Defend Truth


Ma Emma: The true spear of the nation


Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, a former minister in the Nelson Mandela government and is a board member of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

While the media and middle class intellectuals make battle over a bad painting along largely racial lines, the young remain badly educated and therefore without prospects. Who caused this betrayal? The same people who gave birth to our democracy and now insist their dignity has been affronted. Our youngsters can learn a lot from Ma Emma Mashinini, 83.

I sat in a Khayelitsha café with Ma Emma. She was in a spirited mood. An indomitable woman, she reminded me of the fearless leaders that shaped the struggle for freedom in our country.  Where have they gone?

We were meeting youth leaders in Khayelitsha.  They were enthusiastic and passionate. Their story was testimony to the enormous talent we have in South Africa. We were with two activists from Pakistan, Baela Raza Jamil and Nargis, who were attending the Open Society conference in Cape Town.

Ma Emma asked: ‘So how many of you know where is Pakistan.” A sprinkling of hands went up.

“Don’t you study geography? Don’t you have an atlas?” she scolded. “When I was in school we travelled the world through our atlas. We knew people from around the world were supporting our struggle against apartheid. Why don’t you study the world so when you see things happening on the TV from different parts of the world you know where it is?”

One youth leader asked: “I know where Pakistan is, but what is the sense of learning about what is happening there when we ourselves have nothing? We have no hope of the better life we were promised in 1994.”

Baela responded: “Thank you for the honour of allowing me to meet you. I was angry at your age, throwing stones at the establishment I felt were destroying my country. I left Pakistan because I believed it had nothing to offer me and travelled to many countries. It opened my mind and it also opened my heart. It taught me that our struggles are the same. We are all fighting corrupt elites who steal from our public coffers. We need to unite. I have gone back to Pakistan to work with young leaders like you. It would be so wonderful if the youth of Pakistan could meet you. We will discover how much we share in common. “

The audience felt her genuine empathy. She had touched their hearts. They nodded in agreement.

Ma Emma is 83 years old. Her mind is as active as when I first met her nearly 35 years ago, but her body struggles to keep up. Back then I heard her booming voice before I saw her surrounded by a huge crowd of workers. Nicknamed the Tiny Giant, she is the mother of the modern trade union movement. She was a role model for me and countless others. She remains the role model for many today. Her message penetrates the young minds before her:

“You young people must realise that the only way you will succeed is education, education, education. Every time I see a school or a library burning in our township because our people are angry with our leaders, it kills me softly.”

They listen intently. A bright-eyed young man says: “Ma Emma, it is an honour for me to meet you. I have not known about you because our history books don’t talk of stalwarts like you. But we have a challenge here in South Africa.

We have educated people who are ministers and government leaders. Where do they lead our country? What has changed for us here in Khayelitsha? We are still excluded, jobless. Our schools don’t have laboratories and libraries and many schools around the country have no textbooks halfway through the year because state officials have sold the tenders to their corrupt friends.”

There is a robust conversation that follows. There is such anger against the economic and political elites who rule our country. How can I blame these young people? After all, the government pours R160-billion into an education system that fails our young people. More than half will leave after 12 years of school with very few skills, no jobs and unlikely to have a job in their lifetime. Our education outcomes in literacy, numeracy,science and mathematics are worse than Kenya and many other African countries.

Why? Will more money solve the problem? Unlikely. The patronage system that inflates the prices of everything in the public sector will drain huge amounts of taxpayers’ money in scams that leave our children without a nutritious midday meal or textbooks in classrooms. Teachers’ subject knowledge in many areas is abysmal and in many cases the teachers are ill prepared and hardly in the classroom in many of our township schools. The problem is that the management systems from school level to the national are largely dysfunctional.

Teacher trade unions are resisting inspections and performance assessment and many principals are unable to enforce discipline because many are themselves union leaders. The worst excesses are sexual fiends who parade as teachers and abuse thousands of our young children with impunity. Often they hide behind a union card.

We are guilty as charged, I think. We have failed the most innocent and the brightest talent in our country.

“Comrade Naidoo, you were in the Mandela Cabinet. You made promises to us of a better life. You made us dependent on government. That dependency has made us bystanders in our democracy. We have lost the strong civil society to fight for our constitutional rights. We see leaders from our community organisations feeding themselves as soon as they have power. They forget where they come from. Politics in our country has become the politics of the stomach. We live in poverty but there is also the poverty we have in our mind and the poverty in our spirit and our bellies.”

I accept culpability. I was part of the first democratic government that marginalised civil society. We had won political power. We had control of the levers of power in the democratic state. We would deliver the reconstruction and development programme. We disempowered the most powerful weapon of transformation – the power of an organised people in our county. And then we discovered the state was largely dysfunctional. And incompetence and mediocrity increased as political elites fought to place their own loyalists in key positions in our public and state institutions to plunder the state coffers.

Cadre deployment became another ploy of growing cronyism. A weakened state that was dysfunctional is better able to hide the activities of corrupt officials. The extreme of this was the famous statement by a leading political office bearer: “I did not struggle to be poor.”

The battles in our political movement are increasingly characterised by the contestations over power and control of state resources. Every day we hear how taxpayers’ money has become a feeding trough for power hungry elites.

The conversation changes. The young people begin to challenge each other. “Why are we not doing things ourselves? Why are we not organising ourselves to defend democracy? Our Constitution is about the right to quality education and quality health. We need to hold our leaders accountable. They will only listen if we are organised and have our own power. We see leaders attacking the Constitution and the courts. Yet these are the only institutions that are defending our human rights. Look at Limpopo. It was the courts that instructed government to distribute books to our students. Now the politicians want to take away our voice through their secrecy laws. It is not aimed at the liberal media. It is aimed at us the youth who are revolting against the corruption we see.”

This is our struggle. Many are wearing T-shirts of Equal Education. On them is the slogan: “Each generation has its own struggle”

I agree. My generation has betrayed the vision we had for our country. I think of the irrelevant public political debates that dominate our headlines – from nationalisation of the mines to the recent discussion on The Spear. What relevance has it got to the issues that face us here in Khayelitsha or in Diepsloot or in Inanda? All I can do is to support, engage, encourage and defend their right to speak out.

Ma Emma challenges them. They respond eagerly. They need role models. She has made a deep impression. Her life is their life. Why did you write the book, one asks.

“I was in prison and tortured. Neil Aggett was a son to me. He was detained at the same time as me. When I heard he was murdered I went crazy. I was thinking about my children and putting names to their faces. I could not remember the name of my second youngest daughter, Dudu. I went through mental torture. After my release my family would find me wandering in the streets in my gown at night. I went from doctor to doctor. I even went to Copenhagen to a specialised clinic for victims of torture. I could not get back to myself. One day a friend suggested that I should write down what I felt. It was therapy. Gradually I got back to myself.”

The young people are captivated. They thank Ma Emma for inspiring them with hope again. They undertake to intensify their efforts to organise and mobilise their communities. I am hopeful. We have reached an inflection point and are beginning to see the rebirth of the energetic activism we saw in the 1980s. I leave optimistic that the next generation will take our beautiful country back on the path of reconstruction and development and our promise of a better life to all. DM

  • Further reading: Strikes Have Followed Me All My Life – Emma Mashinini’s autobiography. Re-released by Pan MacMillan and available in bookshops.
  • Equal Education.

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