This is a digital version of a carefully curated selection of Sindiwe Magona’s manuscript materials, which are in the care of Amazwi. The physical exhibition can be visited at Amazwi’s headquarters at 25a Worcester Street, Makhanda.
Magona is one of the most versatile of South Africa’s authors and writes in many genres including fiction, drama, poetry, autobiography and biography. Most recently she has turned her talents to children’s literature, with a focus on indigenous languages. This exhibition explores a selection of her work in each genre.
In 'To My Children's Children' Magona recounts her memories of the first twenty-three years of her life, in the hope that her success despite adversity may be an inspiration for the generations to come. Translated by Magona into isiXhosa as 'Kubantwana Babantwana Bam' (2005), the book reveals the hardships of life under apartheid and charts the beginning of Magona’s journey to success. 'To My Children’s Children' won an honourable mention in the 1991 Noma Awards for Publishing in Africa.
“Always … there was at least one adult, usually grandmama, sitting with us around the fire. … She would tell us iintsomi, the fairy-tales of amaXhosa. There were tales about ogres and giants, about animals of the forest, great beasts, and about little hopping creatures of the veld. … Stories that were told with such vivid detail and in such modulation of voice that we children saw them in our minds and lived them in our feelings. … Some of these stories told us of the origin of man, others were about natural phenomena, and others still were designed to teach us … some aspect of morality. Looking back now, I can clearly see how iintsomi are an essential and integral part of the socialization of the child among amaXhosa.” ('To My Children's Children,' pages 5-6).
Magona’s second autobiography, 'Forced to Grow' (1992), continues her story from the point at which her husband abandoned her and their three small children. Against the backdrop of an increasingly turbulent South Africa, the book explores her experiences as a teacher and a single mother while also studying in a bid to improve her family’s circumstances.
"When the students marched to Inxaxheba, the study centre run from St Gabriel’s, and demanded that our students join them ... I was the most senior teacher at the time … . Our two young men returned. ‘Sis’ Sindi,’ they said … ‘those students say we must join them. They say we should not be in school.’ … In the face of the demands made to us that day – ‘We don’t want to have to come into the church premises and force you out!’ – and after hasty consultations … the decision was made to let the students leave the premises. … My eyes were filled with tears as I looked at those young faces … and wondered what would happen to them. Remember, these were students who had already been thrown out by the system ... and Inxaxheba was their last hope, their only hope of gaining a matric and, with it, some slight promise of employment.” (Sindiwe Magona, 'Forced to Grow', 1992, pages 151-152)
'Mother to Mother' is a fictionalised account of the 1993 killing of American Fulbright Scholar Amy Biehl during political unrest in Gugulethu. The narrative explores how the system of apartheid created the conditions of hopelessness and rage that led young, Black South Africans to take the life of a young, White American.
In her preface to the novel Magona writes, "In 'Mother to Mother', the killer’s mother, bewildered and grief-stricken, dredges her memory and examines the life her son has lived … his world. In looking for answers for herself whilst talking to the other mother, imagining her pain, she draws a portrait of her son and of his world, and hopes that an understanding of that and of her own grief might ease the other mother’s pain … if a little. ... One boy. Lost. Hopelessly lost. One girl, far away from home. … The consummation of inevitable, senseless catastrophe. … Cruel confluence of time, place and agent. (Sindiwe Magona, from the Author’s Preface to Mother to Mother, 1998)
'Mother to Mother' is a novel I didn’t plan to write. … I found out that one of the four young men who had been arrested for killing Amy Biehl was the son of a childhood friend of mine. … I carried this burning pain – I wanted to talk to Amy’s mother … to explain to Mrs Biehl, why this happens. Yes, four people were arrested for murdering her child, but it’s all South Africans who murdered her child. It’s apartheid that murdered her child. … We should create conditions that form children like Amy Biehl, not like the killers of Amy Biehl. (Sindiwe Magona, interviewed by Eleanore Chiavetta, in 'Sindiwe Magona: The First Decade', 2004, page 173)
'Beauty’s Gift' is a novel of the Aids crisis in South Africa and reveals the patriarchal relationships that hasten the spread of the virus. Beauty dies of Aids after she is infected by her womanising husband, and her gift to her friends is the determination and the strength to stand up against the patriarchal way of life that has caused her death, and to resist their husbands’ womanising. In 2009 'Beauty’s Gift' was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Africa) as well as the Sunday Times Literary Award.
