For the Love of Work 

As some may or not may not already know, the 1st of May is International Workers’ Day and is celebrated as a public holiday in South Africa. The history of May Day is significant in commemorating past efforts to eradicate workers’ rights violations and poor working conditions. Yet, as we reflect on the importance of worker solidarity, it almost feels disingenuous to attempt to consider the state of ‘work’ as a concept without contextualising within the broader pop culture media discourse taking place online about work and where it fits into our everyday life. And so, we begin with the (alleged) generational divide.

The Inter-Generational Dilemma…or Opportunity?

Every other week, there seems to be a bombardment of articles about how Gen Z (those born between 1997 to 2013) is one of the worst things to have happened to the modern workplace. Established publications write lengthy explanations about how ‘quiet quitting’ and anti-work attitudes wreak havoc on job permanence. On TikTok, countless creators produce viral videos depicting the difference between Boomers, Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z in the workplace. Gen Z’s nonchalant attitudes are often the punchline due to the contrast in behaviour and mannerisms compared to their older colleagues. There seems to be some quietly agreed upon torrential dog-piling on Gen Z. This is not because they are young and naïve (although some would argue otherwise), but because they are choosing a path that many did not think was possible for them. But instead of anger being directed towards the systems that govern and dictate our access to fundamental rights to access a clean environment, housing, and food, the repeated cycle of anger is diverted to younger generations who hold little power compared to the 1% making decisions. Capitalism’s obsession with vilifying aspects of human nature that vigilantly centre on our well-being sets a precedent for how we are valued within the systems, institutions and organisations that we are tied to. Misplaced accountability sets a dangerous narrative on who deserves basic human rights based on “hard work”. But hard work is not determined by how much of ourselves we give to entities, nor is it predicated on tolerating substandard conditions to meet certain targets and objectives. This may sound like a fairy tale, but we all deserve to have jobs that value our time and efforts. We all deserve the right to prioritise our physical and mental well-being above unethical work expectations. We all deserve the right to choose how we show up for work, in whatever capacity that means for each of us. Kahlil Gibran puts it aptly in his book The Prophet by saying the following: 

“…to love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret.”

For many marginalised bodies and identities on the outskirts of what would be considered a “good worker”, now more than ever is it important to advocate for worker’s rights everywhere. In January this year, a few of the leading global tech companies laid off about 12,000-18,000 workers with no prior notice. Shareholder wealth since COVID-19 has increased tenfold, along with the salaries of top management executives across the board in various industries. According to an article written by Walter Matli (2020) on the insights of remote workers’ life situations in South Africa, the mixed reactions signalled the vastness in the experiences of workers for those in well or under-serviced communities. If we compare and contrast how we see ourselves and others within different work environments, then we need to consider how much more we have in common with each other than we think. The issues we think will never affect us may very well be the issues that affect us eventually (ditto to load-shedding being the new normal in South Africa).

International Workers’ Day is a crucial occasion to remind us of the significance of inter-generational solidarity and a humanistic perspective towards labour. It provides an opportunity to reflect on the persistent socioeconomic inequalities that afflict workers worldwide. If we are not aware of this crucial aspect of worker solidarity, it becomes a fictitious and non-committal fantasy through which we fail to understand the very essence of our being. 

The Right to Freedom

It’s been 29 years since South Africa’s first democratic elections (27 April 1994), and there is a lot to reflect on since then. Understanding what it means to embody freedom has many different connotations as well. A famous Nelson Mandela quote about freedom says the following:

  “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

Additionally, famous activist and singer Nina Simone said the following about freedom:

With this in mind, it is crucial to reflect on how we can ensure freedom is not only about celebrating the strides made since 1994 but also what it means to see freedom as a practice. I will take us through three examples of some prevalent socio-economic inequalities that still exist in South Africa (and the continent) today that require us to remain advocates for a just society.

Equality as a form of Freedom

The first one is gender equality. According to the National Strategic Plan on Gender-based Violence and Femicide, South Africa’s high rates of structural Gender Based Violence (GBV) is tied directly to an unequal country. What this means is that for vulnerable members of our population (women, children, LGBTQIA+ persons), the promise of freedom can only go far as it is written on paper. We need to be aware of how gender inequality affects all of us because how we treat marginalised bodies has ramifications on our own freedoms in the future.

The Freedom to Live in South Africa

As mentioned in my first blog post, my Master’s thesis explored the experiences of West African migrants living in South Africa. Although the study looked at a focus group, iterations of xenophobia against African migrants exist on a larger scale. Anti-immigrant sentiments in groups like Operation Dudula set a dangerous precedent for how we create ‘us vs. them’ mentalities, negating the Pan-African values necessary for socio-economic development and prosperity for all.

Freedom to obtain a good quality of life

This ties into the third inequity, which is the right to have a quality of life that enshrines human dignity. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) states that since 1990, 10% of the global population lives in extreme poverty (down from 36% in 1990). Yet if we are to contextualise this statistic in Africa, the wide gap in systemic inequality between Africa and the rest of the world highlights how much work can still be done. Eradicating poverty in Africa is crucial for promoting our freedom, as poverty can limit individuals’ ability to access education, healthcare, and economic opportunities. According to the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), Africa has the largest share of extreme poverty rates globally, with 23 of the world’s poorest 28 countries at extreme poverty rates above 30% By addressing poverty, we can improve the overall well-being of individuals and communities, empowering them to lead more fulfilling lives and participate in shaping their own future.

Final thoughts on freedom

By understanding freedom as a fundamental right that we all have, it is imperative that we know our power as a collective of human beings who want our planet to survive and thrive. As mentioned in the first quote by Mandela, the only way to ensure freedom as a practice is through practising compassionate concern for your fellow human being. Although the future remains somewhat unknown, now more than ever, it is important for us to be aware of our realities, and how they relate to others, and to trust that we are vigilantly building towards the kind of future we envision with kindness and hope. In the words of Nina Simone, without fear. We cannot contemplate without being aware that the impetus for change has evolved into something more foreboding than a ticking clock. As such, regardless of the work that we do, there is always a way to strive towards the betterment of humanity.