Emma Mashinini’s activism began when she was elected as a shop steward, and later appointed as a floor supervisor, at Henochsberg’s clothing factory. In 1975, Mashinini took up a position as the first general secretary of the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers’ Union (SACCAWU), growing the union substantially in the following years. She was arrested in 1981 under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act, and was held in solitary confinement at Pretoria Central Prison for six months.
This is a lightly edited extract from her autobiography Strikes Have Followed Me All My Life first published by the Women’s Press in 1989 and republished by Picador Africa in 2012.
Pretoria Central Prison
The cell was very small. There was a toilet and a basin to wash. It was a proper flush toilet, and it was very clean. There was a bed and there were sheets on the bed. The window was right next to the door. It was a very small window. Through it, somebody in the corridor could see you but they had put Elastoplast on the other side so you couldn’t see out.
I was cold. Everything had been taken from me. I had a gold necklace my daughters had given me for my 50th birthday; that was taken. Everything was removed, up to my rings. I sat in that place with nothing to read. Just with myself; the bare me.
It seemed to be a whites-only prison. If it was for black people, it would not have been so clean. They would not have bothered. It was November, midsummer in Pretoria, but I was very, very cold.
I had no visits; no interrogation; no word from anybody whatsoever. All I had were people talking behind shut doors. The white prisoners who were there were the ones who would bring the food. They were criminals and they were not allowed to open the door. They put the plate on the doorstep until the policewoman decided to come, open the door and push the food in. At times, when the plate had been there for some time, you could hear the prisoners talking among themselves: ‘You know, that plate has been there for some time. It’s cold now.’
Counting the days
I was able to count the days by my meals and by dark and light, and I was able to count from day one to day 14. And I was still Emma. I was still sane. I was myself.
It was my solace to hear a woman talking. And then, on Sundays, I could hear people singing hymns. I’m sure there was a black prison not far away from where I was. I could hear their singing, and there was a song that I learnt from them, Simswabisile Usatati: “We have disappointed the devil because he has no power over us here. We are together and the devil will never catch us again.” Thereafter, I would wait for Sundays to hear these black people sing.
Next to my cell there was a lift and on the other side of my cell was a laundry. The machines were loud and ran all the time.
The food was very bad. One day there was beetroot peel on my plate. Just that. They had cooked beetroot and the peels were what they had given me. I became hypertensive and I told them, “I’m not going to take food with salt,” and they said, “Well, you will have to.” And I ate. I was looking forward to going home. I said to myself: “I need to eat, to keep strong to go home.”
On my 14th day, when the policewoman came to open the door for me and bring my food in, she asked if I would like to have a bath. I thought that this meant I was going home.
After my bath, when she was locking me in, I said to her, “Am I not going home?” She said to me, “Didn’t you see the newspapers? You are charged with another section.” As though I could get a newspaper. Yet, I think she was not doing this to spite me but was unaware of the system, of her own system.
Now I think that was the most heartbreak I had. The heartache was even greater than when I was actually removed from home, because I was now being held under Section 6. I kept telling myself, “Section 6 is one of the worst sections.” You could remain in prison for an indefinite time. It depended on the government.
When the policewoman told me that she’d read from the papers that I was being transferred from Section 22 to Section 6, I really felt this was very bad for me, because I had known people who were there for a very long time, being held under Section 6. And now, this hope of saying I would be out of prison within two weeks had gone; it was like being detained for the first time.
Section 6 meant complete isolation and solitary confinement, which was no better than Section 22. Even with Section 22, I wasn’t allowed any visitors during those two weeks. I didn’t have anyone to talk to.
When I went to bed that day (well, from that day onward) I didn’t even think it was necessary to eat and keep strong to go home because I knew, my God, I knew, that now I’d had my chips.
They couldn’t make me eat. I just didn’t feel hungry. So they sent in the nurse to come and ask why I couldn’t take the food. It was a white nurse, and I told her that I couldn’t eat the food because it was so bad. I can’t even describe it. Their bitter coffee and bread was almost better than whatever we were being given to eat.
What was more horrible was that I had to ask a very junior policewoman, “Why am I not going home?” And this made me really feel something was wrong. What if I had not enquired? They may have just forgotten me when I was supposed to have gone home, and nobody would have come to tell me.
I didn’t understand the law myself, but I really felt that there was something wrong in that I was not told what was going on. Then, you know, I really had to search myself: What did I do? What offence had I committed? In fact, no one ever told me that.
All my trade union experience of demanding to see someone and not being refused just fell aside. Even going to bed was an effort. I was just a lump. And it was now getting closer to Christmas, the time I’d always thought I’d be home. I thought about my children. My children who were not there.
My one baby was in New York; another one was in Germany. I thought, “Oh my God, it will be just too much for them to find out.” If the officer read it from a newspaper, it meant that they would know that I’d been charged with a much more severe section and had been forced to remain in prison.
With the cold still, and the horrible food, and the headaches and dizziness from the hypertension, and now this heartbreak and disappointment, it was a bad time, a very bad time.