Guest Column

You were inspiring: Emma Mashinini

2017-07-16 06:35
Trade unionist, struggle icon and gentle giant Emma Mashinini with Jay Naidoo and his wife, Lucie Pagé. Photo: Craig Nieuwenhuizen

Trade unionist, struggle icon and gentle giant Emma Mashinini with Jay Naidoo and his wife, Lucie Pagé. Photo: Craig Nieuwenhuizen

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Jay Naidoo

Emma Mashinini

August 21 1929 – July 10 2017

The last time I spoke to Ma Emma was a few months ago at the launch of my book in Johannesburg. She looked graceful and as elegant as ever. She radiated warmth and empathy. Her spirit shone brightly through a body slowed down by age and reliant on a firm stick. We hugged. Her smile was serene, but her eyes were troubled.

I spent a long time wondering about the sadness I saw in her. That I saw in Ahmed Kathrada. That I see in the mirror of my soul. It’s the sadness deep in the heart of Andrew Mlangeni, Denis Goldberg and so many others who have given so much of their lives to the cause of justice.

I thought back to the first time I met Ma Emma. I heard her before I saw her. It was at Khotso House in Johannesburg, home to the SA Council of Churches. She was surrounded by a crowd of workers. I was a new kid on the block in this big city of Egoli, nearly four decades ago. I was intrigued. I pierced the gathering, attracted by the magnetism of a small, powerful woman holding the floor.

Her wisdom permeated the crowds around her, embracing all in the courageous wonder of what is possible in life. Radiating integrity, discipline, a good head and a pure heart, her voice rose and fell like the tides of change, with the silky passion that knocks on the door of conscience. I knew then that she would be my lifelong teacher.

Ma Emma was a gentle giant who masked the dynamism of her fierce commitment to justice. I never knew someone so small make such a big difference in the lives of others. She guided us on the art of living with kindness and solidarity. But one never underestimated the rock that lay within.

Many did, and to their amazement, they learnt to respect and admire how she lived her life.

As I sat with Ma Emma that last time, I knew that she was sharing her last testament with me.

It has been a magnificent and inspiring journey. We saw our Mother Earth as our teacher. She led us to see ourselves as beings of love, light, compassion and generosity. We saw ourselves as servants of a higher purpose. We knew right from wrong, good from evil and justice from injustice.

Our work was driven by our shared commitment to unity, to building a nation that truly served our people and delivered on the covenant of a “better life” that we had promised in 1994.

Much has happened since then – some really good, like having her in our lives – and some really bad.


We should take the lessons from those disappointments and use the growing anger that is engulfing the country to reset our moral compass towards the inspiring dreams and hopes that we embraced at the beginning of our democracy.

We understood that changing the system – and even entrenching freedom in the permanence of a constitutional democracy – was insufficient to defend and advance the rights of our people. We understood that our most urgent task was to change the human being.

Sharing food, caring for infants and building social networks helped our ancestors. So, we needed to ask ourselves these questions: What does it mean to be human? How do I live with humanity in life, in our politics, in our economy and in our community?

I know Ma Emma knew of this need. Decent, humble, dedicated and sincere, she was a mother who believed in the inherent goodness of every human being. She had a profound love for ordinary people, the underclass and the working people.

I know she has gone to a better place. And she still showers us with love. My heart is full of gratitude for how she has lived her life, because she has made a difference in so many other lives. I learnt so much from her as she opened her arms to me and so many activists in those difficult times.

Today much is grey. We have lost time. Our leaders failed to imbibe the life lessons of our past. We have become drunk on power. But we know that the cycle will change. Each generation must find its voice, its struggle and its destiny.

That time is now upon us. We often talked about the challenges that we had left to young people. We spoke about creating safe and sacred places for an intergenerational conversation about solutions to the challenges we face, both local and global. We understood that the world had changed much since we built the trade union movement in the 1980s.

Those changes are terrifying for our youth. We are leaving them an ecological emergency and a world of growing joblessness, poverty and inequality.

The youth has a legitimate right to be angry with us. Our conversations about change are old; our ideologies, institutions and ways of working, archaic.

We saw the need to co-create the new narratives and social networks that empower the next generation to deal with our volatile present.

Emma lived a life on Earth where she regarded everything that sustained us as sacred. She learnt to tread softly. She left no scars of bitterness, sorrow and want. With you, Ma Emma, we learnt to be patient guides and to understand that listening with empathy is the wisest way to learn life lessons.

Our people know that we cannot solve all the problems we have now. But they want to know, to participate in and to discuss how we can solve the challenges of our country together. Above all, they want humble, honest and ethical leaders.

Ma Emma, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for all you have done for our country, our people and humanity. Never did I hear a word of complaint or regret. You are the matriarch I was always happy to call my mother.

Jay Naidoo is a former general secretary of Cosatu and a former Cabinet minister



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