Emma Mashinini: A remarkable life story

“Her unflinching commitment to bettering the lives of her fellow South Africans has continued throughout her life.”

 

Respected human rights activist and doyenne of the South African trade union movement, Emma Mashinini will join the ranks of Unisa’s illustrious alumni when the university confers on her the degree of Doctor of Literature and Philosophy (honoris causa) at a graduation ceremony on Thursday 27 September 2012.

The degree will be conferred by Prof Mandla Makhanya, on behalf of the Council of the University of South Africa, in recognition of Ms Mashinini’s role as a leading public figure in the service of society, especially for her service as a member of the erstwhile Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), her distinguished record as a human rights activist and her role in the trade union movement in South Africa.

Emma Mashinini to receive honorary doctorateProfile of Emma Mashinini

Emma Thandi Mashinini, or the “Tiny Giant” as she is fondly referred to, is rightly recognised as the doyenne of the trade union movement in South Africa. She was born in Rosettenville, Johannesburg, in 1929 and attended the Bantu Secondary School in Sophiatown. At the age of 14, Emma was forced to drop out of school and go to work due to domestic circumstances.

In 1956, she took on a full-time job working in the Henochsberg’s clothing factory and there joined the Garment Workers’ Union (GWU) – a union for black workers that was registered and affiliated to the Trade Union Council of South Africa (TUCSA). At the clothing factory, she started to become aware of the injustices that surrounded her. She was elected shop steward by her co-workers in 1970 and was later appointed floor supervisor by management. In this capacity, she fought to improve the working conditions of the employees. In standing up to a labour system that disadvantaged black women in particular, she achieved one of her greatest victories – the breaking of job reservation at Henochsberg’s. In her position as supervisor, she also secured better working hours, wage increases and the right of workers to have unemployment insurance. Also during her time at Henochsberg’s, she was elected to the national executive committee of the National Union of Clothing Workers (NUCW), the highest body of the GWU.

After the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, many political organisations were banned and many union leaders were forced to go underground or into exile. Emma, though, continued her work, despite the pressures. In 1975, she left Henochsberg’s and took up a position as president of a new union that she had formed, the Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union of South Africa (CCAWUSA). Despite a slow start, the union had 1 000 members by 1977 and, within five years, had opened offices in Durban and Cape Town. By this time, CCAWUSA was the second largest union in the country behind the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). Her biggest task – and her greatest achievement in her position as leader of a union – was her involvement in the formation of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).

Emma was arrested in November 1981 under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act and spent six months in solitary confinement at Pretoria Central Prison. After her release from prison in May 1982 – against advice to live abroad, but with the unwavering and full support of her loving husband, Tom Mashinini and her daughters Molly, Dudu and Nomsa – she chose to return to and remain in South Africa and to resume her post at CCAWUSA for another four years.

Her unflinching commitment to bettering the lives of her fellow South Africans has continued throughout her life. In 1986, she took on the position of head of the Anglican Church’s Department of Justice and Reconciliation, serving under Bishop Desmond Tutu. In this role she dealt closely with the families of detainees who had been incarcerated during the state of emergency. From 1993 to 1995, she served as deputy chairperson of the National Manpower Commission. In the early 1990s, she became president of the Mediation and Conciliation Centre in Johannesburg and, in 1995, was appointed Commissioner for the Restitution of Land Rights. Emma is a patron of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (CASAC) and is also a founder member of both United Cerebral Palsy and of the women’s stokvel “Be United”.

Emma’s contribution to labour rights has received international recognition from the trade union movement and from other institutions, the British Trade Union (1978) and the Massachusetts House of Representatives (1985) among them. Indeed, 8 March was declared “Emma Mashinini Day” by the Governor of Massachusetts in 1985. Her contribution has also been widely acknowledged in South Africa.

Other local recognitions include:

2009

 

The establishment of the Emma Mashinini Foundation by the J&J Group

2008

 

The Elijah Bahayi Award (COSATU)

2008

 

The Trevor Huddleston “Not for Your Comfort” Award

2007

 

The Order of Luthuli (Bronze) (South Africa’s highest award for contributions to democracy, human rights, justice and peace)

2007

 

The Lifetime Social Leader Award (awarded by the J&J Group)

2001

 

The Gauteng Premier’s Award for Women Achievers

1986

 

The National Women’s Assembly for Labour award to highlight the contribution of women in the sphere of labour legislation.

1985

 

A nomination for “Star Woman of the Year”

 

The Emma Mashinini Foundation is the first foundation in South Africa to have been established in the name of an iconic trade union leader of the 1980s. The foundation supports programmes which develop trade union social and economic policies, trade union education and skills for trade union activists. It also focuses on the participation of women in the trade union movement.

Strikes Have Followed Me All My Life

Image courtesy: Pan Macmillan Books

Emma is the author and co-author of a number of books, among them The female odyssey: visions of the 21st century (joint author); A book of hope (joint author); Women hold up half the sky (joint author); Road to Rustenburg (joint author) and Lives of courage (joint author). In her book Strikes have followed me all my life, she documents her experiences in Pretoria Central Prison and Jeppe Police Station, as well as her interrogation at John Vorster Square. This book, first published in 1989, has since been re-issued twice, in 1991 and in 2012. The foreword of the 2012 edition is by Jay Naidoo, erstwhile COSATU general secretary and now chairperson of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition.

Wife, mother, factory worker, trade unionist, leader and role model. Fearless and unrelenting fighter for equal rights in the workplace. Social justice, human and gender rights activist. The indomitable Ma Emma, the “Tiny Giant”, now in her eighties, continues to uplift many a person. In the spirit of Unisa’s vision to serve humanity, Emma Mashinini would be a worthy recipient of the DLitt et Phil (honoris causa).

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Posted on: October 10th, 2012  |  Category: News  |  No Comments

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