'God knew the African woman was going to have a very, very hard life. That is why He gave her skin as tough as Mother Earth herself. He gave her that tough, timeless skin so that her woes would not be written all over her face, so that her face would not be a map to her torn and tattered heart.' (Sindiwe Magona, 'Beauty’s Gift', page 9)
'Her voice emphatic, Beauty speaks quickly, leaving Amanda not a moment to respond. “Promise me to live,” she says, “Live to a ripe old age. … Don’t die a stupid death like I am doing! Live!” she says. “Live till every hair on your head turns grey. Earn your wrinkles and, damn you, enjoy them! Enjoy every wrinkle and every grey hair on your head. Tell yourself you have survived! Sur-vived!” Her voice drops. “Live!” she says. “Don’t die … Don’t die like … like … this.” … “And tell the others. Tell them what I say to you now. I have Aids,” Beauty whispers. “Aids.”' (Sindiwe Magona, 'Beauty’s Gift', page 73)
'Living, Loving and Lying Awake at Night' and 'Push-Push and Other Stories' explore the lives of, particularly, black women in South Africa. Magona draws on her experiences as a domestic worker during apartheid, and on her deep understanding of the contradictions and hardships of life in South Africa. In 2002 Living, Loving and Lying Awake at Night was voted one of ‘Africa’s 100 Best Books of the Twentieth Century’ in a project initiated by the Zimbabwe International Book Fair.
"Three weeks now, the consumer boycott had been going on. Three weeks, they had been told not to go to the shops. … With the comrades guarding every point in Gugulethu. And neighbour informing on neighbour … so that they could go and curry favour with the comrades. … It’s all very well for the comrades to stop people going to the shops, she fumed. They were fighting the businessmen, they said. But as far as she could see, it was only people like herself, poor people in the township, who were starving. The businessmen were eating. … It was not … their children whose ribs one could count." (Sindiwe Magona, ‘I’m Not Talking About That, Now’, from 'Push-Push and Other Stories', pages 69-70)
In her collection of essays titled 'I Write The Yawning Void' (2023), Magona explores aspects of her personal history and her convictions, as well as her love for South Africa and her despair at the problems that continue to plague it.
She has written a biography of the Anglican Archbishop, Njongonkulu Ndungane, titled ‘From Robben Island to Bishop’s Court’ (2012), and a biography of the actress Thembi Ntshali-Jones titled 'Theatre Road' (2019). Ntshali-Jones went on to star in a stage production of Magona's novel, 'Mother to Mother'.
Magona has written a large number of children’s books, starting with 'The Best Meal Ever!' in 2006. In recent years she has had a particular focus on writing children’s books in indigenous languages. She has retold a number of traditional English folk tales, such as 'The Ugly Duckling,' and her versions of traditional African folk tales, such as 'Buhle, the Calf of Many Colours,' appear in the majority of South Africa’s eleven national languages. In 2015 Magona translated Gcina Mhlophe’s collection, 'Stories of Africa,' into isiXhosa as 'Iintsomi Zase-Afrika,' and she writes, ‘I feel that the translation of children’s books could be part of our nation-building. … I feel … that we should be knitting a South African literature, especially for the young’ (BooksLive, 23 September 2015). Magona’s most recent children’s book is titled 'Skin We Are In,' and she says it is about ‘the meaning of skin. First, why we all have different skin colour; how it all began, what it means and, more interestingly, what it does not mean’ (Litnet, 14 March 2018).
The play 'Vukani!' (2003) is set in Gugulethu a few years after the end of apartheid, and as she does in the novel 'Beauty’s Gift' Magona brings out the harsh complexities of the Aids crisis in South Africa. First produced in 2003 at the theatre of the Riverside Church, New York, the play contextualises the Aids crisis amid the huge range of other serious social challenges faced by the people of South Africa as the country emerges from the grip of apartheid. Magona’s novel 'Mother to Mother' was adapted for the stage in collaboration with director Janice Honeyman and performer Thembi Mtshali-Jones, and first performed at the Baxter Theatre in 2009.