The South African Federation of Trade Unions mourns the passing of Emma Mashinini, one of the greatest heroines of the struggle for workers and national liberation.
Mama Emma Mashinini died aged 87 at midnight (09 July 2017) of a suspected cardiac arrest. Mama Emma was a worker, a trade unionist, a political activist, an African, a woman, wife and mother. For nearly 75 years, from the very young age of 14, she devoted her life to the struggle against the gruesome and brutal regime of apartheid and for the rights of the working class. She set the best possible example of how to inspire, mobilize and organize workers’ stmaruggles and became part and parcel of the DNA that defines the labour movement in South Africa still today.
Comrade Emma made an indelible mark in the history of this country and the progressive trade union movement, in particular the super-exploited workers in the retail sector. She will be remembered for numerous struggles like the OK Bazaars strike of 1987 and the red meat boycott – which proved that women’s place is in the struggle – in the factory, in community and society as a whole. Her work as a trade unionist started in the clothing and textile sector in 1959 where she was elected a shop steward for the black Garment Workers’ Union (GWU) where she made unemployment insurance for workers and a 40-hour working day her main agenda. But she will be even better remembered for her pioneering work in the retail sector, when she formed CCAWUSA in 1975, the predecessor of SACCAWU. The key issues for workers in the sector were the long working hours, the peanut wages and the inhumane treatment of shop workers by white racist bosses during these years. Today, both these very same sectors where Ma Emma first worked are still confronted with super-exploitation, where workers are being retrenched or casualised and blackmailed into accepting lower wages. In retail and hospitality today over 30% of jobs are casualised. Labour brokers, the main drivers of casualisation, have attacked the principle of decent work, driving down workers’ wages and conditions of employment.
They do not create any jobs but sponge off the labour of others and replace secure jobs with temporary and casual forms of employment. This sector is also marked by grotesque inequalities. In 2016 Whitey Basson former CEO of Shoprite received approximately R100 million (R49.7 million total guaranteed package and R50 million in short-term incentives), while workers at his stores take home as little as R3000 a month. Mama Emma was also a fierce advocate of women’s rights, including within the trade union movement which was not left unscathed by patriarchy and all its associated consequences. Her book, Strikes Have Followed Me All My Life <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strikes_Have_Followed_Me_All_My_Life> , gives a frank reflection on the dominance of males in the COSATU leadership at its launch in 1985, a situation that remains the same today. We should never forget leaders such as Ma Emma, Rita Ndzanga, Ray Alexandra Simons, Jane Barrett and many others who formed and led trade unions in their different sectors. Yet today the trade union leaders are still overwhelmingly men, even in sectors most dominated by women as workers and as members of these trade unions. Mama Emma was always more then just a brilliant union leader. She was profoundly political. In the years of apartheid attempts to recruit workers to join a union were usually responded to with vicious dogs, police vans, batons, imprisonment, torture, and even death.
This in Mama Emma’s own words meant that “in our industrial relations in South Africa, you not only deal with employers when you negotiate, but you also deal with the police” She campaigned against the torture of thousands of our leaders and young activists, the denial of African workers of their basic rights and the condemnation of their children an inferior education system. Her goal was always to politicise black society in its entirety and her struggle against apartheid was a unique political school which trained workers, women, young activists, and those who believed in the righteousness of our cause and the politics of revolution and justice! The new generations of unionists today can learn a lot from Ma Emma’s story which is essentially about selflessness and an enduring love to serve the working class and the oppressed in this country. In many ways, trade unionists today operate in far better conditions.
The teargas and police bulldozers are not an everyday threat to organising workers even though there is still police brutal as evidenced by Marikana massacre and countless other examples. In many ways, workers conditions are still lamentable. Evidence can be seen in the numerous reports of farmers chasing union organisers with guns shots in order to prevent them from recruiting some of the most exploited workers in this country – the farm workers. In those days, organisers had to wait outside the factory gates in all sorts of hostile weather conditions to collect subscriptions, because the non-recognition of black trade unions meant that trade unions could not deduct subscription fees from workers’ salaries. Yet as Mama Mashinini would tell you, every cent collected would be accounted for! Today the unions may well have to return to hand collections, as many employers refuse to deduct union subscriptions.
Comrade Mashinini was pained by the unravelling of COSATU, the federation which she helped build from its inception. She was helpless and could not help just like other founder leaders of COSATU such as Jay Naidoo, Sydney Mufumadi, Mandla Gxanyana, etc. who also could not help. The ANC and SACP faction proved too strong and absolutely determined to destroy Emma Mashinini’s work. Shop stewards and organisers today should be inspired by the humble story of this “Tiny Giant”. Her story inspires us to always strive to maintain and rejuvenate the novel trade union traditions of worker control, report-back and mandate. Emma Mashinini was a woman revolutionary, forged in the struggle against apartheid and in the trade union movement.
As her experience of torture, torment and trauma at the hands of the apartheid security apparatus and racist capitalists showed, she is made of a mould that will not easily be broken!
Hamba Kahle Comrade Emma Mashinini!