Mother to Mother: A Wrenching Tale of Murder in South Africa

By Hoyte, Janessa | The New Crisis, September/October 2000 | Go to article overview

Mother to Mother: A Wrenching Tale of Murder in South Africa


Hoyte, Janessa, The New Crisis


A Wrenching Tale of Murder in South Africa

South African writer Sindewe Magona bases her first novel, Mother to Mother, on the real-life murder of Amy Biehl, an (idealistic, young, white American slain in South Africa in 1993 by a group of apartheid protestors. Mother to Mother attempts to explain the brutal killing.

The novel starts off by captivating the reader with forceful words, but later loses its strength.

In this fictional narrative, Biehl's murder is blamed on one young man, Mxolisi, whose mother, Mandisa, narrates the story. The book begins with Mandisa saying simply to Biehl's mother in a letter: "My son killed your daughter."

Mandisa attempts to explain the reasons for the murder, the chaos and anger that stirs in the hearts of the youths involved in killing Biehl. Mandisa begs forgiveness and understanding for the act of her son, whose soul was long lost.

The novel's first three pages contain Mandisa's letter to Biehl's mother and are the book's most powerful. The letter provides a startling look at the heart of a grieving mother who also has lost a child, though not in the same way. The next 200 pages are much different. After briefly describing the events leading up to the white woman's death, novelist Magona tells the story of the people of Guguletu, the small, desolate community where Mandisa raised her children amid many hardships.

Mxolisi is Mandisa's first and favorite son. He is the one who is most dear to her heart and, subsequently, the one who breaks it beyond repair: "He who was first upon my nipple. He who came unbid; bringing a harvest of shame to my father's house. Bitter tears to a proud mother's heart."

The story tells of Mandisa's childhood, how Mxolisi was an unexpected child who turned her life upside down from the moment she discovered at the age of 15 of his existence in her belly. Her plans to continue her schooling came to an end: "My very life came to an abrupt halt... Everything I had ever known had been bulldozed, extinguished, pulverized."

Mandisa tries to explain to Biehl's mother: "From the beginning, this child has been nothing but trouble. But you have to understand my son. Understand the people among whom he has lived all his life."

Though Magona writes the novel from the perspective of Mandisa, the voice and opinion of the South African author can clearly be seen. She expresses great anger toward whites and apartheid in words unlikely to come from a poorly educated, South African mother.

Mandisa's entire village was relocated to Guguletu when she was a little girl. And after giving birth to Mxolisi and his brother and sister, Mandisa's life grew even more difficult. She had no control over her children. On an average morning when Mandisa goes to work, she gives specific instructions to her children, knowing she will be ignored: "I hastily throw out a couple of reminders, not that I think this makes any difference to what will actually happen. …

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