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
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