Many workers still face terrible treatment - Zwelinzima Vavi

COSATU GS says reality today is that workers today wear political jewellery without the economic medals

Zwelinzima Vavi's address at the re-launch of Emma Mashinini's book - Strikes have Followed me all my Life, May 3 2012

Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to speak at the launch of this very important book which captures the experiences of a worker, a trade unionist, a political activist, an African, a woman, wife and mother under the gruesome and brutal regime we know as apartheid.

I am very honoured to speak about a living giant of the trade union movement, a woman whose imprints have made their mark everywhere in the history of this country, the history of the progressive trade union movement in particular.

When one thinks of Comrade Emma Mashinini, the images of the radical and militant traditions that were clearly visible during the OK Bazaars strike of 1987 come to mind.

The red meat boycott - which was but one of the many examples that actually proved that a workers' place is in the struggle - in the factory, in community and all other terrains in society - immediately rushes through my mind.

A Woman made of an unbreakable mould

As a trade unionist, I can proudly tell you that Comrade Emma Mashinini is a woman made from an unbreakable mould.

She is a pioneer who formed CCAWUSA in 1975, the predecessor of the biggest trade union in the retail sector SACCAWU.

Emma Mashinini does not need an introduction - she is part and parcel of the DNA that defines the labour movement in South Africa today.

Her work as a trade unionist started in the clothing and textile sector in 1959 where she was elected a shop steward for the black Garment Workers' Union (GWU)[1] where she made unemployment insurance for workers and a 40 hour working day her main agenda.

The long working hours, the peanut wages and the inhumane treatment of workers by white racist bosses during these years were the key issues for workers in the sector.

Today, this very same sector where Ma Emma first gained acquaintance with representing workers, is confronted with super-exploitation where workers are always  blackmailed into accepting lower wages.

This is a sector where factory closures and divestment are threats perpetually held like a gun on workers' heads in order to cajole them to submit and accept the meagre wages which amount to as little as R150 and R280 per week.

The legal minimum wage for a new machinist, often a single mother with at least five dependents, is as low as R416.50 per week.

This wage competes with the rising costs of food and transport - two main items that devour workers' wages every month!

The retail sector, which was the first place where Emma proved her true capacities as an organiser, is characterised by an increase in the rate of exploitation with business raking even more profits than ever. Today, 30% of workers, mostly in the retail and hospitality sector, are casualised.

The union that Ma Emma founded and pioneered is today most viciously attacked by casualisation and labour broking. 

Labour brokers, as the main drivers of casualisation, have completely attacked the principle of decent work. They have driven down workers' wages and conditions of employment.

They do not create any jobs but sponge off the labour of others and replace secure jobs with temporary and casual forms of employment.

This sector is also marked by serious inequalities. Whitey Basson CEO of Shoprite earned the highest-ever annual earnings ever recorded in a single year in 2010 - an unbelievable R627.53 million in salary, perks and share options. This contrasts sharply with the situation of many workers at Shoprite who take home peanuts on payday.

Shoprite Checkers have a staff compliment of about 73 000, of this 35% are full time with 5% being what is termed 40 hour full timers/flexitimers and 60% comprised of various categories of variable time employees or casuals. Expansion or growth of Shoprite Checkers does not translate into employment growth but increase in the intake of workers supplied by Labour Brokers.

Minimum wages at Shoprite Checkers are R4000 for full time workers and R1800 for variable time workers who are mostly under labour brokers.

At Pick n Pay there are 36 538 workers. Of this 16 000 are full time with almost 20 000 being varies categories of variable time employees (VTE) or casuals supplied by the labour brokers. The wage rates are R4500 for full time workers and R2000 for casualised variable time employees.

At Woolworths it is estimated there is a ratio of 70% casuals and only 30% so-called permanent workers.

We talk here of established giant retailers and have not even looked at the situation of smaller retailers and shops which employ thousands of workers. We have not looked at the many restaurants where the Labour Relations Act is still a foreign documents, completely ignored by the employers!

To make this situation even worse, the face of casualisation is predominantly the black working class youth that is employed by labour brokers.

This means that although a lot has changed, the revolutionary road still remains a long and thorny one that only genuine activists and revolutionaries can endure!

The Beast called Patriarchy

If there is ever a life that gives practical expression to the meaning of a triple oppression, it is the life of Emma Mashinini.

Her story is as much about apartheid and its racist policies as it is about patriarchy and unequal gender relations in all facets of our society.

Being a woman, a worker and an African in those days meant that only the worst treatment would be visited upon you by the apartheid state, the racist capitalist bosses and the patriarchal men in the home and in society.

In those days, maternity leave was a luxury for black women. The practice of women tightly bandaging their stomachs so as to conceal the fact that they were expecting, something which greatly compromised the health of the unborn babies, was common. For black women workers falling pregnant in those days was actually a license for dismissal!

It was normal practice for employers to force pregnant women to work in the most freezing conditions.

Indeed we are proud to say today that the bodily integrity of workers was one of the struggles fought and won under the stewardship of this amazing woman. In her days as a union leader, she was confronted with countless cases of black women being made to strip naked by management - a practice that can best be described as barbaric.

There is no other piece of literature that best captures the practical experience of black working women under patriarchy as Ma Emma's astounding book.

Under apartheid, black female workers had to contend with being productive in the factories and being pushed around and abused by the often racist bosses.

At home, they had to contend with raising their children, washing and ironing their clothes and ensuring that there is a warm plate of food for both the children and the husband and brave the fists from abusive husbands who utilise their patriarchal power to batter their wives before they demand the third shift.

This "double shift" is an everyday nightmare that working women in this country experience even today!

