“A has-been at the age of 23” is how Sindiwe Magona described her younger self in her 1992 autobiography, Forced to Grow.
“I was a primary school teacher and, because I fell pregnant, I got suspended,” she says, by way of explanation. “So, you’re pregnant with your third child and your husband has left you. Guess what you are in the eyes of the community I came from? So, you know, I had to work around those handicaps that society imposes on you as a young woman.”
Forced to become a domestic worker, the author has successfully managed to work around these imposed handicaps. An internationally recognised author, her work deals with “impoverishment, femininity, resistance to subjugation and being a domestic worker”.
With numerous books, novellas, a collection of short stories and an anthology of poetry under her belt, she has also received several awards. Among them are: the Molteno Gold Medal for Lifetime Achievement for her role in promoting
isiXhosa, the Permio Grinzane Terre D’Otrantro, the department of arts and culture Literary Lifetime Achievement Award, the Bronx Recognises Its Own Fiction Award in 2000, a Fellowship for Non-Fiction from the New York Foundation of the Arts, the Xhosa Heroes Award, and she was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2009.
A founding member of the Women’s Peace Movement in 1976 and a motivational speaker, she was also conferred with the Order of Ikhamanga in Bronze in 2011 for her literary and humanitarian contributions.
Magona is acutely aware of the social structures that continue to inhibit women. “Under the guise of tradition, a lot of unsavoury traits are still with us,” she says. “People will say ‘this is tradition’, but tradition is not God-made. It is something society made, so it can be changed. And it does change with time. But things don’t change overnight.”
It should come as little surprise that, for Magona, an important part of women’s arsenal in pushing for change is the telling of their stories.
“If you don’t tell your story, it will never be known. And not only to those you are telling it to. It is in the telling that you learn what it is you have undergone. When you start telling your story, you have some idea of what you want to say. But as you tell, you also learn.
“You as the agent, the subject who went through an experience; it is in telling that story that you relive it with some distance and objectivity. You revisit that story, but you are a different person. It is very important for women to tell their stories, because in sharing, each woman learns, ‘it is not me only’.”
Through sharing her story Magona has built up a dedicated following. “I have the good fortune of people always affirming me — women and men; young and old. Last night, we had a celebration for my 75th birthday. And people spoke so beautifully about how I have inspired them. And this means so much to me. Because one of the reasons I started writing was for people to see what it was like to be me, an ordinary person born of humble parentage; what it was like to live through apartheid as a black African child who happens to be female. You see, I write to leave footprints.”