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Saturday, January 2, 2010

South African Lit Class : Critical View of Sindiwe Magona's Mother To Mother

The implementation of the Apartheid system in 1948 affected the socio; economic, psychological and political structures of South Africa and was directly aimed at black South Africans. In Mother To Mother by Sindiwe Magona, this system of Apartheid is analyzed and examined to illustrate the way in which this regimented form of oppression directly and indirectly contributed to the murder of American Fulbright scholar Amy Biehl. In other words, a comparative link will be drawn to clarify the way in which, the adverse conditions of apartheid created and maintained a system of discrimination and destruction that eventually influenced or changed the lives of all South Africans regardless of color.

Magona utilizes the voice of Mandisa the protagonist to explain the incidents that predated Biehl’s death in a letter to the victim’s mother, focusing on the economic environment influenced by Apartheid: At the opening of the novel, the reader is presented with a personal letter from Mandisa to Biehl’s mother and the rest of the novel is an exhumation of the influences of Apartheid system on Mandisa who is the mother of the accused killer, and Mxolisi. In retrospect all of Black South Africans during the period of Apartheid were transferred to Townships which were grossly over crowded. Though, some were fortunate to render better conditions than others, it was still a challenging task to sustain a family under the economic system of the white communist. In the case of Mandisa’s household, they were fortunate to have both parents employed, which entailed a double income family. However, the over looming poverty and the need to provide for the family removed Mandisa and her spouse from the home, thereby; removing the matriarchal and patriarchal figures of the family. Moreover, total sum of wages earned was still unsuitable for a family of five. The family shared a small two bedroom and the boys lived in a hokkie at the back of the home. Poverty became an ever present gloom for Mandisa’s family. Henceforth, drawing on the historical content of Apartheid, Magona communicates the disenfranchisement and subjection the characters within the novel are enduring, as Mandisa laments;

As for myself, I came to Guguletu borne by a whirlwind…
Perched on a precarious leaf balking a tornado … a violent scat-
tering of black people, a dispersal of the government’s making.
So great was the upheaval, more than three decades later, my
people are still reeling from it. (Magona pg48)

Mandisa expresses the uncertainty and instability that encompassed her as a child and the idea that it is has transcended to her children in present day Guguletu. Such chaos perpetuates into something more, something different and dangerous as in the murder of Amy Biehl: when a society constructs a system of oppression an eventual response will be retaliation or rebellion, as in the case of the youths attacking Biehl and her fellow classmates.

Another aspect of discrimination within Mother to Mother that is reflective of the system of Apartheid is the socio-psychological ramifications. Because blacks were inferior within this system of oppression, they were faced with continuous harassment and often remained disenfranchised. Mandisa’s teen pregnancy forced her to assume an adult identity before she was ready to take on the responsibility of motherhood and wife. In addition, the circumstances under which Mandisa was impregnated also contributed to her initial hate and continuous regret towards her first born, Mxolisi. Again taking into consideration the idea of Apartheid because Magona is utilizing this background knowledge to portray or voice her character's opinions, the mental affect of Apartheid would play an integral role. Such as, the effects of deplorable living conditions, inability to advance beyond social standards as a black in South Africa, fear for life and uncertain future can drastically shift an individual’s outlook on life. In particular, Mxolisi's childhood serves as a clear example of the indirect and direct ways in which Apartheid contributed to his demise. In other words, the burden of guilt that was subjected upon Mxolisi as a toddler. That is the incident in which in identifying his friends (Zazi and Mzamo) hiding spot resulted in them being shot to death in front of his innocent eyes. This traumatic experience certainly rendered him mentally fractured since he refused to speak for two years. Mxolisi develops this idea as a young child that his mouth was not worthy to speak because it brought death to the people who at that time were his center. Henceforth, it was horrifying for four year old Mxolisi to witness brutality under the arms of law enforcement, the individuals who represent safety and protection.

Because when an oppressed person is living in a system where they are no images that promote change and hope it diminishes their perspective of the future: and this was true for Mxolisi. As Mxolisi got older, the affects of Apartheid on his psyche did not improve and though he was a seemingly well rounded individual Mxolisi was engaging in liberal activities unbeknownst to his parents. Though he became a respectable teenager and endearing to the people of his township, it is clear through Mandisa’s voice that her son was troubled. As Mandisa relates:

My son. His tomorrow were his yesterday. Nothing. Stretching long, lean, mean, and
empty. A glaring void. Nothing would come of the morrow. For him. Nothing at all.
Long before the ground split when he pee’d on it, that knowledge was firmly planted in
his soul … it was intimately his. ( pg 203)

So then Mxolisi’s future in Guguletu was already predetermined because it was the same case for his parents and grand parents. Mandisa is trying to capture the mental frustration that her teenage son may have suffered in order for him to deviate from his normal duties and kill a white person. To live a life like his parents, was no longer a choice Mxolisi wanted to accept: a choice that was forced upon you and did not garner any change of positive progression.
Thus there was no future for a black South African;

He had already seen his tomorrow in the defeated stoop of his father’s
shoulders. In the tired eyes of that father’s friend. In the huddled, ragged
men who daily wait for chance at some job whose whereabouts they do
not know…wait at the corners of roads leading nowhere…wait for a
van to draw up a shout, a beckoning hand could mean a days job
for an hour’s wage, if that. He had seen his tomorrows – in the hungry,
gnarled hands outstretched toward the long-dead brazier, bodies shiver-
ing in the unsmiling, settling sun of a winter’s day. (Magona pg203)

This particular statement speaks to the continuous lamentation that is made by Mandisa throughout the text in reference to the transference and inheritance of the burden of the social defects such as poverty. Mandisa’s son Mxolisi’s plight is not separate from the rest of the black South Africans. In actuality Mxolisi is a representation for South Africans his age and generations before and after him. Critically examining Mandisa’s statement this subjectivity of inheriting a defeated spirit is a mirroring image of what is transpiring in the minds and behavior of the inhabitants of Guguletu as comparisons are made with Mxolisi’s father and father’s friends etc. As well as, the underlying feeling of a coming eruption: or even the urgency for a shift or split that is combative and explosive in response to inferior complex that has imprison the lives of the South Africans.

