Photograph by Ruschka Jaffer
“Miners produce tons of rocks to access a small amount of gold.
They do not let the rocks distract them – they focus on the gold.
They bear no-ill will to the rocks – they never contemplate their non-existence.”
These words popped onto my telephone screen while I was mulling over the life of Sindiwe Magona. Sent from South Africa’s leading Sufi poet Shabbir Banoobhai, they crystalised my thoughts in a fresh direction. Was this an apt metaphor to consider when examining her life? Her focus was not on the circumstances she found herself in but the possibilities of a different life that she could find within herself. The possibilities that are there in every one but often not sensed. The God-given talents that lay dormant waiting to be mined through focussing not on the rocks that obscure them but on the gold that is embedded deep within the soul towards which one is propelled through making decisions that places one on a path of growth and discovery.
I grew up into adulthood with a verse from the Holy Quran which said: “God does not change the condition of a people or a nation unless they change themselves from within.” Over the past few years I have come to the realisation that my understanding of this verse was limited. As a young adult in the throes of the anti-apartheid struggle, I took it to mean that people have to change their conditions themselves and that nobody would do it for them. I did not understand that changing material conditions was one thing and transforming one’s inner life another. Sindiwe chose to change her inner life in an effort to escape from a materially deprived condition. Activists for change focussed on changing the outer conditions of a people with less attention to their inner lives. There was minimal understanding that the greatest enemy was within. How we think about ourselves, the movie that we keep watching in our minds, determines who we become.
The Bible suggests something similar in Romans 12 verse 2: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
In the secular world, the awareness of the importance of the power of the mind has been growing exponentially in the past decades. From works such as Fritjof Capra’s “The Tao of Physics” (1975) to Steve Biko’s, “I Write What I like,” (1987) the work to be done points only in one direction and that is taking charge of how we think about ourselves and the challenges we face.
Anyone studying Sindiwe’s life by the time she reached 23 years could have concluded that she would remain mired in the tragedy of a limited future which many so often are. Her husband abandoned her and her three children all under six years of age and there she was having to find a way through her circumstances. Without warning, she joined the ranks of millions of South African women forced to care for their children on their own.
It is remarkable how she instinctively understood that life is a series of problems that need to be solved. Her book, To My Children’s Children shows a woman who faced each challenge head on, moving forward steadily.
After her husband left her, she sat with a teaching qualification that did not help her much because the Apartheid education authorities placed obstacles in the way of married teachers. Her only option was to earn a living as a domestic worker. Soon she completed her matric qualification making it possible for her to begin studies for A-Levels, again by correspondence, this time through London University. This led to her finally getting a teacher’s position in Cape Town. After she completed the A-Levels, in one year, she registered for a Bachelor of Arts degree through Unisa (the University of South Africa). That took five years, by correspondence.
In her essay, Do Not Choose Poverty, to be published in I WRITE THE VOID, a collection of her essays in celebration of her birthday this year, she writes: All that studying amounted to eight years. That may seem like a huge slice out of someone’s life. It is. But I do not regret it a bit. What is the alternative? What more could I have done with the eight years? More domestic work? Continue hoping to get a teaching post? As a married woman, the possibility was very slim. For five years after I was abandoned by a man I called My Husband, I stayed away from men; I was in no hurry for more trouble.”
She took the steps she needed to create a different life for herself and her children. In the same essay, she outlines some of her thinking:
…”unless one’s hatred of poverty is accompanied by a conscious decision to get up and go, to leave poverty behind, followed up by concrete action, nothing shifts – nothing can shift.”
She urges her readers to take a leaf from her book. “All it takes, all you need, is your own God-given abilities or talents, and bitter hatred of poverty, coupled with a fierce determination to leave it, abandon it, divorce it … and go get yourself the perfect life – perfect, for you.”
Her autobiographical books demonstrate that it was not an easy journey. They are essential readings for all teachers and journalists. Her set of essays should be compulsory reading for humanities students. Her experience was that those who made the effort find the help they need. “Those who go for it, work for it, will find there is a lot of help along the way. She warns that “ help will not come and wake you up; it is up to you to get up and find it.”
It would not be accurate to say that as she mined for gold, she bore no ill will to the rocks that obscured her way.
Her father had worked in the gold mines of Johannesburg before she was born. She was only confronted with the reality of his experience at the age of 30 when she saw Magubane’s South Africa, with its photos of ‘mine boys’.. In an essay called Clawing Stones, to be republished in the collection, she describes in great detail how the book had angered and disgusted her and how the despicable things those photos depicted still shocked her.
It had never occurred to her what mine bosses did to mine “boys” – they were forced to show their anuses for regular inspection against theft of precious stones. That her father had endured this had never occurred to her.
“ How do you look at the man you have known all your life as ‘Protector, Provider, Soother of spirits bruised’8 and admit to yourself he suffered unimaginable violation, endured unspeakable humiliation? How does a child love and respect a father and know that that man has been treated in a manner no animal ever suffered, and knowing that there are many who saw him as less than human? How do you swallow a father’s bitter impotence?”
She wept when the realisation hit her. She wept for her father and all men who had endured these brutalities. Men who had to leave their families for eleven months of the year. She was overcome with an intense sorrow. She does not mince her words in true Sindiwe fashion when she describes her father’s experience: “ Where lives are slighted, wasted, ill-used and squandered; sacrificed to greed and need, real and manufactured. Where rich men dream of richer reaches; And poor men die clawing at stones.”
Moving through this darkness, she turns to the pursuit of happiness. She writes that more and more and more of us have given up on the idea of happiness or the abundance of a simple life, or living a stress-free life, satisfied, Writing the yawning void, she longs for a world in which “ all people respect themselves, respect others, and respect the generous and bountiful environment that is the very breath of life..”
She explains that she writes from a gnawing hunger for things many dream of but lack the imagination or courage to work hard enough to make happen. “The future we all want, for which we wait – and wait – and wait … little realising it is waiting for us to birth it, bring it into being.
Her strong message to all of us is that no matter what life throws at us, it is possible to push through adversity and do what we never imagined we could. Only if that adversity, those rocks, does not make us give up on how we think of ourselves. She mined for her gold and found it. And it is not her gold only while others claw at stones. It is a gold that she offers for all of us to grow rich on.
By Zubeida Jaffer
This essay will be part of a book called Sindiwe’s Gift compiled in honour of her 80th birthday on 27th August., 2023. Women’s Zone will launch the two books at the Artscape Women’s Humanity Festival on 26 August, 2023 at 10.30. Innovation lounge, Second Floor ArtsCApe. Do join the celebration.
Friday 18 August 2023