JOYCE MCMILLAN on MOTHER TO MOTHER: PREVIEW for Scotsman Festival Magazine, 4.8.12
ON 25 AUGUST 1993, a 26-year-old American student called Amy Biehl – young, gifted, idealistic, a Fulbright Scholar intensely committed to the democratic changes that were sweeping South Africa – was brutally beaten and stabbed to death by a mob of black youths in the township of Gugulethu, near Cape Town. Amy had been driving some of her black university friends home, when her little yellow car was surrounded; her killers were chanting the extremist slogan “one settler, one bullet”, and seemed to be under the influence of political groups which believed that any violence against white people was justified, in the struggle to drive white colonialists out of Africa, once and for all.
In faraway New York, meanwhile, the South African social worker, writer and diplomat Sindiwe Magona heard of the murder, in her office at the United Nations, and felt a special pang of guilt and horror; she too had grown up in Gugulethu, and knew that if her life had gone differently, then her son, too, might have been among that raging crowd. It wasn’t until the next year, though, when she returned to South Africa for the first non-racial elections, that she realised just how close to home this story lay; when a friend told her that one of the boys convicted of the murder was the son of one of her closest school friends.
“I think I knew at that moment that I would have to write something,” says Sindiwe, now a tiny, humorous 69-year old living back in Cape Town after her retirement from the UN. “I didn’t do anything about it at first; but then I went to a workshop for serious novelists” – she pauses to laugh at herself – “and when they asked me what I was writing, I just blurted out this idea, about writing something in the voice of the mother of one of those boys, talking to the mother of the murdered girl. And then after I had said it, I had to do it.”
Sindiwe’s book Mother To Mother was published in 1998, with the consent and support of Amy Biehl’s remarkable parents, Linda and Peter, who by that time had founded the Amy Biehl Foundation, to honour their daughter’s memory by supporting human and educational development in South Africa’s townships. Their only request was that the book be published on the fifth anniversary of Amy’s death; and Sindiwe immediately gave a copy to her old friend, the singer, actress and writer Thembi Mtshale-Jones, whose compelling solo stage version of the story – first seen in Cape Town in 2009, and featuring superb songs and music, as well as stunning archive images of apartheid South Africa – now makes the long journey north to the Edinburgh Fringe.
“Thembi and I go way back,” says Sindiwe, “and I always hoped she would make the book into a play. She is a wonderful singer as well as a great actress, and when she is on stage I feel that she simply becomes that woman; she is that mother, and all the mothers everywhere, who have ever had to face the fact that their child has committed a terrible crime. When Linda Biehl first read the book, she said it helped her better understand what had happened to her daughter; and that is what I hope for, from the book and the play. We were very close friends as children, myself and that boy’s mother. We were neighbours in Gugulethu, we literally ate from each other’s hands; and I knew, from the background we shared, that she would feel obliged, after her son had done such a thing, to go to the family of the girl who had been killed and ask for pardon. Irrespective of what happens in court, in our culture you have this obligation.
“So I was trying to speak for her in this; and all the time, I was conscious that although the grief of the bereaved parents is terrible, the grief of the killer’s parent in almost worse, because of the terrible questions they must ask themselves – what did I do, or not do, that my child should have become this thing? So I went to Gugulethu, and told my friend what I had written; and she was glad.”
Today, Sindiwe Magona has moved on, in some ways, from the story of South Africa’s years of transition; her current theatre project is a stage musical based on her recent novel Beauty’s Gift, about professional black women in 21st century Cape Town, and their troubled relationships with men, in the age of AIDS. Yet like many South Africans, Sindiwe Magona and Thembi Mtshale-Jones feel that the intense drama of the apartheid years is not yet fully played out; and that new generations of South Africans need to understand the depth of the wounds their society suffered, in order to have any chance of healing them.
“We love to bring this story to other countries,”says Thembi, “and we were really struck by the intensity of the response when we took it to Bermuda, where they have a huge problem with knife crime.
“Really, though, we would love above all to bring it to more audiences in South Africa; to the townships where killings and stabbings are still happening every day, and where irresponsible politicians are still using slogans that incite hatred and violence – old slogans from the anti-apartheid struggle, but now used with a very negative energy. And I think all of us involved with Mother To Mother believe that women have a powerful role to play in making this better, not so much in formal politics, but in their communities; working for the sake of their children, to increase understanding, and to help young people finally escape from this culture of violence, and build better lives.”
Mother To Mother at Assembly George Square, until 27 August.