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Emma Thandi Mashinini (1929 - )

The Order of Luthuli in

Emma Thandi Mashinini (1929 - ) Awarded for:
Her outstanding contribution in building the trade union movement, her resilience under apartheid harassment and detention, in the cause for a non-sexist, non-racial, just and democratic South Africa.

Profile of Emma Thandi Mashinini

Emma Thandi Mashinini was born on 21 August 1929 in Sophiatown, Johannesburg. Her family (like so many others) suffered the experience of being forcibly moved from one area to another under apartheid policies. They lived in Sophiatown until it, too, was declared an area for white people only. She attended various schools, but her parents’ marriage broke up and she was unable to complete her education.

She married and had six children, three of whom died during infancy. In 1956, she found work at a clothing factory as a trainee machinist. She joined the Garment Workers’ Union (GWU), headed at the time by Lucy Mbuvelo. The GWU, for black workers, could not be registered under the laws of the time, and any industrial action was regarded as illegal. In spite of this, they did strike and did embark on ’go-slows’, and were proud of the struggles they did win.

She was promoted to supervisor, but did not allow this to deflect her from her commitment to her shop steward tasks. Her political awareness grew, and she was present at Kliptown in 1955 when the Freedom Charter was drawn up. The 1960s were extremely difficult years for trade union organisations and many leaders were detained or left the country, but Emma Mashinini continued her work in spite of the pressures. It was during this period that she met and married her second husband, Tom Mashinini.

In 1975, she was asked by the National Union of Distributive Workers (NUDW) to join them; to start a new union for black shop workers, the Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers’ Union of South Africa (CCAWUSA); and she became its general secretary. The union grew, and within five years it had opened offices in Durban and Cape Town. In 1977, the Wiehahn Commission was appointed by Government, and by 1980 major strikes and boycotts had demonstrated the power of the trade union movement.

In 1981, CCAWUSA and the NUDW moved into Khotso House, headquarters of the South African Council of Churches. Work began on the formation of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, which was formally established in 1987. However, in November 1981, Mashinini was detained (on the same day as her colleague, the late Neil Aggett, and many others). The chapter in her book, Strikes have Followed me all my Life, gives a moving and chilling description of her experience in Pretoria Central Prison and then in Jeppe police station, followed by interrogation at John Vorster Square.

After her release in May 1982 and a brief period of therapy in a clinic in Denmark, Mashinini returned to CCAWUSA, despite frequent raids on her home and further interrogation by the security police.

In 1986, she was appointed director of the Anglican Church’s Department of Justice and Reconciliation. In this role, she worked particularly closely with the families of detainees, under the umbrella of the Detainees Parents’ Support Committee. During the nationwide state of emergency, thousands of people were detained without trial. As Mashinini herself wrote: ’Now – after the restriction on other organisations speaking against apartheid, which society used as their windows for venting their oppression and suppression – it is the Church which has emerged to speak on behalf of the people’.

She used the opportunity, too, to speak out against capital punishment and the horrors of death row.

Her life has been one of dedicated service and of suffering, but also one of remarkable achievement. She has defied the limitations of her gender at a time when the apartheid society oppressed black women in their fight for the cause of justice.

Emma Thandi ('Tiny') Mashinini’s life has been a roller-coaster of political struggles, trade-union movement involvement, harassment at the hands of police, and selfless dedication to the emergence of non-racism, non-sexism, democracy and justice in South Africa. She has withstood all this harassment with exceptional grace in pursuit of keeping the flickering flame of freedom alive.

She lives in Monument Park, Pretoria.