Mother to Mother by Sindiwe Magona is part letter, part journal entry, part reflection on some of the history of the part of the world known as Guguletu in South Africa.
Although it is a fictional story, the plot was inspired by the real life case of Amy Biehl, an eighteen-year-old white American female college student who went to South Africa in 1993 to volunteer during the first democratic elections in Africa. On the day before her scheduled return to the United States, she was killed in an encounter with a mob in the township, probably at the hands of some of the same people she was intent on helping.
Sindiwe Magona’s novel is a first person narrative where the storyteller is Mandisa, the mother of Mxolisi, one of the young black men who is responsible, and she is writing a letter to reach out the mother of Amy Biehl, the American victim, but in it, casting her son as a victim as well, and trying to explain the history that has produced the rage that her son had inherited.
The narrative of Mother to Mother alternates between ascribing blame and offering explanations. Many victims are identified – not just the young American woman who was killed, but also the teenagers who became embroiled in the violence and escalated what was already brewing, the mother herself who has had to swallow the injustices done to her and her family and indeed her entire people who have been robbed of their rich legacy and inherited land and forced to inhabit slums. She blames the society which bred these characters and the government that ignored the teen killers until their violent act, providing for them now that they are criminals in ways that if they had received those subsidies before, might have prevented the desperation in the first place.
In writing about the hardships, though, Magona also interjects her beautiful memories of the place that no longer exists, even the memory being eroded by the stink of reality. In one instance, she gives us the recollections of her childhood, the ease of navigating the terrain freely as her mother sends her on the errands she is not afraid to allow her own children, older now than she was then, to carry out.
Regardless of your background, this is a book that has the capacity to teach, bring awareness, but also empathy and rage. The author includes some little-known details about the real lives of the black natives in Africa – the forced removal from their mineral-rich tribal land to substandard townships, the sacrifices made by natives in their desperate attempt to rid themselves of the umlungu or white settlers, and the hundreds of years of rage that has been simmering in the black native community after the failed attempts to regain their inheritance and return to their previous way of life.
Within her attempt at explaining the crime, Mandisa goes back in time, starting on the morning before the violence, her household situation where she is forced to abandon her children to make a living catering to the whims and fancies of a white family, going back to her childhood exile, both with her family when they were forced to relocate, but also her own expulsion when her mother feared not being able to supervise her. Within this part of the story, Mandisa paints herself as a type of Mary, the virgin-mother, which leads to a comparison of Mxolisi to the Messiah, and how he will be the sacrifice for his people. If anything, it is this comparison that irritates me, because the messiah didn’t sacrifice others, he sacrificed himself.
Interwoven within the time travel, she describes a harsh existence, a desperation borne out of helplessness, and breeding a generation that inherits a hatred that progressively gets stronger. There are descriptions of native culture, of arranged marriages, tribal hierarchy and deference to traditional rules, even when they produce disastrous results.
But almost separate from the complex story that Magona offers the reader, she is also reaching out from one fictional mother to another, offering a shared grief that I imagine the young woman’s mother might reject. There are moments where I imagine the American mother receiving the letter and ripping it to shreds as an inconsequential acknowledgement, that doesn’t include a real apology. In fact, in her letter, Mandisa, mother of Mxolisi suggests that the American mother has gotten the better deal because while her child is dead, the mother doesn’t have to be ashamed, doesn’t have anyone questioning her parenting, etc. I imagine this would make Amy’s mother very angry indeed, to be grieving the loss of her daughter and read the suggestion that she be comforted that she, the concession that Amy wasn’t raped or robbed, but that instead, she has been sacrificed for all the white colonists who robbed the African natives. Therefore, as sympathetic as I feel for Mandisa, and Mxolisi…. this rage would be conflicted.
Mother To Mother was one of the books chosen for the Runwright Reads Book Club to highlight a black South African author during Black History month. If you read it with me, I’d love to hear your thoughts so let’s have a conversation down below. I imagine that other people also had a strong reaction to the book.
Click to watch the discussion video