But another important facet is the learned or inherent hatred that develops throughout black South African households. No one takes notice to the consequential damages of expressing little settlements of despise and hate: parents ignore or may not conceive that their children will eventually use everyday” idioms” as their rebellious slogans and justification for the violent retaliations;
AmaBhulu, azizinja! Today’s youth have been singing a different
song. Whites are dogs! Not a new thought, by any means. We had
said that all along. As far back as I can remember. Someone
would come back from work fuming: amabhulu azizinja, because
of some unfairness they believed had been meted out to them
that day. A slap. A kick. Deduction from wages. A deduction, nei-
ther discussed or explained. Unless, a gruff – YOU ALWAYS
NICE TO MY MOTHER! qualifies as explanation. So, yes, our
children grew up in our homes, where we called white people
dogs as a matter of idiom…heart-felt idiom, I can tell you. Based
on bitter experience. (Magona pg 74-75)

Mandisa simultaneously suggests the responsibility that parents including her, might have played in shaping the hatred for whites but also sarcastically criticizes and exposes the malicious actions of white subordinates. More specifically, she identifies the source of where the children would garner hatred towards whites but at the same time questions its validity. In the sense of the disparity that was exercised upon black South Africans such as; reduction of wages without a justifiable reason. It’s as though Mandisa is posing the question to the reader: Why I shouldn’t call you a dog? Why Shouldn’t I be angry? And after you take my home and my food is it my fault if my children hate you too?

The psychological term diffusion of responsibility can be taken into consideration when observing this fractured behavior within the township. No one calls upon the other and everyone contributes to the wrong doing because no particular blame is being assigned. Magona during an interview explained that it was pertinent for her as an author and South African to highlight this problem. As in the idea of chanting words of “One Settler One Bullet” among children should of held more responsibility and the society understanding of the transference of pain from parent to child. The general public needed to understand the socio dynamic dysfunction that was growing in South African household and consequently spreading to the streets, preying on sensitive children such as Mxolisi. (Coullie pg 221)

Some critics as in Reta Bernard do not agree with the assertion or suggestion within the context of the novel that Amy Biehl’s played a role in her death by being naive and presumably ignorant. However, Magona questions this logic by reiterating and focusing on the un-easiness of Guguletu the fact that it was not safe and because of the ever occurring random protest and rioting, Mandisa states:

Guguletu? Who would choose to come to this accursed, God-
forsaken place? This is what I want to know – What I can’t begin
to comprehend. I keep asking myself the same question, over and
over again. What was she doing here, your daughter? What made
her come to this, of all places? Not an army of mad elephants
would drag me here, if I were her.( Magona pg 48)

Giving the circumspect of the social conflict it is plausible to suggest that Amy Biehl’s insistence on going to Guguletu that night contributed to her death but Magona does not want the context of her novel to be marginalized to the idea of race verse ignorance as Bernard seems to suggest. Mother to Mother reaches out to the external conflict that surrounds the victim and the killer, which are the adverse effects of Apartheid. Hence, the reason the author goes in depth to the life of the protagonist Mandisa to illuminate the branded trail that led to the night of the murder.

Indeed, Amy Biehl’s death was a culmination of chronological factors that fused into each other. Specifically, a constructed system of inferiority and superiority will always breathe conflict and that’s what began in South Africa, mini conflicts that eventually exploded into something major, something that eventually made people take notice. Magona’s choice in retelling this story within this context is to call attention to the public’s perception of the people involved in Biehl’s death. To see that Mxolisi is a victim just as much as Biehl, is to completely understand the system of apartheid during that period. Mxolisi and his friends were not in search of a white victim but restitution for lost of his people’s livelihood. Amy Biehl’s death was a symbolic representation of the tragic affect apartheid implemented on the lives of Black South Africans and to some extent Biehl’s presence in the Guguletu is a symbolic reference to the ignorance and naiveté of whites in South Africa during the period of Apartheid. Thus Magona’s Mother to Mother is symbolic quilt that links Apartheid, black South Africans, white South Africans and reveals the tragedy that erupted from a inhumane system of oppression.

Works Cited

Barnard, Rita. Aparthied and Beyond: South African Writers and the Politics of Place. Oxford
University Press, 2007. (pg 143)

Coullie, Judith. Selves in Question: Interviews on South African auto/biography. University of
Hawaii Press, May 2006. (pg 221,222)

Magona, Sindiwe. Mother to Mother .Beacon Press Boston, 1999. (pg; 48,74,75,203)

Mandela, Winnie. and Benjamin, Anne. and Benson, Mary. Part of my soul went with
him / Winnie Mandela ; edited by Anne Benjamin and adapted by Mary Benson

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