Mother to Mother

Sindiwe Magona

Book cover

I chose this as a book to read on a recent trip to Cape Town, my first visit to South Africa. Although Coetzee is the most famous SA author, I wanted to read a black writer. This book seemed like an interesting mix of fiction and history. It takes as its jumping-off point the real historical murder of the white Fulbright scholar and anti-apartheid activist Amy Biehl by a mob of black Cape Town residents in 1993. (Four men were convicted and later pardoned by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.)

The book is told from the perspective of the mother of one of the murderers, written as a letter to the mother of Amy Biehl. It shifts back and forth between a tick-tock recounting of what the mother experienced on the day of the murder and the day after, and her recounting of her own life, including the upbringing of her son. It is not written as a defense of the murder, but more as a contextualization of it–echoing Martin Luther King’s statement that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” We see through the story how the resentment and anger that resulted in the murder were cultivated by the apartheid system. In Mandisa’s (the mother’s) own life, this starts with the forcible removal of non-white families from Cape Town into the outlying townships following on the Group Areas Act of 1950. This uprooted people from their communities and resettled them in arbitrary places where they lacked any connections, destroying the economic basis of family life and creating an environment that fostered drug trade and gang activity. Stories told within the narrative hearken back even further in history, all the way back to the Xhosa cattle slaughter of 1856. Later, we see other events that impacted Mxolisi (the boy that took part in the murder), including witnessing (and being the accidental cause of) the murder of two friends by police of the apartheid state. Through all of this, Magona also highlights the special burdens placed upon women like Mandisa.

I’m glad I read this book during my visit. I like the approach of telling a fictionalized story around a known historical event (I mean more specifically than the general category of historical fiction).

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars