A novel response to trauma

Acclaimed South African writer Sindiwe Magona, 78, has written a novel for her PhD, based on an article in the False Bay Echo, but she needs the original article to finalise her work.

She was 16-years-old, a mother, and she cradled the baby on her lap, while she confessed.

She had been trying to fall pregnant since she was 13. At 15, she succeeded. “I had been drinking before I was pregnant, but when I heard I was pregnant, I started taking drugs, too. Because I knew that a disability grant paid more than a normal child grant,” she said.

Sindiwe Magona is the celebrated author of a number of books including To my children’ children, Forced to grow and Mother to Mother, but when she read those lines, in a front page article in the False Bay Echo, they changed the trajectory of her life.

Ms Magona had lived in New York for more than 20 years when she worked – in various capacities – with the United Nations. She has been Writer in Residence at the University of the Western Cape, and was a visiting professor working at Georgia State University.

But the day she read that article as a Marina da Gama resident, she was both enraged, and deeply wounded. She was furious with the child who was now a young mother, furious with that girl’s mother, community, and then: country.

“How is it possible that we have failed people to the point that this was the only way forward a child of 13 could see for herself? To do one better than her own mother’s child grant, by making it a disability grant, by intentionally maiming her unborn child,” Ms Magona asked.

The answer was not simple, and because of that, Ms Magona turned to what she knew intimately. She wrote a novel, based on this article, based on the situation that birthed it. It took some years, but When the Village Sleeps is about to be printed by Pan MacMillan.

The novel will form the thesis for Ms Magona’s PhD – at the age of 78.

But while the PhD would be “nice”, she says, the most crucial thing is to raise the alarm, to help wake the country up against the scourge of what the article called a growing trend, of teens and young mothers intentionally trying to harm their unborn children – for a slight increase in government grant.

“I was actually a coward by writing this instead of railing at Parliament,” Ms Magona said.

She says she did the same thing when she wrote Mother to Mother, which dealt with the horror of the Amy Biehl murder.

“I needn’t have written a book then either, I should simply have spoken to Amy Biehl’s mom, tried to explain. But I discovered that I knew the mother of one of the murderers: and when I learned who it was, that someone I knew personally had had a son do such a thing, I had to speak to her.

“I understood how blessed I was that it wasn’t me. It could so easily be any one of us who have this tragedy crash into our lives. And so the book Mother to Mother came from that tragedy, even as this new book is hoping to turn the tide of another generation with foetal alcohol syndrome,” Ms Magona said.

What will happen, Ms Magona says, is that our collective inaction now, will see only one possible outcome. That will be that the care of the current generation will be passed into the hands of those whom they refused to help, when they could.

Ms Magona devised a plan, which was compiled into a document by lawyers in New York, called 2033 – it was a vision Ms Magona had drafted to help move South Africa beyond the learned helplessness instilled by the Apartheid system.

She says she is often misunderstood and misquoted; she states categorically that she is neither against the poor nor is she a naysayer about the effects of Apartheid; however, she also does not believe in help in the guise of only handouts, and she loses interest when people blame the state of their lives now, on Apartheid.

Ms Magona started her life as a domestic worker, like her mother. She said that before her father died in 1972, he told her how blessed her life was, because he saw the circle of friends she had, and they comprised of all the races of the country.

“My father was a petrol attendant in Salt River, my mother a domestic worker, but I didn’t know we were poor. We were never raised to feel we were poor,” she said.

Ms Magona believes that a mix of modified old traditions and modern instruction is desperately needed to right the current wrongs in our still-skewed society. By this, she says that children should be correctly schooled, but also educated.

“What I mean is, the generations before my grandmother; they were unschooled, but they knew to stop drinking and smoking when they were with child.

“There were rights of passage for boys and girls, which marked important milestones. If those rights of passage could be modernised to be clean and safe, but still mark the appropriate learning, in combination with world knowledge and proper schooling, we may strike a healthy balance.

“Because just school education is not touching sides if 13-year-olds can plan to be pregnant and want to maim their own unborn babies just to get a few more rand out of a government grant,” she said.

She speaks from experience. She was once a young mother of three, destitute, after her husband left her. But she also speaks from the experience of somebody who overcame that situation.

She said that life skills, where children are instilled with self-worth and pride and allowed to dream a new life, are of equal importance to school education.

As for Ms Magona, to complete her PhD she needs to find that original article about the 16-year-old mother, to submit it with her novel. If you have a copy of it, please send it on to the False Bay Echo, to karen.kotze@inl.co.za

Or, if you remember when the article was published, let us know as that would help narrow a search at the National Library of South Africa where our archives are held.