This week, both May Day (May 1) and Cassinga Day (May 4) occur. Each year, people plan their post-Easter leave days around these two important national holidays.
In over-doing this, we believe that Namibians are downplaying the significance of these two important days of recognition.
May Day is celebrated around the world in most countries as the day to show appreciation for workers. May Day or Workers’ Day is meant to celebrate those who labour to build this nation and recognize the value of their collective contribution.
The long history behind this particular day in the year is available in many history texts and online on many informational websites.
While we in the media work on May Day to get the next day’s newspapers completed, most workers rest (as they should). Usually in Namibia, there is a poorly attended and ill-funded labour union public event on the day, but, ultimately, it is a day where people are not supposed to work (other than essential services).
We feel the ‘specialness’ of these national holidays is lost, particularly for the younger generations. Instead of planning to respect workers or even think about major labour issues of the day (such as a national minimum wage or continued violations of the Labour Act), people were making bookings and fuelling up their cars.
Far too many discussions this year were around the need to take off work on Monday the 30th of April, Tuesday and Wednesday the 2nd and 3rd of May so that people could string together two weekends added to the two free days and have a more substantial holiday.
An example of the lack of understanding of the meaning of May Day was when President Geingob originally announced May 1st as a nationwide clean-up campaign where he expected all citizens “to roll up their sleeves and clean the country of its nauseating dirt.”
Geingob made the announcement in mid-march after meeting the leadership of the National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW).
We were pleased that in the end, he listened to a wider range of voices, and recognized that using the day set aside to respect labour to push a work campaign, was a contradiction. He, correctly, chose another day.
Sadly, however, we are puzzled with why Geingob subsequently chose Africa Day (May 25th) or African Liberation Day as his next best clean-up day, equally disrespecting the value of the African Union (which shares our national anthem) and the need to show solidarity support for our continent (and the diaspora) as well as the day to commemorate all liberation victories in Africa (including our own.)
We wonder why Geingob did not declare a Friday in June or July (there are already three holidays in May) as the clean-up day, release all civil servants from their offices (but not from work) at noon and require them to clean-up specific areas outside until 4 pm (given the colder weather).
Encouraging the private sector to do the same, closing the public schools (asking private schools to follow suit) and calling out the army from its bases to join in, could have made the national clean-up campaign more meaningful.
When government demonstrates that it is willing to sacrifice (civil service labour lost on that half day) for its goals, it shows an inspiring level of commitment. However, when government asks people to voluntarily give up their otherwise free time for undefined, random physical labour, while it gives nothing of itself other than photo ops of high government officials picking up trash for a minute or two, the entire point of the clean-up day is threatened with wilful non-compliance.
Cassinga Day is not a celebration, but a respectful remembrance. This year, 40 years after that fateful day in 1978, at a SWAPO refugee center in Angola, the South African Defence Force (SADF) swooped down on a camp full of mostly women and children and opened fire, shooting many in the back as they ran away.
Over 600 hundred were killed in the attack while hundreds more were wounded. Reports that SADF forces walked through the camp shooting the wounded and unarmed people who had already surrendered are repeated by many eye witnesses. This attack awakened world attention to and support for the struggle for freedom in Namibia.
It was a bloody, painful, terrifying massacre that many revisionists still attempt to downplay. Some obstinate voices try to place blame for the inhumanity of the apartheid troops on their victims and deny that anyone other than armed “terrorists” were killed that day. We dismiss such misguided denials.
Namibia annually recognises Cassinga Day as a salute to the victims of the South African army – not only those killed or physically wounded in the attack, but those still suffering forms of post-traumatic stress as they live with the nightmares stemming from the abject terror they experienced that day.
This is an event in history that must not be forgotten. Namibia chose May 4th as a national day of remembrance of Cassinga precisely for that reason, not as an occasion to celebrate a long weekend of braaivleis and beer.
Respecting both May Day and Cassinga Day does not mean that one cannot rest, relax, visit family, enjoy a national park or have some fun. But, it does mean that it is important that we all remember why these holidays must not get lost. An hour or more where ALL Namibians reflect on what these days are about, can teach the children important lessons. If we lose the points behind our national days, we will lose a part of who we are as one Namibia, one nation.