You were in­spir­ing

CityPress - - Voices & Careers -

The last time I spoke to Ma Emma was a few months ago at the launch of my book in Johannesburg. She looked grace­ful and as el­e­gant as ever. She ra­di­ated warmth and em­pa­thy. Her spirit shone brightly through a body slowed down by age and re­liant on a firm stick. We hugged. Her smile was serene, but her eyes were trou­bled.

I spent a long time won­der­ing about the sad­ness I saw in her. That I saw in Ahmed Kathrada. That I see in the mir­ror of my soul. It’s the sad­ness deep in the heart of An­drew Mlan­geni, De­nis Gold­berg and so many oth­ers who have given so much of their lives to the cause of jus­tice.

I thought back to the first time I met Ma Emma. I heard her be­fore I saw her. It was at Khotso House in Johannesburg, home to the SA Coun­cil of Churches. She was sur­rounded by a crowd of work­ers. I was a new kid on the block in this big city of Egoli, nearly four decades ago. I was in­trigued. I pierced the gath­er­ing, at­tracted by the mag­netism of a small, pow­er­ful woman hold­ing the floor.

Her wis­dom per­meated the crowds around her, em­brac­ing all in the coura­geous won­der of what is pos­si­ble in life. Ra­di­at­ing in­tegrity, dis­ci­pline, a good head and a pure heart, her voice rose and fell like the tides of change, with the silky pas­sion that knocks on the door of con­science. I knew then that she would be my life­long teacher.

Ma Emma was a gen­tle gi­ant who masked the dy­namism of her fierce com­mit­ment to jus­tice. I never knew some­one so small make such a big dif­fer­ence in the lives of oth­ers. She guided us on the art of liv­ing with kind­ness and sol­i­dar­ity. But one never un­der­es­ti­mated the rock that lay within.

Many did, and to their amaze­ment, they learnt to re­spect and ad­mire how she lived her life.

As I sat with Ma Emma that last time, I knew that she was shar­ing her last tes­ta­ment with me.

It has been a mag­nif­i­cent and in­spir­ing jour­ney. We saw our Mother Earth as our teacher. She led us to see our­selves as be­ings of love, light, com­pas­sion and gen­eros­ity. We saw our­selves as ser­vants of a higher pur­pose. We knew right from wrong, good from evil and jus­tice from in­jus­tice.

Our work was driven by our shared com­mit­ment to unity, to build­ing a na­tion that truly served our peo­ple and de­liv­ered on the covenant of a “bet­ter life” that we had promised in 1994.

Much has hap­pened since then – some re­ally good, like hav­ing her in our lives – and some re­ally bad.

We should take the lessons from those dis­ap­point­ments and use the grow­ing anger that is en­gulf­ing the coun­try to re­set our moral com­pass to­wards the in­spir­ing dreams and hopes that we em­braced at the be­gin­ning of our democ­racy.

We un­der­stood that chang­ing the sys­tem – and even en­trench­ing free­dom in the per­ma­nence of a con­sti­tu­tional democ­racy – was in­suf­fi­cient to de­fend and ad­vance the rights of our peo­ple. We un­der­stood that our most ur­gent task was to change the hu­man be­ing.

Shar­ing food, car­ing for in­fants and build­ing so­cial net­works helped our an­ces­tors. So, we needed to ask our­selves these ques­tions: What does it mean to be hu­man? How do I live with hu­man­ity in life, in our pol­i­tics, in our econ­omy and in our com­mu­nity?

I know Ma Emma knew of this need. De­cent, hum­ble, ded­i­cated and sin­cere, she was a mother who be­lieved in the in­her­ent good­ness of ev­ery hu­man be­ing. She had a pro­found love for or­di­nary peo­ple, the un­der­class and the work­ing peo­ple.

I know she has gone to a bet­ter place. And she still show­ers us with love. My heart is full of grat­i­tude for how she has lived her life, be­cause she has made a dif­fer­ence in so many other lives. I learnt so much from her as she opened her arms to me and so many ac­tivists in those dif­fi­cult times.

To­day much is grey. We have lost time. Our lead­ers failed to im­bibe the life lessons of our past. We have be­come drunk on power. But we know that the cy­cle will change. Each gen­er­a­tion must find its voice, its strug­gle and its destiny.

That time is now upon us. We of­ten talked about the chal­lenges that we had left to young peo­ple. We spoke about cre­at­ing safe and sa­cred places for an in­ter­gen­er­a­tional con­ver­sa­tion about so­lu­tions to the chal­lenges we face, both lo­cal and global. We un­der­stood that the world had changed much since we built the trade union move­ment in the 1980s. Those changes are ter­ri­fy­ing for our youth. We are leav­ing them an eco­log­i­cal emer­gency and a world of grow­ing job­less­ness, poverty and in­equal­ity. The youth has a le­git­i­mate right to be an­gry with us. Our con­ver­sa­tions about change are old; our ide­olo­gies, in­sti­tu­tions and ways of work­ing, ar­chaic. We saw the need to co-cre­ate the new nar­ra­tives and so­cial net­works that em­power the next gen­er­a­tion to deal with our volatile present. Emma lived a life on Earth where she re­garded ev­ery­thing that sus­tained us as sa­cred. She learnt to tread softly. She left no scars of bit­ter­ness, sor­row and want. With you, Ma Emma, we learnt to be pa­tient guides and to un­der­stand that lis­ten­ing with em­pa­thy is the wis­est way to learn life lessons. Our peo­ple know that we can­not solve all the prob­lems we have now. But they want to know, to par­tic­i­pate in and to dis­cuss how we can solve the chal­lenges of our coun­try to­gether. Above all, they want hum­ble, hon­est and eth­i­cal lead­ers. Ma Emma, I thank you from the bot­tom of my heart for all you have done for our coun­try, our peo­ple and hu­man­ity. Never did I hear a word of com­plaint or re­gret. You are the ma­tri­arch I was al­ways happy to call my mother. Jay Naidoo is a for­mer gen­eral sec­re­tary of Cosatu and a for­mer Cab­i­net min­is­ter


Trade union­ist, strug­gle icon and gen­tle gi­ant Emma Mashinini with Jay Naidoo and his wife, Lu­cie Pagé

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