Now retired from the United Nations headquarters in New York, after more than two decades of service, she is a recipient of four honorary doctorates from various local universities and is the author of over 100 children’s books, stage plays, and short stories.
Currently, she is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of the Western Cape (UWC).
At UWC's September Graduation on Friday, 9 September 2022, the former domestic worker became the first-ever recipient of a PhD degree in Creative Writing at the institution.
Pan Macmillan released her book, When the Village Sleeps, which formed part of her thesis, in May 2021. She said her research, in narrative form dealt with the same novel (When the Village Sleeps) about a young woman, Mandlakazi, who was born severely malformed - the result of deliberate in vitro chemical exposure by her teen mother, Busisiwe, so she could take advantage of the grant system.
“To read this in a magazine article that this is a growing trend in the townships alarmed and saddened me especially since the logic behind this is based on the fact that the child support grant is a pittance compared to the care dependency grant, for children living with disabilities.
“It said, as a nation, we neglected the most vulnerable, the unborn child. That thought, in turn, led to an examination of the meaning or significance of the grant system.”
Dr Magona was born in the Blouvlei Location in Retreat. She was 17 when her family was forcefully moved to Gugulethu in Cape Town. After completing her BA undergraduate degree by correspondence, she earned a scholarship to study for her Master’s degree in Social Work at Columbia University.
Mother to Mother is the first of four novels, and Dr Magona writes in English and isiXhosa and translates for various media, including film. Some of her work includes autobiographical books: To My Children’s Children and Forced to Grow; two collections of short stories: Living, Loving, and Lying Awake at Night and Push-Push.
She is currently the Writer in Residence at UWC, with her colleague and fellow author, Dr Meg Vandermerwe, who was her supportive supervisor during her studies.
Mother to Mother, was optioned by Universal Studios for a film on the life of the late American graduate of Stanford University and an anti-Apartheid activist in South Africa, Amy Biehl. Reese Witherspoon will play Biehl who was murdered in Cape Town during political unrests in the nineties.
Looking back over her career, she is pleased with her accomplishments. Dr Magona said what helps her writing is the belief in it being necessary.
“The process is driven by my thinking or seeing a void which I attempt to fill. There was a time in the history of our country when most, if not all writing on black life, was done by white writers,” she explained.
“Why are white people writing about us?’ became a cry of the Black Consciousness or political activists. I merely responded to it, after first unthinkingly subscribing to it. As I was thinking more and more about it, it eventually had me thinking that this shouldn’t stop us from writing about ourselves.”
She appreciates the lessons learned from being an author: “What I love about writing is how much it makes me see how much I do not know. I am always surprised by what I learn and what I need to learn, as I write.If I had the opportunity to give my young self some advice, it would be to read, read and continue reading. A golden piece of information for any writer who starts out writing is to keep what you write. I have learned to keep it on file safely so you can refer to the material or use it at a later stage.”
Several of her short stories, essays, and poems have been anthologised. She is the founder of the Gugulethu Writers’ Group in Cape Town, which she runs on a voluntary basis to encourage women who might not otherwise write their stories.
“For me, the hardest part of writing a book is starting; strangely, it is also the best part because that is the first step, tentative but necessary - without it no book would ever be written, because writing a book spells commitment.”
She explains the source of most of her writing comes not from inspiration but provocation.
“I am normally angered or sorrowed or disgusted into writing,” said Dr Magona.
Many of Dr Magona’s books have been turned into theatrical plays which have been performed on many stages, including at the annual National Arts Festival and the Rwanda Festival.
She said what helps her writing is the belief in it being necessary. She believes the process is driven by her thinking or seeing a void she then attempts to fill.
Besides hosting writers’ conferences, Dr Magona has given readings and addresses at international fora, including the United Nations, the Kennedy Centre and the Ford Foundation.
She has received awards in recognition of her work on women’s issues, the plight of children, and the fight against apartheid and racism. Her first ten years at the United Nations were in the Department of Public Information, where she worked in the Anti-Apartheid Radio Programmes.
Some of the awards she received include the New York Foundation for the Arts – Fellowship – non-fiction category (1997), A Lifetime Achievement Award for Beauty’s Gift from Women Demand Dignity (2008) and recently an Honorary Doctorate from Fort Hare University (2021).
#UWCGrad2022: Introducing Dr Sindiwe Magona - she earns the very first PhD in Creative Writing at UWC’s September Graduation. Next year, Dr Magona will be 80 years old.#IamUWC pic.twitter.com/0wDY85DTMq— UWC (@UWConline) September 9, 2022
See below for a gallery of Dr Magona being conferred (all images by Ruvan Boshoff/UWC Media)