Sunday, 6 May 2012

Forward to the New Edition of Emma Mashinini's 'Strikes Have Followed Me All My Life'

by Jay Naidoo, 2012

I clearly remember my first encounter with Emma Mashinini. The indomitable Ma Emma was standing in the hall at Khotso House, the headquarters of the South African Council of Churches – one of the few places we were able to meet – surrounded and dwarfed by workers. She spotted Jayendra Naidoo first, who was then working as an organiser in the Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers’ Union of South Africa (CCAWUSA), and she embraced him warmly. She turned to hug me, too, and as she did, I felt her intense compassion and warmth as she whispered, ‘Welcome my son. Welcome to our family.’ It was, and has remained ever since, an intense and powerful connection.

Strikes Have Followed Me All My Life was first published in the United Kingdom in 1989. This autobiography of an inspiring individual started off as an attempt by Ma Emma to deal with the torture and devastation she had experienced under the apartheid system. Her friend Betty Wolpert suggested that it might be therapeutic for her to trace her journey and to find closure to a difficult past. In doing so, Ma Emma gives us insight into the life of a courageous woman: wife, mother, factory worker, trade unionist and friend who found herself at the centre of the fight for equal rights in the workplace.
The re-publication of Strikes Have Followed Me All My Life comes at a crucial point in our country’s history: the one-hundredth anniversary of the founding of the African National Congress – Africa’s oldest liberation organisation. It is a significant milestone, worthy of commemoration, but it is also an anniversary that requires us to draw on the stories of a painful past. Emma’s story has its own place in that history – it’s a story of tragedy and of the triumph of a lady of the labour struggle who was more affectionately known as the ‘Tiny Giant’.
My own journey and involvement in building democratic trade unions brought me in contact with this remarkable woman. During the early years as we strove to form a national federation of trade unions, and when I began serving as the first General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) – an organisation that was the backbone of the worker’s struggle against apartheid – I fully appreciated what Ma Emma’s contribution to the labour movement was. She was a pillar of support who worked tirelessly as a trade unionist; a South African woman who showed us what it meant to be dedicated and courageous in the pursuit of social justice.
Following the 1994 democratic elections, President Nelson Mandela asked me to be the minister responsible for the Reconstruction and Development Programme. After I nominated Ma Emma to be one of the commissioners for the National Manpower Commission, which gave birth to the National Economic Development and Labour Council, she was asked to assist with the Land Commission, to redress the injustices of forced removals under apartheid. And so our journey continued as comrades, as friends and as mother and son.
Then, in early 2000 when I left politics and entered the world of business, our paths connected again when we founded the J&J Group Development Trust to deepen our business contribution to the social development vision we have always embraced. Ma Emma joined me as a trustee. While we were both no longer working for government, our belief in a better life and in social justice had only grown stronger.
Ma Emma’s story of endurance, captured evocatively in Strikes Have Followed Me All My Life, begins when she was born on 21 August 1929 in Rosettenville, Johannesburg. When Ma Emma was seven, she experienced the effects of apartheid first-hand in the form of forced removals. The economic impact of apartheid divided her family, disrupted her education and ultimately led to the breakdown of her parents’ marriage in 1943. Ma Emma went on to become a teenage bride, eventually having six children of her own. A defining year for Emma was 1956, when she found work at Henochsberg’s clothing factory as a trainee machinist. It was also the year she started to become more aware of the injustices surrounding her. A meticulous and dedicated machinist, Ma Emma joined the Garment Workers’ Union, a union for black workers that was registered and affiliated to the Trade Union Council of South Africa. At the factory, Ma Emma’s co-workers elected her as a shop steward.
The Tiny Giant was born.
Ma Emma was later promoted to floor supervisor by management. Among her victories, and one of the greatest indications of her bravery in standing up to a labour system that disadvantaged black women particularly, was in the breaking of job reservation at Henochsberg’s. Job reservation was a product of the so-called Civilised Labour Policy and the Apprenticeship Act. It disadvantaged black workers and women in the workplace by placing them in inferior positions, reserving the better positions for whites and men, and denying them certain freedoms.
