Sindiwe Magona: The Voice

Sindiwe Magona: The Voice

Tsepiso S Mothibi

The issue of women’s rights wears many faces, has many facets and levels of understanding that are oftentimes a little understood, or, comprehended by males in our different African and world societies; where there are various perspectives and outlooks in the light of addressing women’s rights in the appropriate manner.

The result is the maltreatment of women in terms of the freedom of expression of self and group, that is, women find it hard to take their stance in the making of decisions in society, because of the simple historical fact that they have been limited or secluded to a small corner of society where they do not really have a voice, when it comes to the making of salient decisions that determine the progress of their respective societies. Without expression in the social activities, they go on to suffer in silence in the face of often thinly veiled forms of abuse disguised as ‘ordinary’ daily events.

Being robbed of the right to speak one’s mind is abuse, being unable to address one’s concerns at family or social level is oppression; but it goes on noticed and the concerned parties pretend it is hidden. This trend goes on until there are voices to shout in the stead of the silenced, to speak for those without voice, those whose cries are muffled due to their poverty and low social standing; these voices are rare, far and the spaces between one finding them are often wide abysses.

Fortunately, one does stumble upon characters whose words have gone a long way to change the tide in the fight against the oppression of women and children. I have had the fortune to meet Antjie Krog and Sindiwe Magona and other great women in a single year and their cry is one; take heed to the plight of women and children in all countries of the continent and the world.

The road from Fish Hoek to Simon’s Town (the M4) hugs the scenic Atlantic coastline, and in between it and the sea, is an old railway line that has been repaired and will go on to be repaired a countless more times because the salt of the sea is not very friendly to the iron used in the making of the steel railway links. It is an endless battle between nature and man, and nature will win most of the rounds in the bout.

But man does not give in that easily, for the scenic train ride along the Atlantic coast is a sight to behold, and the feel of the misty saltwaters of the sea on one’s face as they crash against the rocks is an experience that cleanses the soul; it leaves one feeling refreshed for a long while after they have left the sea and rested in their hotel room. To share a moment, to walk along the coast in a talk with a giant woman writer whose main concern has been to address the pain mothers, daughters and wives have to go through on a daily basis in a male dominated world is an experience no little boy can forget.

I mean, talking to a young woman (a cherrie) and courting her is a nice experience for a young man, but being granted the wisdom to have an in-depth conversation with a wise old woman is beyond description. I got to speak with Mam’ Sindiwe Magona on a walk from Fish Hoek to Simon’s Town’s Glencairn, and she revealed a side not often heard in the continuing discourse meant to address the concerns and the rights of women, children, and societal attitudes in the treatment of women.

A girl from the old Transkei (Eastern Cape) born on the 27th of August 1943, she grew up in a township near Cape Town, where she worked as a domestic worker for a number of years and managed to complete her secondary education by correspondence. Mam’ Sindiwe Magona later graduated from the University of South Africa and earned a Master of Science Degree in Organisational Social Work from Columbia University. In 1993 she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from Hartwick College, Oneonta, and in 1997 was installed in the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow in the non-fiction category.

She worked in various capacities for the United Nations over 20 years, retiring in 2003, and currently lives in Muizenberg, Cape Town, South Africa. In 2007 she was awarded the Grinzane Award for writing that addresses social concerns, the Molteno Gold Medal for promoting the Xhosa culture and language, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award for her notable contribution to South African Literature. In 2011 she was honoured with the Order of iKhamanga, a Presidential Award and the highest such award in South Africa, and in 2012 she was joint winner with Nadine Gordimer of the Imbokodo Award for being the rock young women can use to shatter the walls of oppression, male hegemony, and patriarchy . In the 2013 computer-animated adventure comedy film Khumba she was the voice actor for the character Gemsbok Healer. She is Writer-in-Residence at the University of the Western Cape and is currently working at Georgia State University.

She published her autobiography, To My Children’s Children, a memoir that in all essences passes the baton to the next generation in 1990. In 1998, she published Mother to Mother, a true-life fictionalized account of the Amy Biehl killing, which she adapted to a play. This was performed at the Baxter Theatre Complex in late 2009 and the film rights to the novel were acquired by Type A Films in 2003. She has also written autobiographies and short story collections. Her novel Beauty’s Gift, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best Book, Africa Region.

In 2009, Please, Take Photographs, her first collection of poems, was published. Magona’s trials and triumphs reflect, in a refreshing and authentic voice, what it means to obtain womanhood in a society where patriarchy and apartheid often conspired to degrade and enslave women economically, domestically, politically, traditionally and sexually.

