Reluctant revolutionary

2009-08-22 12:06

IN 1975 Emma Mashinini started the Commercial,

Catering and Allied Workers’ Union of South Africa (CCAWUSA). With her at the

helm, as its general ­secretary, it became the second ­largest union in the

country with a membership of 70 000. She was also central in the establishment

of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).

Mashinini’s legend as a ­unionist is rooted in many achievements.

Hers was the first ­union to get women’s maternity rights and men’s paternity

rights recognised and protected. Prior to this, women workers who fell ­pregnant

were regarded as unsightly, removed from “front of office” jobs, and routinely

found themselves dismissed when they tried to return to work after giving birth.

Mashinini laughs off any suggestion of herself as a revolutionary,

saying the struggle was for both ­racial and gender equality.

“Women were not allowed to be members of the pension fund. In 1956,

when I was still a garment worker, we went on strike for a ­penny because we

earned a penny short of the amount needed to qualify to become a contributor to

the ­unemployment insurance fund,” she says.

“I was elected as shop steward and then floor supervisor – a

position ­reserved for white women. When the inspectors discovered this, they

said I was an assistant to an assistant. I said: ‘Don’t pay me, just give me the

title of supervisor.’ They did. That was a way of breaking job ­reservation – it

was a matter of ­principle.”

Mashinini, who celebrated her 80th birthday on Friday night, was

born in 1929 in Diagonal Street, ­Johannesburg.

The second eldest of six children, her peripatetic early years were

the consequence of ­repeated forced removals. Her ­family was moved from

Diagonal Street to Prospect Township, near City Deep, then to Sophiatown and

­eventually to Soweto.

Of Sophiatown she says: “We lived on Toby Street, not far from Dr

Xuma. At the corner there was a ­Chinese grocery. We lived close to the Naidoos

– perhaps that is why I have all these Naidoo boys in my life – and across the

road there was a veld where we played with white children from Westdene.”

The “Naidoo boys” Mashinini speaks of are former unionists Jayendra

Naidoo and Jay Naidoo, now executive chairperson and executive director,

respectively, of the J&J Group, which has established the Emma Mashinini

Foundation to develop skills for trade union ­activists, and to foster the

increased ­participation of women in the trade union movement.

J&J have seeded R1 million to the foundation, which was

launched to coincide with Mashinini’s birthday on Friday.

“Jayendra worked full time with me in the union, and Big Jay – as

we call him – I worked with him ­during the unity talks which led to the

­formation of Cosatu,” says Mashinini, who pursued her activism even in the face

of police harassment.

She was supported unconditionally by her husband, Sam Mashinini,

who also worked for a union. The couple would regularly pamphleteer together

early in the morning to catch workers en route to work.

In November 1981 Mashinini was detained and held for six months in

solitary confinement.

She was arrested along with her friend and comrade, Dr Neil


­Unbeknown to her, while they were both detained Aggett became the

first white person to be killed in detention. “We were detained on the same day

and we saw one another as we got into John Vorster (Square) and he waved and

greeted me and I didn’t greet him back.”

Mashinini found out about Aggett’s death from a Rand Daily Mail

that was smuggled into her cell.

“I lost a colleague, a comrade and a friend that I worked closely

with. Neil Aggett was a medical doctor. He came to our level as workers. His

interest was our health and our safety. Those are the things that we must

remember him for.”

Mashinini’s health suffered profoundly because of solitary

confinement. Her most harrowing memory of detention was forgetting the name of

her youngest daughter, Dudu. “That was the worst torture: to forget my own

child’s name in a big, empty, solitary cell. I wanted to talk to her; I could

see her face, but I couldn’t recollect her name. It was very devastating.”

For years after being released from jail, Mashinini suffered from

post-traumatic stress disorder which caused amnesia and blackouts around the

anniversary of her detention. She says she no longer does.

A staunch Anglican, faith is what keeps her going when she is

running on empty, says Mashinini, who threatened to go on hunger strike to get

communion while she was in jail. “Eventually they agreed to let the church come

and give me communion, provided it was not by Bishop Desmond Tutu.”

Mashinini says she made it through solitary confinement because of

the efforts of a woman.

“I was sinking lower and lower, and one day this woman prison guard

came into my cell, locked the door and took off her prison uniform, and

underneath it she had on the red and white uniform of the Methodist women’s

union. And she said: ‘Let’s pray.’ We prayed and then she put her uniform back

on and walked out of my cell. She risked her job to lift me up, and whenever I

see the Methodists in red and white I call back that memory.”

Mashinini retired at 73, after having worked for the Commission for

Land Restitution. Prior to that she represented Cosatu on the National Manpower


Among the many awards bestowed on Mashinini, she received the Order

of the Baobab from President Thabo Mbeki in 2007. The Emma Mashinini Foundation

is, however, the first one established in her name. Mashinini says she has one

word of advice for South African women: “As you go forward, please keep looking


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