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“You Can Never Relax in This Country, This South Africa” – Wise Words from Legendary Activist Emma Mashinini

"You Can Never Relax in This Country, This South Africa" - Wise Words from Legendary Activist Emma Mashinini

Strikes Have Followed Me All My LifeStrikes Have Followed Me All My Life is the compelling account of the life of Emma Mashinini, one of South Africa’s leading trade union organisers and gender-rights activists.

In the book, Mashinini describes her childhood in Sophiatown, her lasting contributions to labour organisation in South Africa, and the dark days she spent in detention under apartheid.

Mashinini’s activism began when she was working in a clothing factory. She was the first General Secretary of the Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers’ Union of South Africa (CCAWUSA), and was also involved in the formation of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). In 1981 she was arrested under the Terrorism Act and held in solitary confinement for six months. Strikes Have Followed Me All My Life was first published in 1989, and republished by Picador Africa in 2012.

Ma Emma’s overall experience and her drive to make a difference and fight for human dignity no matter the personal cost is what makes her autobiography so memorable.

In his introduction to the new edition, Jay Naidoo writes: “This book is more relevant today than ever. It is yet another indication of the heavy price paid for freedom so that we and those who come after us live in a society free from oppression and hate, a society that respects the right to life and dignity and a society where the only limitations placed on us is our own imagination.”

In the context of the current fees protests at universities around the country, Mashinini’s words hold some valuable advice.

6 quotes from Strikes Have Followed Me All My Life relevant to #FeesMustFall:

You are never an island in your problem … We unite, and we especially unite in our crisis times.

It was vital that we should be recognised for who we were, and that we should fight for our identity and respect as human beings. That was the battle we had to fight then. And human dignity is the battle we must still fight.

I am deeply concerned about what is happening, especially in terms of education, health and the negligence of the elderly … It is important that we continue to give back, and that we do not get too obsessed with the shine. We have to remember our past, and how far we’ve come together as a nation.

The money is important, and we should never forget that, much as we might be fighting injustices and claiming human rights for each and every black person, the money must always be seen as part of that injustice, and that right. Equality is important, and the money stands for that.

Lastly, I would like to encourage our teachers, who may influence and encourage an appreciation of literature. I must highlight the importance of reading and writing, and I would like to encourage other women to write and tell their stories, as we can learn a great deal from them.

You can never relax in this country, this South Africa. With each step forward comes a step backwards.

Read an excerpt from Jay Naidoo’s Introduction to the new edition of Strikes Have Followed Me All My Life:

[Mashinini's] story is an important part of the story for freedom in South Africa and it contains vital lessons for our democracy. One thing, at least, that I have learned from Ma Emma, is that the struggle for democracy and accountability has to be fought day by day. Many of the challenges we face today, including joblessness, poverty and social inequality, remain as deep-seated and structural as they were in our apartheid past. As a predatory elite today works to undermine the fabric of our society by corrupting state officials, stealing tenders and robbing the poorest of the poor of resources meant for reconstruction and development, we need to be reminded by the example of leaders like Ma Emma of why we fought for freedom. We need a return to the values that put service to our people above the vested interests of the individual. That was our contract with the people in 1994 – the commitment to deliver a better life to all.

There is a growing concern shared by many that the democratic and political space that we won is shrinking, and that a veil of secrecy
is being drawn over our country by fearful leaders. We must resist this with all the conviction we had in the past. Our struggle against apartheid was a struggle for voice. As Ma Emma insists: When we elect leaders to be public representatives, we do not mean that they have divine rights to rule us. They are servants of the people and must accept that we have a right to criticise them. That’s what we learnt from the trenches of the labour struggle that dealt a death blow to apartheid.

The struggle to make ends meet also continues today across the country. The homes of domestic workers, gardeners and factory workers still take the form of tin shacks strewn across townships in different parts of South Africa. Poverty and immense wealth lie side by side. Eighteen years into our democracy and it’s clear that the struggle for a better life for all continues. Emma’s compelling story remains relevant in a society where labour laws are often flouted and in some cases even the minimum wage is not adhered to. And so the strikes and the struggles continue …

In the education sector, in our rural and township schools, Emma speaks strongly against worker leaders who do not accept that the rights we have won come with the responsibilities of being in the classrooms and teaching: ‘Discipline won us our freedom. It seems today we have the freedom to do what we want without thinking about the interests of our children.’

Watching the breakdown of basic services in many of our township schools and clinics and the arrogance of many of those in power,
I agree that we have mislaid the values of humility, compassion and service to our people, which were the bedrock of our fight for social justice and human dignity.

And while Emma Thandi Mashinini, the Tiny Giant, prepares to celebrate her 83rd birthday, eighteen years of democracy and the 100th anniversary of Africa’s oldest liberation organisation, I celebrate her life of dedicated service: a life of immense suffering, but mostly a life of remarkable achievement. She defied the limitations of her gender at a time when apartheid denied people justice, freedom and equal rights for all. Instead, she fought selflessly for a cause so powerful that it almost ruined her own life. This book is more relevant today than ever. It is another indication of the heavy price paid for freedom, so that we and those who come after us can live in a society free from oppression and hate, a society that respects the right to life and dignity and one where the only limitation placed on us is our own imagination. Let us practise the values of Emma Mashinini every day that we live.

Jay Naidoo

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