May Day celebrated on 1 May annually, is a celebration of workers and their work. It has a long history, being a day of commemoration and celebration of the international working classes. Historically, the South African Communist Party (SACP) has organised protests, strikes and rallies on May Day. These have been throughout the 101 years that the SACP has been in existence. This article presents some key instances of the SACP’s May Day activism.[1]

Two years after the founding of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) (renamed the South African Communist Party (SACP) in 1953), in 1923, Sidney Bunting helped organise a modest May Day protest at Town Hall in Johannesburg. At the protest, which was organised to commemorate and highlight the contributions of workers, there were four banners – for the CPSA, the miners, the Young Communist League (YCL) and the Building Workers Industrial Union (BWIU). The International (a communist song) was played after each resolution and “the public joined in”. The meeting drew over 600 attendees.[2] 

On May Day, 1931, a decade after the CPSA was founded, a large crowd assembled outside the Rand Club in Johannesburg, Transvaal (now Gauteng) in protest.[3] The club had been established just one year after Johannesburg was formed and was designed to lavishly accommodate the distinguished visitors of the mining industry – those protesting contrasted the opulence of the Rand Club as opposed to the dispossession, low wages and poor living conditions entrenched by the mining industry.  Sidney Bunting, who had helped organise this protest, noted that the Rand Club had long been a site of processions against the ruling classes and that the purpose of the 1931 May Day demonstration was to “was to shake the complacency of the comfortable and moneyed classes, who were doing nothing for the unemployed”.[4]

The group was made up largely of unemployed African people, who protested outside the club and shouted together “we want bread”.[5] The attack on the Rand Club also focussed on the Carlton hotel, both of which were “symbols of the wealth of mine owners”.[6] After efforts were made by the protesting crowd to force entry into the Club (symbolic of their exclusion from the profits of the mining industry), the police swarmed the protesters and charged ten of the people who had attempted to enter the club with public violence.[7] Some key SACP members were part of this event; Issy Diamond and Molly Wolton were the brains behind it, TW Thibedi was present at the rally and got arrested and Sidney Bunting defended some of the unemployed people in court who were arrested during the rally.[8]

The CPSA held a protest on International Workers’ Day (also named May Day) in 1950. The CPSA, African National Congress (ANC) and South African Indian Congress (SAIC) passed a resolution to hold a strike on 1 May 1950 to protest against the pass laws and other discriminatory legislation. The strike was held in Orlando West. The police attacked protesters and opened gunfire on them, killing 18 and seriously injuring 30 people. [9]  

The Suppression of Communism Act, reported to be in response to these May Day protests, was legislated shortly after, on 20 June 1950. This May Day rally was significant in the history of the CPSA, but also for their links to the ANC.

Gauger suggests that following the events of this 1950 May Day protest, Nelson Mandela was convinced of the CPSA’s and communists’ commitment to African nationalism. Both the CPSA and the ANC embarked on a National Day of Protest on 26 June 1950 against the banning of the SACP.

On May Day in 1961, the SACP disseminated a pamphlet highlighting the barrage of racist and unfair conditions in Hendrik Verwoerd’s Apartheid South Africa; pass laws, police raids, low wages, starvation, landlessness, segregation, job reservation and the banning of political organisations opposed to the Apartheid state. The SACP called for “nationwide action” between all workers “African, Indian, coloured and white” at the end of May 1961.[10]