For Books’ Sake Talks To: Dr Sindiwe Magona

29th Nov 2012


In 1943, Dr Sindiwe Magona was born in Tsolo, Gungululu, in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, and grew up in the Cape Flats of the Western Cape. She finished high school through a correspondence course, followed that with a BA Degree from the University of South Africa and a Masters’ Degree in Social Work at Columbia University in New York.

On completion of her studies, she successfully applied for a position at the United Nations Department of Public Information, where, until 1994, she presented UN radio programmes about the UN’s role in the International Struggle Against Apartheid. Thereafter, she worked in the Department’s Film Archives until 2003, when she retired and returned to Cape Town.

Awarded an honorary Doctorate by Hartwick College in the USA in 1993, Dr Magona has also received numerous international and local awards, including the prestigious Molteno Medal (Gold) for her lifetime achievements in the preservation and promotion of the Xhosa language and culture.  In 2011, President Jacob Zuma conferred her with the Order of Ikhamanga in recognition of her literary and humanitarian contribution to South Africa.

A writer, poet, dramatist, storyteller, actress and motivational speaker, Dr Magona founded the Gugulethu Writers’ Group, which has produced a book of short stories. Her own collection of short stories, Living, Loving and Lying Awake at Night, was voted one of the 20th century’s 100 Best Books from the African Continent, and her novel Beauty’s Gift (2008) was shortlisted in the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Africa.)

To find out more about this African literary legend, South African writer and poet Judy Croome caught up with Dr Sindiwe Magona for an interesting chat.

FBS:  At 23, you thought of yourself as a “has-been.” Can you tell us how you made the transition from a “has-been” to a success in so many different fields?

SM: This is a journey I recount in my autobiographies: To My Children’s Children and Forced to Grow.  Finding myself a “has been”, husbandless, a single parent, at such a young age was something for which I was hopelessly ill prepared … the myth of a man who would always be there, loving me and providing for me and my children was blown for all times. I realized I only had me and had to “move” from a situation/position I did not relish.

The only sure way out of destitution I could see was education. All avenues of pursuing that closed to me, I embarked on correspondence courses: completed the last two years of high school, then A-Levels, and followed that with a BA [UNISA]. This was followed by an MS at Columbia University; which indirectly lead to the UN job!

FBS: Your acclaimed novel Beauty’s Gift has been called “one of the most important manifestos of black feminism,” and yet it is an easy, engaging read. Did you ever think you would reach such a wide audience with such impact?

 SM: I am often amazed at some of the things that have come to pass via me. However, that also alarms me … what could I still do if I let go of my fears, hesitancy. Because I so nearly did not achieve even the little I have, I am awfully aware how thin a line exist between actuality and possibility … what does happen and what could happen [or not happen].

 FBS: You strongly urge young people to move away from promiscuous sexual mores and embrace a more responsible attitude towards sex. In Beauty’s Gift you also point a delightfully irreverent finger at South Africa’s prolific and polygamous President. How did you feel when you accepted the Order of Ikhamanga from him in 2011? What did you talk to him about?

 SM: No, I do not single out President Zuma but address the tragedy that has become all too familiar among us, the reckless abandon with which men sow their seed and thereafter pay no heed to the upbringing [never mind nurturing] of the children. Many of our men unthinkingly father children all over the place.

It is the rare African man who truly fathers, by way of consciously and lovingly bringing up his issue – something bound to result in the destruction of the social fabric we witness all around us because children need grownups to raise them; we abdicate that role at our peril. I am enraged at the neglect of children because of my love for all children and my belief they deserve better than we are giving them at present.

FBS: Your courage in broaching previously unfashionable, but important, topics such as AIDS has broken down many barriers. What do you think is the best way to curb the spread of AIDS? Do women have a role to play in fighting this disease?

 SM: Of course, women have a vital role to play in this. It is their bodies, after all, that are being abused and put at risk of the pandemic. We need to criminalize reckless endangerment, even when that comes through what we carelessly [still] call ‘love’.

When someone who knows they are HIV-positive has sex with someone from whom they withhold this fact, or engages in unprotected sex with someone, the perpetrator ought to be punished through the courts of law, especially when such an encounter is cloaked under the blanket of “trust,” as in marriage or long-term relationships, where the other party assumes the relationship is monogamous.

Also, women should be wary of contributing to one another’s oppression and persecution at the hands of deceitful men. A man who disrespects his woman by engaging in affairs with other women is plain untrustworthy and the old game of men blaming women for their fickleness will only be brought to a standstill by women refusing to borrow or steal other women’s men, women refusing to “compete” for the attentions of such men.

FBS: In today’s technologically heavy world, is literacy and reading becoming an endangered activity? What impact will this have on society, both local and international?

SM: Not really. Books and reading still provide much pleasure for many people; the challenge for writers and booksellers is to provide the readers with reading material as commanding and interesting as the competition, whatever form that might take – radio, tv, film, stage or tech games.

FBS:  You’ve said that one thing which holds us back as women is fear. Now that you’ve achieved so much in your life, are you still afraid of anything?

SM: Oh, yes! Fear my next book might not be as interesting as my last … fear no one will read it … fear no one [publisher] will buy it … fear I will not complete it. Oh, this writer is a bundle of fears!

FBS: Why are you called Nomabali? What does it mean?

SM: Nomabali [means] mother of stories, and gives the youngest the right and absence of awkwardness to call my name with no prerequisite prefix as it is not my real/given name. It reminds me I am custodian to a part of the nation’s wealth, its cultural oral tradition.

FBS: You worked for the United Nations for many years. Can you share some of the highlights of the time you spent working for the UN?

SM: Easily, meeting Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela, soon after his release from jail and before he assumed the presidency! On his first trip to the USA and the UN, he requested to meet the Anti-Apartheid Radio Unit. For me, naturally, that is still the highlight of my UN experience besides which others seem to pale.

FBS: In the Xhosa culture, the older generation are looked to for guidance and a sharing of their wisdom. Beauty’s Gift offers sage advice to adult women about relationships. You’ve also written many children’s books. Can you give us three pieces of advice that will help the youth of today have a better future?

SM: When I give motivational talks, especially to the young, people still in school or university, I always end by saying, “Even if you forget everything I have said, remember the Three R’s – Respect for Self … Respect for others and Respect for the Environment/All Nature … AND: Stay in school till you have a piece of paper that tells the nation how you will stand on your own two feet as a self-supporting and self-respecting grownup; stay child free and stay drug free!

FBS: You’re a prolific writer and you write in multiple genres. Can you tell us about some of the works you’ve written?

SM: I’ve published two autobiographical works To My Children’s Children and Forced to Grow; two collections of short stories: Living, Loving and Lying Awake at Night and Push-Push and Other Stories; and two novels, Mother to Mother (now a stage play), and Beauty’s Gift (now a musical.)

I’ve also written more than a hundred children’s books, including The Best Meal Ever! and the first real series in isiXhosa, Sigalelekile, and some poetry, including Please, Take Photographs!

FBS: What are you currently working on at the moment? What dreams do you still want to reach?

SM: As Church of England’s Archbishop Emeritus Njongonkulu Ndungane’s official biographer, I’ve just launched From Robben Island to Bishopscourt. I’m also preparing a children’s book for submission; a novel – to submit by February 2013; and another biography, this time of a woman who should be truly inspirational to South Africa’s women.

A selection of Dr. Sindiwe Magona’s books can be purchased from Foyles or Amazon.

Judy Croome