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Pan Macmillan

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Emma Mashinini Launches Strikes Have Followed Me All My Life at Constitution Hill

Emma Mashinini and Jayendra Naidoo

The launch of Emma Mashinini’s Strikes Have Followed Me All My Life in Johannesburg last week was a moving tribute to South African women workers, particularly during the apartheid era but also in the present.

The launch venue, the old Women’s Gaol on Constitution Hill, was particularly relevant as this remarkable woman and stalwart of the struggle was imprisoned there before being moved to another facility where she was detained for six months in solitary confinement for her work with trade unions during apartheid. A notable element of the evening was Ma Mashinini’s ability to paint a vivid picture of the emotional reality of what she lived through, and to convey her stories with a wonderful sense of humour.

Emma Mashinini on arrivalStrikes Have Followed Me All My LifeTerry Morris, MD of Pan Macmillan SA, opened the evening introducing the speakers, Zwelinzima Vavi and Jayendra (Jay) Naidoo. Ma Mashinini then insisted that they begin with a song and she, along with Naidoo and Vavi, led the guests in a tune that had opened many Cosatu meetings. Through this simple gesture, guests saw not only her continued strength and resilience but also the spirit of peace and faith that she embodies.

Vavi, General Secretary of Cosatu, introduced Ma Mashinini, one of the co-founders of Cosatu, and gave the audience a brief history of her life, as it is told in the book. He also discussed some more contemporary worker-related issues, such as how the minimum wage in the textile industry for a machinist is as little as R416 per week. He spoke about the problem with how labour brokers were encouraging casualisation so that we encounter a situation where, in major supermarket chains, only 35% of workers are employed fulltime. He brought up the DA’s intended march to the Cosatu House to deliver their memorandum supporting labour brokers. Vavi insisted that the reason the DA can proclaim casual labour to be better than no labour, is that “they are not wearing the shoe.”

Naidoo then engaged Mashinini in conversation about the reissue of her autobiography, her life and her views on the past and the present. Strikes Have Followed Me All My Life deals not only with the demons of apartheid but also with those of patriarchy. In the book, Mashinini reveals how poor black women workers during apartheid had the worst of all worlds and tells the story of the fight by women for equality on all levels of society. Mashinini spoke about how, as the sole organiser and secretary of the Transvaal union, she used to take membership payments by hand. She opened a branch in Cape Town with the one pound ten that she had been given for this purpose.

According to Vavi, Mashinini will always be remembered for being “instrumental in the formation of Cosatu”. Mashinini led the six month OK Bazaars strike in 1987 where not one woman was dismissed or crossed the picket line. It is a record that has not been broken to this day and it became the forerunner of the miners strikes where Vavi was dismissed along with 50 000 others after only 31 days. Vavi said, “She showed that a woman’s place was not in the bedroom and the kitchen but in the forefront of the struggle. She is a woman made from an unbreakable mould.”

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Carien du Plessis tweeted from the launch using #Mashinini:

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