But it was Ma Emma’s job title of supervisor that mattered more to her than an increase in wages as she set about to use her position to change the lives of the workers. After months of strikes and go-slows, Ma Emma won the right for workers to have unemployment insurance. Her political awareness grew, and she was present, along with her children, at the Congress of the People in Kliptown in 1955 when the Freedom Charter was drawn up.
The sixties was an extremely difficult decade for trade union organisations as many leaders were detained or forced into exile, but Ma Emma continued her work in spite of the pressures. After leaving Henochsberg’s in 1975, she continued with her union work by starting a new union for black shop workers, CCAWUSA. Ma Emma became its first General Secretary. Her union grew slowly in the first year, but by 1977 there were a thousand members, and within five years, CCAWUSA had opened offices in Durban and Cape Town. Ma Emma’s biggest task as a unionist, however, was in the formation of COSATU. By this time, CCAWUSA was the second-largest union in the country behind the National Union of Mineworkers. In 1981 Ma Emma was arrested under the Terrorism Act and spent six months in solitary confinement at Pretoria Central Prison. After her release, she underwent a brief period of therapy at a clinic in Denmark and then resumed her post at CCAWUSA for another four years. It was then that Ma Emma penned her life in this autobiography. Some of her most poignant memories are of her incarceration at Pretoria Central Prison and Jeppe police station, and of her interrogations at John Vorster Square. Ma Emma recalls:
One day, thinking about my children – Molly, who was in Germany, my grandchildren and Dudu who was in New York – thinking about their faces, and putting names to them, I could see my second-youngest daughter’s face and I wanted to call her by her name. I struggled to call out the name, the name that I always called her, and I just couldn’t recall what the name was. I struggled and struggled. I would fall down and actually weep with the effort of remembering the name of my daughter. I’d try and sleep on it, wake up. I’d go without eating, because this pain of not being able to remember the name of my daughter was the greatest I’ve ever had. And then, on the day when I actually did come across the name – this simple name Dudu or ‘Love’– I immediately fell asleep, because it was such a great relief.
The eighties brought with it major strikes and boycotts that demonstrated the power of the trade union movement. On the industrial strike action in June 1984, Emma told Sunday Times journalist Angus Macmillan, ‘Workers are called irresponsible when they ask for more money in a recession. But what do they get during boom times?’ She suggested that if management deemed its employees irresponsible for wanting more money in bad times, it was equally irresponsible for management not to fatten pay packets during a boom.
After ten years of service, Ma Emma resigned from her position as General Secretary of CCAWUSA and became the first Director of the Anglican Church’s Department of Justice and Reconciliation. This position further showed the Tiny Giant’s compassion as she dealt closely with the families of the detainees who had been incarcerated during the State of Emergency and the hundreds more who were detained without trial. She also used her position as an opportunity to speak out against capital punishment and the horrors of death row.
On 24 April 2007, the South African government awarded Emma Mashinini the Order of Luthuli Bronze for her outstanding contribution in ‘building the trade union movement; her resilience under apartheid harassment and detention in the cause for a non-sexist, non-racial, just and democratic South Africa’. It was a much-deserved acknowledgement.
In August 2012, Ma Emma turns 83, and remains militant, speaking out fearlessly against corruption and the lack of service delivery, whether it be in government, the private sector or the labour movement to which she has dedicated her life’s work.
While the term ‘job reservation’ is no longer used in democratic South Africa, women are still fighting for equal rights in the workplace and society. Corporate South Africa and even government have been slow to implement gender parity at all levels. Ma Emma’s life should inspire activists to fight the creeping traditionalism that seeks to reduce the political and corporate role of women in our country. Her story may be more than eight decades old, but Emma remains a role model for many young women and men in South Africa, whether they are climbing the corporate ladder to success, imparting skills at grassroots level or struggling to forge a living in rural South Africa.
