“I should have been writing for far longer than 25 years. Why didn’t I start writing earlier on?” asked Dr Sindiwe Magona at the Puku Storytelling Festival where she launched her new book, Chasing the Tails of my Father’s Cattle, “Simply because I didn’t know anyone who looked like me who did such a foolish thing and called it work.”
Magona is not just an internationally acclaimed and celebrated South African author with wise eyes and witty words. She is a role model to writers, readers and dreamers.
Born in Gungululu village in the Eastern Cape and having qualified as a teacher, Magona spent four years employed as a domestic worker before she pursued her passion for teaching and studying language. She earned her high school certificate from Damelin while teaching at Moshoeshoe Primary School, completed her A levels by correspondence while teaching at Fezeka Secondary School, earned her BA degree through correspondence with the University of South Africa, and finally obtained a Masters Degree in New York in 1983. Though she began working for the United Nations in 1984, she still couldn’t imagine earning a living from her love for language.
“I’ve always revelled swimming in words, diving in them, and smelling them and tasting them. I love words,” she told audiences at the launch last Friday, “But I didn’t know that you could play with words and write things, and then get paid.”
Her first work, To My Children’s Children, was published in 1990, and in 1993 she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from Hartwhich College. Her later international awards include the Women’s History Award from the US, Socio Onarario from the International Media Forum on the Protection of Nature, and Premio Grinzalo Terra d’Ontraro from Italy.
The Department of Arts and Culture has honoured her life’s achievements with the South African Literacy Award, and in 2011 the South African Presidency awarded Magona The Order of Ikhamanga for the role of her writing in the struggle for freedom, peace and social change.
But Sindiwe Magona doesn’t write to receive royalties or win awards. She writes to be a role model.
“Our kids are not going to dream of becoming astronauts or writers or all the celebrated things if they don’t see people who look like them do those things,” she said. “I write so that young people – children who look like me – can grow up seeing someone who looks like their mother writing.”
In addition to emphasising the importance of role models in South African society, Magona stresses the significance of arts and culture as a reflection of the state of this nation.
“The arts really portray the soul of the nation. When you see the paintings, when you hear the music, the drum – that’s what art is about because art is fished out of the quagmire we call life.”
In South African society, Magona maintains that language and literature are especially essential to social transformation and liberation.
“To those of us who can spin five sentences together in any language, we ought to put them to paper. We owe it to prosperity that the history of this country is not written from one viewpoint. We need to leave footsteps to say this is what it was to me.”
However, she said that it is not enough to only write or encourage writers. Instead, a culture of reading has to accompany the strong writing coming out of our communities.
“For writing to matter – to make a dent – it needs to be read. If the books are not read, we haven’t even started doing things. The changes, the things we need, the dialogue we want to start cannot happen if we depend on only school kids to be reading. We need the nation to read.”
“I wish I had a magic wand with which we could make reading as sexy as music; to make it something everyone wants to do!”
Though Magona’s writing may not be particularly sexy, her legacy is certainly marked with the magic of an inspired and inspiring woman who is a testament to triumph.
This piece was first published in Grocott’s Mail.