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Dr Emma Mashinini: Education will never burn out

The low level of PhD graduates is a cause for concern in South Africa, Dr Emma Mashinini told attendees at a Unisa graduation ceremony held on 27 September 2012, at which she was awarded the Honorary Doctorate of Literature and Philosophy.

During her acceptance speech Mashinini stated that education is the most important thing that one can ever have, and that when things get volatile, education is one of the few things that lasts. “When seeing today’s programme, I noticed that among the other graduands, there are not many who are receiving a doctorate and even fewer women who are receiving this high award,” she said. She then went on to encourage those graduands who were receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees to continue on this path of education.

Mashinini said that although she had received many honours, she never expected an honorary doctorate. She had to drop out of school during grade 9 at the age of 14 due to domestic conditions. “But even under the best of conditions, such a jump from grade 9 to this degree is unimaginable,” she said with a humorous twinkle in her eye before mentioning that the honorary degree was not of her own making, but was due to the faith many people had put in her.

She expressed pride in her granddaughter, Rirhandu, who will be defending her doctoral thesis in Germany. In conclusion, she congratulated music legend Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse for returning to school and obtaining his matric after many decades. “You have been singing about burnout, however, education is one thing that will never burn out.”

More about Dr Emma Mashinini

Dr Mashinini was born in Rosettenville, Johannesburg in 1929 and attended the Bantu Secondary School in Sophiatown. In 1956 she took on a full-time job working in Henochsberg’s clothing factory and there she joined the Garment Workers’ Union (GWU), a union for black workers that was registered and affiliated to the Trade Union Council of South Africa (TUCSA). Whilst working at the factory her activism was triggered by hard working conditions and she joined the union movement, later becoming a shop steward. She was also elected to the National Union of Clothing Workers (NUCW), the highest body of the GWU.

Regardless of the political unrests after the Sharpville Massacre, Dr Mashinini continued with her work. In 1975 she became president of a new union that she had formed, the Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union of South Africa (CCAWUSA). The membership grew and saw branch offices being opened in Durban and Cape Town. She was also very instrumental in the formation of Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). Mashinini was arrested for her activism and upon her release she was advised to go and stay overseas. But with the unwavering and full support of her loving husband, Tom Mashinini and her daughters Molly, Dudu and Nomsa, she chose to remain in South Africa and to resume her post at CCAWUSA for another four years.

Dr Mashinini’s contributions to labour rights have received international recognition from the trade union movement and from other institutions including The British Trade Union (1978) and the Massachusetts House of Representatives. In fact, The Governor of Massachusetts even declared 8 March “Emma Mashinini Day” in 1985. Her contribution has also been widely acknowledged in South Africa. In 2007 she was awarded The Order of Luthuli (Bronze) (South Africa’s highest award for contributions to democracy, human rights, justice and peace).

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