Sindiwe Magona’s To My Children’s Children (published in 2006 by Interlink Books), is a memoir that covers the first 23 years of Magona’s life. It is a tale of growth and survival within the restrictions of Apartheid and the African traditional system. Magona’s style is easy and compelling and never descends into monologue or documentary.
The story begins in 1940 in a Xhosa village called Gungululu, near the Cape Province of the Union of South Africa. It is here that Magona was born and where, up to age 4, she and some of her siblings, and a plethora of cousins, grow up in a matriarchal household headed by a maternal great grandmother. It’s a life that is so carefree, abundant and wholesome that I couldn’t help but feel a sense of nostalgia. It’s also a life that upholds the values of duty, responsibility, order, interconnectedness and oneness. These values – repeatedly reinforced at the nightly story-telling sessions – become the mainstay of Magona and her immediate family when they leave the village and have to cope with the rigours of city life in the ‘locations’.
In the city, overcrowding and poverty are the order of the day. Communities must also endure liquor and pass raids by the police and later, the growing menace of lawless local thugs. But the author skilfully shows the vibrancy of the different communities the family finds itself in, and their enduring spirit of togetherness. Magona’s perception of her life as being safe, secure and happy persists. She lives her life to the full and her escapades at home, school and later, teacher training college, are told with humour and frankness.
Like other children in the locations, her contact with whites is mostly at the level of priests, doctors, shop owners, police and government officials. But the children get a taste of life in white homes when relatives employed as domestic workers bring home an assortment of discarded items. Among the most valuable for Magona are newspapers and books which help to shape her perceptions.
As her sense of awareness heightens, Magona cannot help but notice the contradiction between the ‘civilisation’ taught at school and African traditional rites practiced at home. Inwardly, she also begins to lament her parents’ dependence on charms, herbs, ‘incisions’ and witchcraft and their apparent lack of ambition. She describes her father as doing jobs “whose qualification was humility that bordered on self-effacement, zero expectation and brute like brawn”.
After becoming a qualified teacher, and with a handsome man in tow, Magona has an inflated sense of self-importance. She’s achieved more than anyone else in her family, education-wise. She’s meant for great things. But once her working life starts, Magona’s illusions are very quickly dashed. At her first teaching job, she must grapple with a lack of resources, a class load of children, disparate in both age and ability, and a white government’s lack of commitment to black education. Things deteriorate when she becomes pregnant without being married, and can’t stay in the teaching system. To have any work, at all, she must fall back on – of all things – domestic work, an experience that marks her first real contact with white people and her introduction to the “fundamentals of racism”. At the same time, the restrictions of the Apartheid system, motherhood, patriarchy, her husband’s growing irresponsibility – once she is married – conspire to keep her at this level of servitude. She has reason to be thankful time and again for her parents’ ‘ordinariness’ and their dedication to duty and responsibility – values that she’s inherited and which she must call upon when the story climaxes and she finds herself in the worst of situations.
The ending is, for me, very moving – a tearjerker. There are lessons to be learnt there. And I did get the sense that Magona had finally come of age. I shared her feeling of freedom. A good read.
In criticism, I would venture to say that since the intricacies of the Apartheid system are not common knowledge, some features crucial to the story line, such as the Bantu Education, system, should have been given more detailed treatment.. Magona sees the objective of this system as being one of “service, not participation” in the white community but does not elaborate on what the education was limited to. Further, some of the dialogue sessions seem incomplete so that the reason for their inclusion is unclear.