Emma Mashinini: Tiny giant who was mother of the trade union movement

23 July 2017 - 00:02 By CHRIS BARRON

If you were the boss of a South African company in the 1970s and '80s, Emma Mashinini was one person you hoped you'd never meet across a bargaining table.
Her reputation struck trepidation, if not panic, into the hearts of directors of some of the country's biggest companies.
When they saw her in the flesh their relief was palpable, because Mashinini was the smallest person you could imagine.
"Oh, my God, this person we fear so much," remarked a director of Woolworths when she walked into a negotiation and took her place opposite him. "I thought she was a very big ogre of a person, yet it's just a tiny giant coming in."
The relief was usually short-lived. Her size belied a steely disposition, not to mention a quick mind and razor-sharp tongue. She was not one for backing down.
In a space dominated by men who specialised in patronising putdowns and ill-concealed hostility, Mashinini led one of South Africa's biggest trade unions, the Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers' Union of South Africa.
Against terrifying odds, not least the constant threat of arrest, she built it into a formidable union of 60,000 members in 10 years.High stakes
The stakes couldn't have been higher for the women she represented.
When Mashinini started her union in 1975 they had no rights and no protection. They were completely at the mercy of their white male employers.
They could be, and often were, strip-searched in the most abusive and intrusive way by company security personnel. They could be, and often were, subjected to gratuitous verbal abuse. If they answered back they could be fired with no recourse, and left with nothing to live on.
Mashinini stopped this. She won the right for them to return to work after maternity leave, and to be included in medical aid and pension funds for the first time.
Not for nothing was she regarded as the mother of the trade union movement.
Many learnt to their cost that the woman with the dancing eyes and explosive energy was not to be trifled with.
She gave evidence to the 1977 Wiehahn commission into trade unions, and told it that in the context of apartheid South Africa, black unions had no choice but to be involved in politics. Two years later black unions were officially recognised.
Largely through the strength of her personality and the respect she commanded, her union played an important facilitating role between the different ideological streams that had to come together to form Cosatu in 1985.
Mashinini was born in Rosettenville, Johannesburg, on August 21 1929. It was a "white" area. The family were soon kicked out and she grew up in Sophiatown. She had to leave school in Standard 8 after the breakup of her parents' marriage left the family divided and impoverished. She began working in a factory at the age of 15.
She married at 18, had the first of six children at 19 and became a full-time housewife. It was a physically abusive marriage and she walked out of it after nine years with her worldly possessions in a bag and three children to feed. The others had died.
She was not at all political at the time and thought nothing of it when the first job she could find was as a trainee machinist making uniforms for the army and police.
She became a unionist by default. She couldn't keep up with the production rate and was elected shop steward by her peers, which saved her from being fired."I wasn't designed for working," she said in an interview on turning 80. "Maybe I was designed for talking. I seemed to understand that job better than producing."
Her union activism came at a heavy cost. In November 1981 she was arrested and held for six months at John Vorster Square and Pretoria Central, mostly in solitary confinement.
Her most terrifying experience was when she couldn't remember the name of her daughter. She thought she'd lost her mind.
Shock and misery
Arrested on the same day was her close friend and union colleague Neil Aggett, who was found hanged in his cell in 1982 after being badly tortured.
Mashinini was the last person, apart from the police, to see him alive. They bumped into each other in John Vorster Square as they were being pushed along in shackles.
"Hello, Emma," he called to her. She was in a state of such shock and misery after days of interrogation and lack of sleep that she couldn't say anything. She never saw him again, and her failure to respond haunted her for the rest of her life.
Having fought so hard to protect workers from unfair dismissal, she later admitted to wondering whether the pendulum had swung too far the other way. She decided not, but felt unions should address the issue of productivity. Workers shouldn't expect to benefit from being unproductive, she said.
She said unions needed to educate workers about their obligations as well as their rights. She felt strikes were embarked on too easily. "In my day we knew what we were striking for."
She deplored intimidation and vandalism during strikes. She blamed a lack of worker discipline and weak leadership, and said she was "embarrassed" by strikers' behaviour.
She regretted the lack of women in leadership positions in the union movement. She said she was disappointed they had not built on the opportunities created for them by women leaders like herself.

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