Interview with Dr Sindiwe Magona – for the love of literature

Posted: March 17, 2010 in Theatre & Event Reviews and Interviews
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First published in the Cape Times

The first time I met Dr Sindiwe Magona I suffered sweaty palms and my heart was thrashing about in my throat.  Four of us were pitching a drama to the commissioning head of a national radio station.  We’d been working on our story for nearly two months and Magona was one of our mentors at the writers’ workshop. We presented our proposal to her half an hour before the final pitch.  As we lumbered through the lengthy synopses she fell asleep.  Or so I thought.   At the end her eyes sprang open. I stopped breathing.  “Ok,” she said, “Now let’s slice it.”   When we presented our final pitch, the commissioning editor was blown away.  Intuitive, passionate, and skilled; Magona had concentrated two months work into sixty powerful seconds. 

Dr Sindiwe Magona

The second time I met Magona was at the Franschhoek Litfest.   She spoke fervently about the importance of cultivating a love for books, and reading, in children. Her tone was at times blatantly reproachful as she unveiled important truths about our lack of commitment; which had audiences squirming.

Today Magona is an internationally acclaimed, award winning, South African author, playwright and poet. It was not always easy.  Her history reads like a twisted Cinderella story whose prince abandoned her during her most desperate times.   Working as a domestic worker for four years, and as a single mom, she made a bit of extra money selling sheep heads and even selling liquor on a take-out basis.  She lived with about thirteen souls in a four-roomed hose in Gugulethu.  By candlelight she acquired her general certificate of education with the University of London, followed by her bachelor’s degree through UNISA.  

After a successful teaching career, and eventually retiring from the United Nations in New York, Magona returned to South Africa, “I have always wanted to write but fear held me back,” she says, “When I saw fifty approach I realised I had to get started.  If I waited until after retirement I would be even more afraid to start.”  And so her tentative writing career started. To date she has completed a large body of work which includes fiction, non-fiction, poetry, plays, and more than a hundred readers educational novels for children. Her plays have been performed both internationally and nationally.   Awards and accolades soon followed. Living, Loving, and Lying Awake at Night was voted one of the twentieth century’s 100 Best Books from the African Continent.  She received the New York Foundation of the Arts Fellowship for non-fiction in 1997, and the Department of Arts and Culture’s  literary lifetime achievement award in 2007 – to mention but a few.  She adopted her novel Mother to Mother, a fictionalised account of the murder of Fulbright scholar Amy Biel, into a stage play performed in 2009.

Advocacy of woman’s rights, and the fight against the stigma of aids, are often topics for her literary work.  Her latest play about Aids, titled Vukani!, has been performed for American audiences and has just finished a run at the Artscape Theatre. “The Aids cure involving a virgin rape is a myth; cruel and evil,” Says Magona of the powerful play, “The performance is centred around the sexual abuse of women and children; and restorative justice.  My dream, when writing the play, was that troops of amateur actors would be trained and unleashed on the entire country to go perform it – in different languages, as the occasion demanded– accompanied by trained personnel who would then field questions. Yes, there would be a Q&A at the end of each performance.”   

Despite all Magona’s experience, and the bulk of work that she has achieved to date, she admits that she still gets the jitters watching actors playing out her words. “It’s terrifying,” she says, “Some things don’t come out quite the way you envisaged them. But then again, others come out much better than you hoped.  In the latter case, the writer is both transported and humbled. It’s just such a huge compliment for others to take one’s work so seriously that they would want to perform it.”

It is when Magona facilitates one of her many writers’ workshops that her true passion and commitment towards creating future generations of writers shines through.   During the months we spent with her she tirelessly listened to wonky proposals, thread-bare story lines, and dubious character sketches; patiently coaxing and guiding the bright-eyed young writers’ garbled thinking into evocative prose filled with unforgettable characters.  Her enthusiasm is contagious.  Few writers left her tutoring uninspired.

The very skilled and productive songwriter, Paul Simon, once wrote, “If you want to be a writer; you don’t know how or when.  Find a quite place.  Use a humble pen.”  What’s Magona’s advice for aspiring writers?  “Proceed as though you are already published,” she smiles, “Believe and go ahead – just write. You may surprise yourself; and the world.” Magona herself has no particular ritual that sets her creative juices free and gets her writing, “Just the knowledge that time is against me, as it is against all living things, is enough,” She says, “I am scared of “Time Up” coming before I have written all I could have written.  I can’t think of a better way to spend the rest of my life!”

Magona is currently writing Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Ndungane’s biography.  She’s also a motivational speaker and event MC, utilizing her creative talents to inform, challenge and inspire her audience on topics such as Reconciliation, Living the South African Dream, Living in Awareness.

The End:

  1. […] passionate, and skilled; Magona had concentrated four months’ work into sixty powerful seconds.Read the complete article at Astrid Stark’s blogBook detailsBeauty’s Gift by Sindiwe Magona Book homepage EAN: 9780795702723 Find this book […]


  2. I recently had the pleasure of listening to Sindiwe speak, and she is every inch as wonderful as you say!


  3. I do not even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was good.
    I don’t know who you are but definitely you’re going to a famous blogger if
    you are not already 😉 Cheers!


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