Under apartheid, African working class women had to live with the reality of pass laws, forced removals, the apartheid spatial geography, a racialised and inferior health and education systems for blacks, the tragic loss of children through exile, detention torture and murder by the security police.

These "breadline problems" were amongst the principle reasons for the radical politicisation of women under apartheid. 

As Ma Emma's story demonstrates, the trade union movement was not left unscathed by patriarchy and all its associated consequences.

The honest and frank reflection provided by Ma Emma in this book, especially about the dominance of males in the COSATU leadership at its launch in 1985, is a welcome reminder about how far we have come as a federation and the long road that lies ahead of us in terms of addressing gender inequalities.

Ma Emma's story gives us a new opportunity for self-reflection. We ought to ask ourselves - how is it that back in the 1970s and 1980s the trade union movement boasted leaders such as Ma Emma, Rita Ndzanga, Ray Alexandra Simons, Jane Barrett and many others forming and leading trade unions in their different sectors and yet a picture of the trade union movement today only reflects men as General Secretaries and Presidents?

This is the case even in sectors most dominated by women as workers and as members of these trade unions.

Could it be that we have regressed when it comes to fighting for equality in certain respects?

Lessons for a Lifetime

The most encouraging lesson from this Ma Emma's story is about the politicising nature of oppression and exploitation.

What the apartheid regime did by torturing thousands of our beloved leaders and young activists; denying African workers their basic rights and giving their children an inferior education system was to actually politicise black society in its entirety.

The struggle against apartheid was a unique political school which trained workers, women, young activists, and those who believed in the righteousness of our course and the politics of revolution and justice! These lessons are part of the toolbox that the trade union movement still draws upon even today.

I for one am glad that this book is being launched in a new edition. It gives us a new opportunity to look back at how far we have come as workers in South Africa and to confront with more energy the challenges we face today

The new generations of unionists today can learn a lot from Ma Emma's story which is essentially about selflessness and an enduring love to serve the working class and the oppressed in this country.

Being a union organiser and leader in the dark days of apartheid was no child's play. As organiser, the apartheid repressive apparatus and the hostile industrial relations meant that African workers and their unions were not recognised.

An attempt to recruit workers to join a union was usually responded to with vicious dogs, police vans, batons, imprisonment, torture, and even death. This in Ma Emma's own words meant that "in our industrial relations in South Africa, you not only deal with employers when you negotiate, but you also deal with the police" [2]

Most black trade union organisers were refused accesses to workers on the grounds of "trespassing on private property "Arrest and torture was the only language the racist regime used when speaking to black workers.

In those days, organisers had to bear all sorts of hostile weather conditions to wait outside the factory gates to collect subscriptions because the non-recognition of black trade unions translated into trade unions not being unable to deduct subscription fees from workers' salaries. Yet as Mama Mashinini would tell you, every cent collected would be accounted for! I can't imagine what would happen today if we were to return to hand collections.

Shop stewards and organisers today should be inspired by the humble story of this "Tiny Giant". Her story inspires us to always strive to maintain and rejuvenate the novel trade union traditions of worker control, report-back and mandate.

In many ways, trade unionists today operate in far better conditions. The teargas and police bulldozers are not an everyday threat to organising workers. But in many ways too, the conditions are still lamentable.

Evidence of these lamentable conditions can be seen from the Aurora mine case where workers have been left destitute, without food, water and electricity for months if not years!

One only has to look at the case of a domestic worker who made headlines last year after her white racist employer called her a kaffir, forced her to sleep in the laundry and pulled her ears as a way of demonstrating her power and entertaining her equally racists guests, to see the tremendous challenges that still face us as the working class.

One only has to look at the numerous reports of farmers chasing union organisers with guns shots in order to prevent them from recruiting some of the most exploited workers in this country - the farm workers - to get a true understanding of the terrible treatment that workers in this country still face.

Indeed one only has to look at some of the cases brought to the courts of farm workers being painfully evicted into the streets, being raped by their bosses and being paid only with a bag of potatoes and mealie meal to see the evils that capitalism metes out at workers on a daily basis!

This state of affairs is what leads us to continuously say that the reality for workers today is that they wear political jewellery without the economic medals. 

And for so long as this state of affairs continues, then strikes will unfortunately remain part and parcel of our politics and mode of contestation in South Africa!

As workers, we are grateful for this new edition and thankful that we will enjoy the freedom to read it without the fear that the security police will visit upon us their ruthless dogs. Barely twenty years ago, reading a book of this nature, was tantamount to an invitation for the security police to unleash their brutal and vicious dogs and detain whoever was found in possession of such material. 

These are a few words I have chosen as the best way to introduce Emma Mashinini, a woman made in the struggle against apartheid. As her experience of torture, torment and trauma at the hands of the apartheid security apparatus and racist capitalists has shown, Emma Mashinini is made of a mould that is not easily broken!

Mama, this past weekend I visited one of our stalwarts and founding fathers of the democratic trade union movement Ntate John Nkadimeng. He will be celebrating his 85th birthday on the 12th of June at COSATU House. On the 5th of May, we shall recall the passing of Walter Sisulu. This comes after we marked the month of heroes in April, where a significant number of our leaders departed.

We hope we will not disappoint you Mama and we hope we will not disappoint the steadfast Nkadimeng and will not betray the legacy of Walter Xhamela Sisulu.

Viva mbokodo Viva!


[1] There were three garment workers' trade unions at the time differentiated by racial categories of the workers they organised.

[2] Mashinini, E, Strikes have followed me all my Life, p.80.

Issued by COSATU, May 3 2012

Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter