Mama Emma Mashinini was a role model for workers today and into the future. She set the best possible example of how to inspire, mobilize and organize workers’ struggles and became part and parcel of the DNA that defines the labour movement in South Africa still today.

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 fought for the liberation of all workers and all South Africans, but particularly the most exploited workers in the clothing, textile and retail sectors, most of them women, and always insisted that women’s place is in the struggle – in the factory, in the unions, in the 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 demands.

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 Mama Emma first worked are still confronted with the very same problems of super-exploitation, where workers are being retrenched or casualised and blackmailed into accepting lower wages.

Workers were on strike at Shoprite’s distribution centre in Centurion last year, until they were forced back to work. They were protesting against outsourcing and poverty pay, maintaining that 90% of the 1,000 staff at the facility were employed by labour brokers and paid poverty wages.

Overall 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.

These workers often have to work long and unsocial hours, risking their lives when they have to get home late in the evening.

They need leaders like Mama Mashinini as much as ever.

This sector is also marked by the widest levels of inequality. 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, yet it is the workers whose labour creates Basson’s riches. 

Recently Detoitte published a report showing that the CEOs of the first 100 companies listed in the JSE are earning R17,9 million on average every year of more than R69 000 a single day. Yet these fat cats at Nedlac say its ok to pay workers a minimum wage of R20 an hour or R3500 after labouring the whole month.

Mama Emma was 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, gives a frank reflection on the dominance of males in the COSATU leadership at its launch in 1985, a situation that largely remains the same today, 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 aware that workers’ struggles could to be separate from political battles. In the years of apartheid attempts to recruit workers to join a union were usually met with vicious dogs, police vans, batons, imprisonment, torture, and even death. As she said: “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.

The new generation of unionists today can learn so much 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, the cold blooded murder of Andries Tatane and countless other examples.

But workers conditions are still lamentable, not just in retail but more and more sectors as employers resort to outsourcing, using labour brokers and now demanding lower wages for ‘new entrants’ into companies.

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 Mufamadi, Mandla Gxanyana, etc. who also could not help. The dominant ANC and SACP factions 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 trade union traditions of worker control, report-back and mandate.

The best way to honour Emma Mashinini is to finish the work she set in motion to put an end to the unemployment, poverty, corruption and inequality which have not only ended but are getting even worse, and fight for the democratic, socialist society she wanted to see.

She 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!

Zwelinzima Vavi, SAFTU general secretary