A Lifelong Fight for Labor Rights
Prison and psychological torture did not deter Emma Mashinini in her 10-year struggle. SOUTH AFRICAN UNIONIST
JOHANNESBURG — WHEN many families are preparing for the festive Christmas season, Emma Tandi Mashinini says she often feels a sense of dread.She is still haunted by her time in solitary confinement in a detention cell 10 years ago. For the first three years after her ordeal, she suffered blackouts and memory loss about this period. During the detention - arbitrarily imposed for her activities as one of South Africa's most experienced trade unionists - Ms. Mashinini was exposed to neglect and psychological torture. At one point she even forgot the name of her youngest daughter, Dudu (meaning "love"). "I was ready to die when I realized I could no longer remember my baby's name - but I kept trying," said Mashinini, her eyes filling with tears. When she finally remembered Dudu's name after several days, "the relief was so great that I slept for a day," she told the Monitor in an interview. Before the fourth Christmas, Mashinini's husband, Tom, suggested that she travel to New York to visit Dudu. She did, and found she did not suffer the memory lapse of the previous three years. Now Emma visits Dudu every year at this time. Mashinini, a pint-sized woman with a giant heart, radiates a compassion and vulnerablity that sometimes fails to conceal the strife that has followed her all her life. A devout member of the Anglican Church, Mashinini is today the director of the Church's Department of Justice and Reconciliation - two ideals she has strived for throughout her life, sometimes without knowing it. AS founder in 1975 of the now-powerful Commercial Catering and Allied Workers Union of South Africa, the shop and distributive worker's union, Mashinini became a leading voice in the early days of the trade-union revival. She was still at the helm of CCAWUSA in 1985 when it became a founding member of the giant Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the black union federation aligned to the African National Congress (ANC). She built the union from scratch to become the country's third-largest a nd one of its most militant, with some 80,000 members when she quit in 1986. Mashinini began her career as a shop steward in a clothing factory that made uniforms for the government and, later, camouflage suits for the security forces who put down the youth-led 1976 Soweto uprising. "When I realized that I had personally helped to make these uniforms used for the slaughter of my people ... I felt horrified," she writes in her recently published "Strikes Have Followed Me All My Life: A South African Autobiography" (London: The Women's Press, Ltd, 1989; also New York: Routlege, 1991). With limited formal education, Mashinini took up the invitation to found a union for commercial and distributive workers. It was a headlong plunge into the unknown for her. "Our focus was to organize the black workers," she says. "We wanted our own human dignity ... we wanted to be recognized as ourselves." By the time she launched CCAWUSA in 1975, police harassment was part of her daily life. They would physically remove her from "white" shopping areas where she went to organize the black workers. They would confiscate her leaflets and union material. Then came the fateful day - Nov. 27, 1981. Dozens of police mounted a dawn raid on the the Mashininis' Soweto home and searched every corner while members of the family were still in their night clothes. At the John Vorster police headquarters in downtown Johannesburg, one of the white policemen asked her in Afrikaans: "Are you a Commie?" At that moment, she says, she spotted a pile of Bibles near the policeman and thought he has asking her whether she was a "communicant" of the Church. So she replied i n the affirmative. "Well, them I am not going to give you the Bible, because you are a Communist and you admit it," said the policeman. It was a devastating moment for Mashinini as a life-long churchgoer. "The one thing that could have sustained me through those long and lonely days was denied me from the start," she says. When she was transferred to the notorious Pretoria Central Prison, she found no Bible in her cell and requests for one were ignored. It was only when she was transferred again to a police cell at Jeppe Police station in Johannesburg that she was finally given a Bible. "The Bible was sent by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, then general-secretary of the South African Council of Churches," says Mashinini. She later repeatedly asked the prison authorities to allow then-Bishop Tutu to administer communion to her in prison, but they refused. The food and blankets sent by her family never reached her. She was denied the basic necessities that would have alleviated her suffering - human contact, a chair, and some warm socks. "These people have fine ways of torturing you: They let you torture yourself," says Mashinini of her six-month-long ordeal. Worse than any physical deprivation was the terrible feeling that she was on her own. "Of all the many accounts by South Africans of their experiences in detention, I think Mashinini's is the most moving," says Alan Fine, a fellow detainee and trade unionist who worked with her for seven years. Now a journalist on the Johannesburg-based daily newspaper Business Day, he says, "You only have to see what it did to her to know what kind of system it was." BUT Mashinini is not without hope. She believes the unions and the churches both have a crucial role to play in the political transition. "Being a trade unionist, I am a person for negotiations and I am impressed that there has been this talking," she says of the negotiations between the ANC and the South African government. "But my hopes have been shattered by the violence. It has already caused so much damage," she says of the year-long violence. "We will not see the new South Africa we are all so concerned about while this violence persists." "Emma has been bruised but it will take much stronger men and more stringent measures to break this resevoir of black woman power," wrote Mrs. Leah Tutu, the Archbishop's wife, in a foreword to Mashinini's book. ve lived a hard life, in many ways a horrible life, but I have always wanted to see the day of liberation," says Mashinini herself in the concluding paragraph of the same book. "And when we get there, as a coward perhaps, I am prepared to die .... Now that we have achieved justice ... now may I not rest in peace?"