Trade Unionist Emma Mashinini Dies: 5 Things You Didn’t Know About The Selfless Leader


South Africa’s prominent trade union veteran and women’s and human rights activist Emma Mashinini has died.

Mishinini died of a suspected cardiac arrest at the age of 87 on Monday, July 10, 2017, in Johannesburg. Her family is finalising her funeral arrangement are and details will be communicated in due course.

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ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa described Comrade Emma as an author and leader who remained loyal to the people of South Africa. He called on people to emulate her selflessness, dedication, loyalty and love for the people.

Here’s what you need to know about Emma Mashinini


Emma was on August 1, 1929, in Rosettenville, Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality. Her mother was a domestic worker and her family relocated severally when she was a child. Her family first moved to Prospect township near City Deep, then to Sophiatown, and later to Orlando, Soweto.

After her parents separated, her mother was unable to support the family. So she started working in a garment industry – at the age 14 – and later became a union organiser for the Garment Workers Union.


Married at 17, Emma Mashinini eventually left her abusive first husband. Both had six children but three died in their early days of life, due to the inadequate medical care available for black babies.

Emma was the founder of CCAWUSA

Dispirited by key issues for workers like long working hours, peanut wages and the inhumane treatment of shop workers by white racist bosses during the apartheid era, Emma formed the Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union of South Africa (CCAWUSA) in 1975.

She emerged the union’s first general secretary while M. Ledwaba was elected as its president. CCAWUSU was renamed SACCAWU in 1989 after a merger between Cape Liquor and Catering, Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union (HARWU) and Retail and Allied Workers Union (RAWU).

SACCAWU is affiliated to the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) at the national level and to two global union federations within the hospitality sectors – The Union Network International (UNI) and the Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers Associations (IUF).

Mashinini played several prominent roles in the transition to democracy in the 1980s and 1990s.

Comrade Emma is better remembered for devoting her life to the struggle against the gruesome and brutal regime of apartheid and for the rights of the working class.

She was detained without charge for six months 1981 when Police seized books and papers from her home and office without a search warrant. This was after she joined the ANC in 1956. Her detention in 1981 was under section 6 of the 1967 Terrorism Act.

She later released without being charged after her husband Tom, raised awareness about her imprisonment and organised a demonstration at the Supreme Court.

Emma is also remembered for numerous struggles like the OK Bazaars strike of 1987 and the red meat boycott.

She is the author of the chart-topping book ‘Strikes Have Followed Me All My Life’

Comrade Emma originally published her book ‘Strike Have Followed All My Life’ in 1985. The book gives a frank reflection on the dominance of males in the COSATU leadership at the time. It was originally published by The Women’s Press UK in 1989 and republished by Picador Africa in South Africa in 2012 with a new foreword by Jay Naido.

Other Prominent contributions

Mashinini’s goal was always to politicise black society in its entirety. She is best remembered for her commendable role in the inclusion of women leaders during the founding of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) in 1985.

She also ensured their logo included the image of a woman with a baby. She also served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as well as becoming a Commissioner for Restitution of Land Rights.

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For 12 years, Emma Mashinini served on the executive of the National Union of Clothing Workers (NUCW). Mashinini received numerous awards and decorations, including the Order of the Baobab and the Order of Luthuli.