Emma Mashinini

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Emma Mashinini
Born (1929-08-21)21 August 1929
Rosettenville, Johannesburg, South Africa
Died 10 July 2017(2017-07-10) (aged 87)
Other names "Tiny Giant"
Education Bantu Secondary School
Alma mater Honorary Doctorate in literature and philosophy, Unisa
Occupation Trade unionist, Land commissioner, textile worker
Employer Henochsberg's Clothing Factory
Organization Secretary of the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union 1975–86, member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC); Director, Department of Justice and Reconciliation, Anglican Church of Southern Africa, 1986; Commissioner, Restitution of Land Rights, 1995–2002
Notable work Strikes have followed me all my life, autobiography
Awards The National Women's Assembly for Labour award, 1986, The Gauteng Premier's Award for Women Achievers, 2001, The Lifetime Social Leader Award, 2007, The Trevor Huddleston "Not for Your Comfort" Award, 2008, The Elijah Bahayi Award, 2008, Order of the Baobab, 2007, National Order of Luthuli in Bronze, 2007

Emma Mashinini (21 August 1929 – 10 July 2017[1]) was a South African trade unionist and political leader. Living in Johannesburg, her family was forcibly displaced several times during her childhood. She started working at age 14 and soon became a union organiser at her garment factory. She became active with the African National Congress (ANC) in 1956. Mashinini served for 12 years on the executive board of the National Union of Clothing Workers (NUCW) and founded the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU) in 1975. She was arrested and detained without charges for six months in 1981–82.

Mashinini played several important roles in the transition to ANC rule in the 1980s and 1990s. She served on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and went on to become a Commissioner for Restitution of Land Rights. Her autobiography, titled Strikes Have Followed Me All My Life, was published in 1989 and republished in 2012. She received numerous awards and decorations, including the Order of the Baobab and the Order of Luthuli.

Early life

Mashinini was born in Rosettenville, a white suburb of Johannesburg. Her family lived in the backyard of a house where her mother, Joana, did housework. When Mashinini was six years old, her family moved to Prospect Township, a neighbourhood near City Deep. Prospect Township was a common destination for Black families who had been evicted from their residence in White areas. In 1936, this neighbourhood too was aggressively gentrified, razed under the Johannesburg Slums Act of 1934.[2] Most of the people in Prospect Township were relocated to Orlando, Soweto, but Mashinini's family was able to resettle in Sophiatown. Sophiatown was forcibly evicted in turn, several years later, and Mashinini's family moved to Soweto.[1][3]

Mashinini left school at age 14 to work a job after the separation of her parents left her mother without enough money.[1] She got married at age 17 and gave birth to six children. Three died in their early days of life, due to the inadequate medical care available for Black babies.[4] (Her daughter Penny died at the age of 17 in 1971.)[5]

Mashinini attended the 1955 Congress of the People in Kliptown, a major event for the African National Congress (ANC). She later wrote:

"I was not a card-carrying member, but at that meeting I was a member in body, spirit and soul... So I think that Congress was really an eye-opener for me. That, maybe, is when I started to be politicized. Although there is another thing, which I have always felt, which is that I have always resented being dominated."[6]

Union organiser

In 1956, Mashinini began working in the Henochsberg clothing factory, which was segregated by race as well as gender. In addition to the difficult conditions and bad pay offered to factory workers, Black women faced a unique and many-layered set of challenges. Treated as inferior to other workers, Black women faced police brutality and the violence of poverty under Apartheid when they returned home each day.[7] Black workers also faced difficulties in getting to work on time—from the segregated neighbourhoods to which they had been confined.[5]

Mashinini joined the Garment Workers Union and organised in her factory. She became both a shop steward and a floor supervisor appointed by management. She later described the difficult situation resulting from these two positions:

"They could have sacked me if they had wanted. I was a shop steward, but if they wanted to sack you they could still sack you. Instead, they would try and use me to stop the trouble. They would use me like a fire extinguisher, always there to stop trouble."

Ultimately, she wrote, "I had a dual role in the factory, but I was very clear where my first loyalty lay. I was appointed a supervisor but I was elected to be a shop steward by my fellow workers."[8]

Through different labour actions, the factory workers gained a 40-hour workweek and unemployment insurance. She was elected to the executive committee of the National Union of Clothing Workers (NUCW), on which she served for twelve years.[1][9]

A turning point for Mashinini came when she thought about how clothing produced in her factory was being used. "When I realized that I had personally helped to make these uniforms used for the slaughter of my people ... I felt horrified", she wrote in her autobiography.[10] She resolved that union organising would always touch on larger political issues.[5]

In 1975, Mashinini founded the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU), becoming a powerful figure in the South African labour movement at large. Her activism led to constant police harassment.[10]

Arrest and imprisonment

On 27 November 1981, police arrived at dawn to Mashinini's home, searching the building and arresting Mashinini.[10] She was detained under section 6 of the 1967 Terrorism Act,[1] a law which allowed indefinite detention of anyone deemed by police to "endanger the maintenance of law and order."[11]

Mashinini was brought to Pretoria Central Prison. She spent much time in solitary confinement and was denied access to basic necessities. She was eventually transferred to a prison in Johannesburg and released after a total of six months—never charged with a crime.[5] Upon release, she was ordered never to talk about her time in prison.[4] While she was in prison, her comrade Neil Aggett died hanging in his cell.[5]

Her husband, Tom Mashinini, raised awareness about her imprisonment and organised demonstration at the Supreme Court.[4]

After her period of detention, Mashinini was treated in Denmark for post-traumatic stress disorder. She rejected her therapist's advice that she should withdraw from politics and focus on herself.[12] She described this treatment as "yet another detention."[13] She returned to a leadership position in the SACCAWU, which expanded to 60,000 members and won increased rights for female workers.[5]

Transition to ANC rule

When the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) was being formed in 1985, Mashinini was an outspoken advocate for the inclusion of female unionists. After considering a series of images which did not include women, Cosatu eventually adopted a logo prominently including a woman with a baby.[5][14]

In 1995, Mashinini was appointed as a Commissioner for Restitution of Land Rights, returning to Pretoria as a part of the government.[15] In 1998, she helped to secure land rights for a community of 600 families that had been evicted in 1969.[16] During her tenure, she said that her agency suffered from a lack of personnel and funding.[17] In 2002, she commented that she was "greatly distressed" by a court ruling limiting compensation for the many South Africans claiming land rights.[18] "I saw the task for myself and for ourselves as getting the land back to the people," she said.[19]


Mashinini died in Johannesburg on 10 July 2017 at the age of 87.[20]



  1. ^ a b c d e "Emma Thandi Mashinini". South African History Online. Retrieved 15 December 2013.
  2. ^ S. M. Parnell, "Johannesburg's Backyards: the slums of New Doornfontein, Bertrams, and Prospect Township", "The Making of Class" (University of the Witwatersrand History Workshop), 9–4 February 1987.
  3. ^ Reluctant Revolutionary", City Press, 22 August 2009.
  4. ^ a b c Reiss, Irene. "What Is the Courage We Are Looking For? Aesthetic Realism and Emma Mashinini of South Africa". As reprinted in Big Media, South Africa. Alice Bernstein, journalist and Aesthetic Realism Associate, New York. Retrieved 15 December 2013.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Rebecca Davis, "The lean, mean, labour rights Mashinini", Daily Maverick, 17 July 2012.
  6. ^ Pamela E. Brooks, Boycotts, Buses, and Passes: Black Women's Resistance in the U.S. South and South Africa; University of Massachusetts Press, 2008; pp. 218–219.
  7. ^ Iris Berger, "Generations of struggle: Trade unions and the roots of feminism 1930–60"; in Women in South African History: They Remove Boulders and Cross Rivers, ed. Nomboniso Gasa; Cape Town: Human Sciences Research Council, 2007; p. 193.
  8. ^ Edward Webster, "Manufacturing Compromise: The Dynamics of Race and Class Among South African Shop Stewards in the 1990s"; in The Critical Study of Work: Labor, Technology, and Global Production, ed. Rick Baldoz, Charles Koeber, & Philip Kraft; Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001; p. 206.
  9. ^ Zwelinzima Vavi, "Many workers still face terrible treatment", speech given 3 May 2013, PoliticsWeb.
  10. ^ a b c John Battersby, "A Lifelong Fight for Labor Rights Prison and psychological torture did not deter Emma Mashinini in her 10-year struggle.", Christian Science Monitor, 9 September 1991.
  11. ^ Jonathan Cohen, "1967 Terrorism Act, No. 83 of 1967", South African History Online, c. 2012. Accessed 17 December 2013.
  12. ^ Dorothy Driver, "Truth, Reconciliation, Gender: the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Black Women's Intellectual History", Australian Feminist Studies, 20(47), 2005. "Her Danish woman doctor's insistence that healing would come only if Mashinini could centre on herself re-instituted, for Mashinini, the trauma, torture, and dehumanisation of South African prison life, for it was alien to her conception of herself as familiar and communal, as a person by and through others."
  13. ^ Daniel Roux, "'I speak to you and I listen to the voice coming back': Recording solitary confinement in the apartheid prison", South African Journal of English Studies 22(1), 2005. "However, she finds the idea of talking about herself to a therapist almost abhorrent, and describes the clinic as 'yet another detention' (Mashinini 1989:91) where she is isolated and interrogated, (literally) in danger of losing her name (she is expected to register under a pseudonym in order to protect herself.)"
  14. ^ Malehoko Tshoaedi & Hlengiwe Hlela, "The marginalisation of women unionists during South Africa's democratic transition"; in Trade Unions and Democracy: Cosatu Workers' Political Attitudes in South Africa, ed. Sakhela Buhlungu; Cape Town: Human Sciences Research Council Press, 2006; p. 100.
  15. ^ Eugene Goddard, "Memory is power, and mandatory reading", BusinessDay, 8 August 2012.
  16. ^ Louise Cook, "South Africa: Court returns Vryburg land to deprived community", AllAfrica (Business Day), 10 June 1998.
  17. ^ Emmanuel Olukayode Ogunsalu, "The Political Economy of Land Reform in South Africa and Zimbabwe: A Comparative Study", PhD dissertation for Howard University, May 2001.
  18. ^ ”South Africa; Land Restitution Going at Snail's Pace”, Africa News (Business Day), 11 January 2002. Accessed 17 December 2013 via Lexis Academic.
  19. ^ Cherryl Walker, Landmarked: Land Claims and Land Restitution in South Africa; Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2008; p. 9.
  20. ^ "Legendary trade unionist Emma Mashinini dies, aged 87". eNews Channel Africa. 10 July 2017. Retrieved 10 July 2017.

News articles

  • Lelyveld, Joseph (28 November 1981). "14 Unionists Seized by South Africans". The New York Times. p. 7.
  • Suzanne Daley, "Apartheid's Dispossessed Seek Restitution", New York Times, 25 June 1996.
  • "Land Claims Court to Hear First Gauteng Case", Mail & Guardian, 5 October 1998.

Further reading

  • Kgame, Yvonne (10 October 2012). "Emma Mashinini: A remarkable life story". Infinite Grace – Infinite Grace. Retrieved 15 December 2013.
  • "Emma Mashini". Who's Who SA. Retrieved 15 December 2013.
  • Yolande, Du Preez (27 September 2012). "Emma Mashinini to receive honorary doctorate". Unisa Online – News & media. Retrieved 15 December 2013.
  • "Dr Emma Mashinini: Education will never burn out". Unisa Online – News & media. 1 October 2012. Retrieved 15 December 2013.
  • Sherry, Shannon (24 October 2012). "Emma Mashinini – Where are they now?". Financial Mail. Retrieved 15 December 2013.
  • M. Bahati Kuumba, "You've Struck A Rock: Comparing Gender, Social Movements, and Transformation in the United States and South Africa", Gender and Society 16(4), August 2002.
  • Richard Pithouse, "The Enduring Horror of South Africa", South African Civil Society Information Service (SACSIS), 12 September 2012.

External links

  • Naidoo, Jay (13 August 2012). "Video series – Great women of SA: Emma Mashinini (I)". Daily Maverick. Retrieved 15 December 2013.
  • Full video on YouTube of Emma Mashinini speaking about her life, Afravision, March 2011.
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