Forced to Grow

Forced to Grow is an autobiographical account of an African woman growing up in the Western Cape, South Africa. As much as this is a story of Sindiwe Magona, it is actually about the conditions under which black people lived in the Western Cape in the 50s and 60s. But it also underlines the triple oppression of black working-class women – gender, race and class. The story reminds us of the absurdity of the apartheid South Africa we all once lived in.

The very first paragraph of the book introduces the reader to a twenty-two-year-old woman in despair, having been abandoned by her husband with two young girls and pregnant with a son. This reality forces her grow, and very quickly. Despite her teaching diploma, she is unemployable because she is married. Just to feed her children she resorts to selling ginger beer, vetkoeks, sheep heads, and even “tobacco” (which she failed to move even one consignment of). This she refers to as a “job that breaks your body and crushes your soul”. But her enterprising spirit anchored by her Doctrine of Personal responsibility catapulted her. She turned to education, which her mother had advised was “the only husband who will never leave you”. She studied her matric and junior degree through correspondence and went on to obtain a scholarship for an MA (Social Work) at Columbia University in the US.

Magona’s story reinforces a number of points for me. Firstly, patriarchy permeates women’s lives in an insidious way. Even the government of the time, perceived married women only as wives and mothers, and never as workers and breadwinners. Once they got married, female teachers automatically lost their permanent posts. This relegated them to dependents, a position which reinforced their inferior position in the family unit.

Secondly, when a marriage falls apart, women are the ones blamed, victimized and labelled. There is no equivalent male to “ibuyemzini” or “idikazi”. This leaves women with “small dreams, trust(ing) less, and fear(ing) in abundance”. Despite her resilience and determination, Magona remained with a lingering sense of worthlessness. Although she did venture into relationships later on in her life, she continued to harbour a deep sense of distrust towards men.

Thirdly, it is almost always women who are burdened with children regardless of their socio-economic situation. But society also judges women who raise children on their own. They are not trusted to raise children “properly”. Magona’s anxiety about her son is pulpable in the book. She does not trust her ability to raise a young man. When she is offered a scholarship to study abroad, instead of basking in the moment, she is concerned about who will look after her children.

Above all, Forced to Grow is a story of the resilience of black women. Despite all odds – race, class, and gender, Magona’s “fear of sliding back into destitution (gave her) wings to…soaring hopes”. She busied herself in the community, and in process cushioned herself and her children. She expanded her “family” across race and her immediate community. This launched her into opportunities that would otherwise have been outside her realm. In fact, her story is a confirmation that, depending on your attitude, sometimes misfortunate can be a gateway to freedom. For Magona, it was her abandonment that changed the course of her life for the better.

Sindiwe Magona is a multi-award-winning author, poet, playwright, actor and speaker. Forced to Grow is an easy and inspirational read which I recommend to women still in and those who have just exited difficult relationships.