Sindiwe Magona, in To My Children’s Children and Forced to Grow, differs from her European First World modernist counterpart with reference to her autobiographical works. Her testimonial does not focus on the unfolding of a singular woman’s consciousness, but rather the strategy is to speak from within a collective, as participants in a revolutionary struggle, and to speak with the express purpose of bringing about social and political change. The voice of the writer speaks in the stead of those who cannot speak for themselves, the writer addresses those issues ordinary folk find hard to express, in her case; it is the voiceless women and children who have little or no voice that need to be spoken for when it comes to those salient issues that need to be addressed.

A great deal of women writers from the third world are at the most basic seeking to construct relationships between the writer and the reader, in order to call and address change or revolutionary action. Authors such as Jane Watts have dubbed this kind of writing ‘The Literature of Combat,‘ and they argue that the South African novel is a narrative that aims not merely to record historical and social documentation. The main concern is to bring about a movement towards commitment to the struggle on the part of the reader. Thengani H. Ngwenya states that

Autobiography serves the crucial function of reflecting, analysing and interpreting the racial, ethnic, class and gender differences in a South African community.

Some writers analyse their own reactions, reveal their own thoughts and opinions to sort out exactly what the system of apartheid has done to them as human beings, and to pinpoint exactly what areas of their humanity it has eroded. But not all autobiographical writings are necessarily deeply self-analytical; for some writers, such a confrontation in-depth is still too traumatic an undertaking due to its personal nature, and they tackle the issue of in-depth social analysis through the usage of humorous portraits and glimpses into life as seen in Sindiwe Magona’s book, Living, Loving and Lying Awake at Night.

It is perhaps in this manner that Magona, comes to terms with her experience as a domestic worker, for though it is a sad travail, there are still elements of humour in it; revealing in every essence that not all of life is sad despite the hardships one comes across on a daily basis. But this does not leave out the fact that there are some issues that need addressing, as in the case of women’s rights and such other concerns of a similar nature.

From the talk with her I discovered that what she had previously said in previous interviews with other writers was in essence a life philosophy that had taken a long time to hone to perfection. In an article published by the Howard University’s Department of African Studies she defines her career’s beginnings as having begun from a question on how to write. But she went on to write masterpieces despite the fact that she is frank enough to state:

I had no idea about how to go about writing a short story or how to go about writing a novel, but somewhere in my education a teacher must have told me that fiction is something that never happened. Well you try writing a book of fiction, a novel or short story about something that never happened, that’s a book that will not happen. Fiction is about things that happened, I mean you don’t record it as fact, but you take from life. Writers steal. So because each time I wanted to write a play or a short story and I started, somehow I got stumped because I could recognize things that had happened. So I realized I couldn’t write fiction, I had to write non-fiction…

Her words on our walk to Simon’s Town’s Glencairn reveal a matriarch who has led an interesting life that has seen her trot the globe and use airplanes as cabs. And despite the obvious sophistication associated with the elegant life of the diplomat and the African who has gone overseas (the often uppity ‘been to’), Mam’ Sindiwe Magona maintains a simplicity that vexes a proud young man like me who would most likely boast about the numerous accolades, the trips to distant cities of America and Europe, the position in the United Nations, and many other conference calls to seminars and workshops in prestigious universities across the globe.

She is humble, and in her humility is a sense of true achievement that reveals one simple fact; women are the true leaders of our society. I mean, they give birth to the world’s peoples, pass the knowledge to the children of the future, teach us how to be human, and on a daily basis nurture those good qualities and virtues into us. Were we not so mannishly arrogant we would as men realise that the elephant herd is a good example of true universal leadership, for though the males bear larger tusks, they are still led by the matriarch, the mother of the herd. I had the fortune to go on a walk by the sea with one of the strongest matriarchs in our society, and she sharpened my perspective on how to be a true human being; that one’s achievements are not for one to enjoy on their own, but they are to be shared by all of the society that in essence gave birth to them. She recounts her tale of growing up in the township, of having been a doting mother and loyal wife, of having seen the world but always keeping the fires of home burning in her heart. She is a voice that walks miles by the sea all the time in her current Muizenberg and the echo thereof produces a thunder more resounding than the waves of the Atlantic crashing against the rocks of the Cape Coast.

She is a voice many a young woman should listen to know that they too can change their own tale and the tales of their communities, she is a voice into whose words I will read for the children to know that there is hope for a better human society that respects the rights of all individuals living in it. I will live as Mam’ Sindiwe teaches; that I should respect my elders for they are sources of knowledge, that I should love our mothers and sisters and wives because they are our partners in the journey of life. She is a voice I respect, a memory I cherish and a mother I love. Till we meet again Mam’ Sindi…

  1. S. Mothibi, Esq.
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