South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

Emma Mashinini

(August 21, 1929 - )

Emma Mashinini was born in Rosetteville, Johannesburg in 1929. In the early 1930s she and her family were forcibly removed to Orlando in Soweto, however her parents managed to relocate to Sophiatown. In Sophiatown, Emma attended the Bantu Secondary School, however it was not long after their arrival there that their homes were flattened by bulldozers and people were forcibly moved to Soweto. Her parents separated when Emma was 14 and she was forced to drop out of school and go to work. At age 17, she married, and gave birth to six babies, three of whom died in infancy. When her youngest child was age two years of age, Emma took on a full-time job working in Henochsberg's clothing factory.

At the factory, her co-workers elected her shop steward and was later appointed floor supervisor by management. She worked to reduce the long work hours from 45 to 40 hours; and after months of strikes and go-slows, she won the right for workers to unemployment insurance. After the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, the political organisations were banned and many union leaders were forced to go underground or into exile. During this time Emma was elected to the national executive committee of the National Union of Clothing Workers (NUCW), the highest body of the Garment Worker's Union. Emma was thus placed in a position of considerable importance. She remained a member of the committee for the next 12 years.

In 1975, Emma left Henochsberg's and took up a position as president of a new union, the Commercial, Catering and Allied Worker's Union of South Africa (CCAWUSA) that she had to set up. Her union grew slowly the first year, but by 1977 there were 1,000 members. Emma was arrested in November 1981 under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act and spent the next six months in solitary confinement at Pretoria Central Prison. After her release from prison, she defied medical advice and the pleas of her many friends to take it easy or even to live abroad; instead she resumed her post at CCAWUSA for another four years. In 1985, Emma was involved in the formation of the Congress of South African Trade unions (COSATU) a body that united trade unions across the country. However, she resigned from her position as president of CCAVMSA in 1986. After this Emma took on a new job as head of the Department of Justice and Reconciliation under Bishop Desmond Tutu and the Anglican Church, a position she holds to this day.


This biography is from South African History Online. Used by permission. 
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