Emma Mashinini

In her twilight years, trade union icon Emma Mashinini is angry about "the hell" she says SA has fallen into.

Condemning the country's "corrupt" leaders, she says: "It is disappointing, so different from what we fought for and looked forward to. Corruption is destroying our country and I can see no end to it, because our leaders are involved in it. Education and health services have gone to hell. Teachers are absent, children are absent. The books are not there.

"There are things we miss about the past, like going to a clean hospital, and being able to find a doctor who can help you," says Mashinini, a founder and former president of the SA Commercial, Catering & Allied Workers Union.

Of the labour unrest on the mines she says there should be communication between the parties, "not killing, murder and the destruction of our country. What happened at Marikana is not what we stood for."

Recently awarded an honorary doctorate by Unisa, Mashinini (83) is cited as the "doyenne" of SA's union movement.

She was instrumental in the formation of Cosatu in 1985 and regards this and the battle against racial job reservation as her greatest achievements. A winner of many civil awards - including the Order of Luthuli, SA's highest award for contributions to democracy, justice and peace - she also served on the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. The J&J Group established the Emma Mashinini Foundation, the first in the name of a union leader. "The thing to remember is that I was working with others," she says. "There were people like Sheena Duncan of the Black Sash. We worked closely in trying to get the death penalty abolished. With Beyers Naude and Frank Chikane we worked to bring the churches closer together in opposition to apartheid."

She was motivated, she says, by the offensiveness of apartheid. "Wanting to live in peace with others is in my creation. In Soweto our home was not even fenced. In those days the township was like an extended family."

More recently, she remembers moving to Pretoria to "live among white people for the first time. To break the ice I went to ask my neighbour for a cup of milk. We became close friends." Listening on her porch to music from another neighbour's house, she recalls: "She asked me whether it was too loud and I said no, I was enjoying it. 'But it's classical music,' she said. 'Yes, it's Handel,' I replied."

Mashinini serves on two corruption watch organisations, one led by Sipho Pityana and the other by David Lewis. She is currently reading a book about unionist Neil Aggett and another by activist priest Michael Lapsley.

"But I find no joy in these books; it is too late in my life now to bring in more sorrow. I want to read romances."