From factory workers to CEOs, I believe that Ma Emma’s story will resonate at all levels and for decades to come. It is because of her pioneering spirit and work, and that of many like her, that South African women have the right to maternity leave. She was even at the forefront of negotiating paternity leave at the workplace.
Ma Emma represents the ethos of a group who believed in equal rights, respect for humanity and dedication to service. In her days as a trade unionist, she would stand at the gates outside each workplace, waiting to collect the 25-cent weekly union membership fees.
She would conscientiously take the money straight to the union offices. She knew all her members by name and exactly where each one worked. Receipts were issued, membership cards stamped and all finances audited and accounted for. This was public money and it belonged to the workers. There was zero tolerance for corruption and such behaviour was dealt with promptly.
Due to the commitment of people like Ma Emma in fighting against unfair labour practices, the rights of labour in democratic South Africa are enshrined in the Constitution. Ma Emma’s vision and voice have helped ensure that cheap labour, the migrant labour system, pass control, job reservation and numerous other injustices are largely features of the past. Her story is an important part of the story for freedom in South Africa and it contains vital lessons for our democracy. One thing, at least, that I have learned from Ma Emma, is that the struggle for democracy and accountability has to be fought day by day. Many of the challenges we face today, including joblessness, poverty and social inequality, remain as deep-seated and structural as they were in our apartheid past. As a predatory elite today works to undermine the fabric of our society by corrupting state officials, stealing tenders and robbing the poorest of the poor of resources meant for reconstruction and development, we need to be reminded by the example of leaders like Ma Emma of why we fought for freedom. We need a return to the values that put service to our people above the vested interests of the individual. That was our contract with the people in 1994 – the commitment to deliver a better life to all. There is a growing concern shared by many that the democratic and political space that we won is shrinking, and that a veil of secrecy is being drawn over our country by fearful leaders. We must resist this with all the conviction we had in the past. Our struggle against apartheid was a struggle for voice. As Ma Emma insists:
When we elect leaders to be public representatives, we do not mean that they have divine rights to rule us. They are servants of the people and must accept that we have a right to criticise them. That’s what we learnt from the trenches of the labour struggle that dealt a death blow to apartheid.
The struggle to make ends meet also continues today across the country. The homes of domestic workers, gardeners and factory workers still take the form of tin shacks strewn across townships in different parts of South Africa. Poverty and immense wealth lie side by side. Eighteen years into our democracy and it’s clear that the struggle for a better life for all continues. Emma’s compelling story remains relevant in a society where labour laws are often flouted and in some cases even the minimum wage is not adhered to. And so the strikes and the struggles continue …
In the education sector, in our rural and township schools, Emma speaks strongly against worker leaders who do not accept that the rights we have won come with the responsibilities of being in the classrooms and teaching: ‘Discipline won us our freedom. It seems today we have the freedom to do what we want without thinking about the interests of our children.’
Watching the breakdown of basic services in many of our township schools and clinics and the arrogance of many of those in power, I agree that we have mislaid the values of humility, compassion and service to our people, which were the bedrock of our fight for social justice and human dignity. And while Emma Thandi Mashinini, the Tiny Giant, prepares to celebrate her eighty-third birthday, eighteen years of democracy and the one-hundredth anniversary of Africa’s oldest liberation organisation, I celebrate her life of dedicated service; a life of immense suffering, but mostly a life of remarkable achievement. She defied the limitations of her gender at a time when apartheid denied people justice, freedom and equal rights for all. Instead, she fought selflessly for a cause so powerful that it almost ruined her own life. This book is more relevant today than the year of its first publication. It is another indication of the heavy price paid for freedom, so that we and those who come after us can live in a society free from oppression and hate, a society that respects the right to life and dignity and one where the only limitation placed on us is our own imagination. Let us practise the values of Emma Mashinini every day that we live.