EMMA Mashinini, grand dame of labour activism, is a femme fatale, très formidable in more ways than one. Just read her memoir, Strikes Have Followed Me All My Life (Pan Macmillan).
Published originally in 1989 in the UK but for the first time in South Africa this year, it’s a blaze of a book; a galloping read of one woman’s spirited triumph over the ordeals she endured as a wife, mother, pioneering shop steward and torture victim.
A survivor of apartheid’s most malevolent enforcers, she often depicts the cretins she once crossed with a sense of seething scorn, especially when they speak a certain language. "I remember he was an Afrikaner," she writes, "and he only had one arm."
Throw in a few terms that may not resonate with younger readers (she uses the term "Transvaal", but when the book was first published, South Africa was a year away from FW de Klerk's watershed speech) and Strikes Have Followed Me All My Life deserves some critical scrutiny. Is it still relevant? Is it not perhaps 20 years past its sell-by date? Don’t think, though, that just because she’s 83 you can mess with her. Walking stick in hand, the stalwart striker opens the door, staring at me, the offspring of people who benefited from job reservation. Immediately intimidated, I offer up pleasantries and honorifics. But she’s in no mood for BS; never has been. "Call me Ma Emma," she says. "Would you mind if we go to my room, dear? I haven’t been feeling well and it’s sunnier there."
A sunny disposition, certainly, is worth holding onto after what seems like a lifetime of woe. That’s where Strikes Have Followed Me All My Life packs its first punch; from the ones her first husband used to throw, to the crushing blow of losing three of her six children to jaundice, a condition that, because of the system’s insidious strangle hold on black people, she initially thought made them seem "beautiful, with their lovely light yellow complexions".
In 11 pages, she deals with her "Early Years", the first chapter, as if her formative years in Prospect Township, life in a broken home escaping one forced relocation after another, and a first failed marriage alone doesn’t merit at least double that. But that’s the pace of the book. In a flash, you’re thrust out of the starting blocks, not headlong, though, but reeling, yet unavoidably drawn into Mashinini’s succinct story, powerfully rendered in short, sharp sentences packed with adversity, activism and the anguish that almost claimed her.
Whether you’re interested in one person’s role in the history of trade unionism or not, here your attention is simply never allowed to go on strike.
The impulse, though, to do exactly that is often present, precisely because of the bare-knuckle way in which Strikes Have Followed Me All My Life deals with the past.
By the time you read how long working hours forced her to leave home so soon she couldn’t wake her children in time for school and had to depend on a neighbour to oblige, you’re not even done with the second chapter.
Worst of all is the period she spent in detention for "terrorism", moved between dark, dank cells, interrogated and treated in such an abysmal way that she couldn’t remember her youngest daughter’s name.
"I was shattered. I didn’t notice myself."
A devout Christian, did she feel God had abandoned her?
"A policewoman noticed me. She used to bring me my food, but on this particular day she came in and closed the door of the cell behind her. She took off her uniform and out came her Methodist uniform. She said ‘Come pray with me. I can see you came to die here,’ and she fell on her knees and she prayed. I didn’t hear what she was saying. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know whether I could trust her. But when she put on her police uniform and left, I knew that God had sent her."
It was during this time that she remembered — Dudu, Zulu for comfort: "Memory is power."
In contrast to the rest of the book, details of her detention appear to be shrouded over. Because you can’t see it you have to imagine it and the horror, hidden but hinted at, is so much more real. Ironically, it’s this part of her book that’s closest to the act of writing. Shortly after she was released from prison, she received trauma treatment at a clinic for torture victims in Denmark: "It was like a different kind of solitary confinement. I couldn’t talk to anyone. No-one spoke English, except my doctor."
Towards the end of the 1980s, she found herself working for Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Department of Justice and Reconciliation. At one stage, in England, she slept for three days straight, finally waking dazed.
Betty Wolpert, a social worker and fundraiser, told her: "‘You’ve got to empty yourself’. That’s how the book started. I spoke into one of those little machines (a Dictaphone) and eventually wrote some things down myself. One morning, it must’ve been about four, I was writing when they played Frank Sinatra’s Fly Me to the Moon. It was then I realised I had finished the book. I could fly to the moon. I was free."
Not quite, though.
After 1990, Nelson Mandela roped her in for more work. For her role as commissioner of land restitution, she had to move to Pretoria — the dreaded capital, where she had spent months in solitary confinement.
Still under suspicion of wanton "truancy", "a man from land affairs, an Afrikaner", fetched her at her home in Soweto. "He told me to follow him all the way to Pretoria. He thought I would go on strike."
Even at the plush security complex in Waterkloof Ridge she calls home, Mashinini has not been able to stay away from stirring: "One morning, I stood on the stoep and I called out to one of the woman living across from me: ‘Zerkie, I have no milk.’ So she said: ‘Don’t worry Ouma, I’m bringing." The thing is, I lied. I had milk. I just wanted to break the silence. I can’t stand neighbours not talking to one another."
Another neighbour, "a big white guy", once asked her name. "Emma," she said. He left but came back later: "I hope it’s not Emma Mashinini."
And her next-door neighbour once apologised for her music spilling across the backyard wall. "I hope it’s not bothering you." "No", she said, "I love music." "But it’s classical," replied the neighbour. "Yes", Mashinini shot back, "it’s Bach."
The neighbour invited her around for some fine music appreciation but illness pre-empted the soirée. When flowers from abroad arrived on her new friend’s threshold, Mashinini was shocked to learn that she had died.
"How can that be? How can I, her neighbour, not know about it but people in London do?" she asks, her fingers gingerly touching the filigree curling across her gown.
So is this book still relevant?
Yes, very much so.
It should be prescribed reading at school. They should force-feed it to the brats in the African National Congress Youth League to show them the dignity of real suffering.