apartheid South Africa is demonstrated, in part, by the desperation of dis-empowered workers, living in squalid informal settlements, and doing dangerous work deep underground, earning a pittance, while the management and shareholders rake in millions each year.

What does May Day mean for South Africa today?

Peter Linebaugh, the US radical historian who has been called the “world's greatest living historian”, has written a superb series of articles on May Day.

He shows that the holiday has its roots in the woodland cultures that grew up in the vast forests of ancient Europe.

It was a spring festival, celebrating the bounty of nature. With the rise of capitalism, elites, desperate to impose a “proper work discipline” on the people, sought to repress the festival. It was in this repression that it began to be identified as a workers’ holiday.

Since that first call by utopian socialist Robert Owen, to the Chicago labour unions of machinists and blacksmiths, that led to the momentous demonstration by 100 000 workers in New York City in 1872, winning the right to mark May Day as a workers’ holiday has been a painful and long process. Following the 1889 International Socialist Congress, a series of huge workers demonstrations shook the US and most of Europe.

In South Africa, workers, under the banners of the Social Democratic Federation, the Industrial Socialist League and the SACP, filled squares in the major urban centres, where Jewish leaders, such as AZ Berman, and their Muslim counterparts, such as Abdullah Abdurahman, led workers arm in arm with Clements Kadalie and John Gomas.

For workers, colour, religion and creed meant nothing, they were brothers in struggle, they had nothing to lose, but their chains. Workers and workers’ parties came to power in many countries following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. There were successes and failures, victories and disappointments, new challenges and questions.

There were also the realities of the technological revolution, the rise and fall of Stalinism, the splits and revisions, the so-called clash of civilisations, the globalised triumph and collapse of sections of financial capital, epitomised by the 2008 crash.

Perhaps the greatest theme linking the global struggle to be able to celebrate May Day as a workers’ holiday was the demand for an eight-hour day - eight hours for rest, eight for work and eight of free time. This demand was eventually won in many countries, but often at cost and with much blood.

Today workers face the future head-on. Their new struggles are against unemployment, retrenchments, full pensions, equal pay for equal work, and humane treatment of non-unionised workers.

The workers are older these days, with a sprinkling of young people who have lost their jobs to cheap imports of final products and extremely cheap labour, new technologies, casualisation and multi-skilling.

Outside India and China, which are now the workshops of the world, the problems faced by many of the young have more to do with their not being able to find work than enduring exploitation at work.

From the US to England and South Africa, millions of young people confront a life of unemployment. This is the great challenge of our times. And it is one we in South Africa are failing, virtually completely, to get to grips with. Here the workers congregate with their banners in stadiums and squares to listen to their political leaders romanticising the achievements of the present government as we prepare to cast our votes in 2019.

South African workers have honed a dual consciousness - a workers’ consciousness that makes them proud of being workers who strive for a better life through struggles, and a nationalist consciousness that has made them key voters for the ANC.

They have invested their faith and belief in one of the most organised worker federations in the world.

And while trade unions often continue to do a good job in representing the workers, they have failed to make a real connection with the struggles of the unemployed.

Most workers live in communities beset with unemployment, poverty and lack of service delivery. South Africa's army of unemployed has nothing to lose but its chains.

* Buccus is senior research associate at ASRI, research fellow at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Social Sciences, and academic director of a university study abroad program on political transformation

The Sunday Independent