It is with the greatest of pleasures and literary pride that Karavan Press announces the publication of a biography of Thembi Mtshali-Jones, THEATRE ROAD: MY STORY, as told to Sindiwe Magona.
Growing up in the village of Sabhoza near Ulundi and the city of Durban of the 1950s and 1960s, Thembi Mtshali-Jones listened to her beloved gogo’s stories and marvelled at the voices emerging from her father’s gramophone, but she could never imagine that, one day, her own voice would be enthralling audiences across the globe. Or that she would become so famous that Nelson Mandela would thank her personally for entertaining him in prison where he watched her perform on TV as Thoko in the sitcom ‘Sgudi ‘Snaysi.
As a teenager living under apartheid, Thembi dreamt about getting a decent education and becoming a nurse. Life had other plans. She fell in love with the first man who paid her any attention and became pregnant soon after. Forced to leave Nursing College and her baby behind, so that she could earn a living taking care of other people’s families, she seemed destined to follow in the footsteps of many other women trying to survive their shattered hopes in the townships.
But the daughter of a white family employing Thembi in Durban heard her sing, first recognising the precious gift that fans cherish her for today. She encouraged Thembi to audition for a show. It was her first role, starting her on the path that would take her to stages around the world, where her life would inspire a sell-out musical and she would perform alongside and become lifelong friends with such greats as Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Gcina Mhlophe.
Set against the background of South Africa’s tumultuous struggle for democracy, Theatre Road tells the remarkable story of Thembi’s illustrious career and the people and places who shaped her along the way, her tight-knit family and Durban most prominent among them.
In 2019, Thembi received the Living Legend Award from the National Black Theater Festival in Winston Salem, NC. The publication of Theatre Road coincides with the celebrations of her 70th birthday in November this year.
Thembi told her story to her friend and collaborator, Sindiwe Magona. The resulting biography is a deeply touching and inspiring account of an extraordinary life shaped by love, resilience and creativity.
In a recent interview with BONA Magazine, Thembi spoke about the “dedication and hard work” that have characterised her career as one of the most acclaimed, admired and internationally recognised South African musicians and actors. The Living Legend Award which she received from the National Black Theater Festival in the US earlier this year is the latest in a series of accolades, which include the Arts and Culture Trust Lifetime Achievement Award for Theatre, The Mbokodo Award, Fringe First Award at the Edinburgh Festival and Best Actress Award at The Carthage Festival in Tunisia, to name only a few. She is currently starring in the e.tv drama Imbewu: The Seed in the role of MaNdlovu Bhengu.
Thembi collaborated on Theatre Road: My Story with no other than Sindiwe Magona, a South African legend in her own right.
The two artists first collaborated on a radio recording of one of Sindiwe’s short stories. Then, Thembi read Sindiwe’s famous Mother to Mother, a book based on the tragic killing of Amy Bhiel in Gugulethu in the violence of 1993. Together with Janice Honeyman, Sindiwe and Thembi adapted the book to a one-woman play, exploring the possibility of forgiveness and redemption between the mother of the killer and the mother of the victim.
Sindiwe and Thembi have begun work on Theatre Road a few years ago. The book will be published in November and enthral fans of both artists.
Born in the Transkei in 1943, Sindiwe Magona finished high school by correspondence. She later completed a BA through the University of South Africa and went on to graduate with a Master’s degree in Social Work from Columbia University in New York. She worked for the United Nations at its headquarters in New York for over two decades before retiring to her native South Africa.
A prolific writer of children’s books, biography, poetry, short stories, plays and novels, Sindiwe is also a translator and highly regarded public speaker. Her books include To My Children’s Children, Forced to Grow, Mother to Mother, Beauty’s Gift and Chasing the Tails of My Father’s Cattle.
Sindiwe’s work has been recognised with numerous awards. In 2007, she received the Molteno Gold Medal for Lifetime Achievement for promoting Xhosa culture and language, the Permio Grinzane Terre D’Otrantro and the Department of Arts and Culture Lifetime Achievement Award for her contribution to South African Literature. She is also the recipient of the Bronx Recognises Its Own Fiction Award (2000), a Fellowship for Non-Fiction from the New York Foundation of the Arts and the Order of Ikhamanga in Bronze (2011), given in recognition of her literary and humanitarian contributions to society. The Xhosa Forum honoured her with a Heroes Award and the uNdimande Grand Prize. In 2012, she was joint winner (with Nadine Gordimer) of The Mbokodo Award, which recognises women who have shown leadership, fostered growth and made efforts to strengthen the arts. She was awarded the 2016 Gold Medal by the English Academy of Southern Africa, affirming her distinguished service to English over a lifetime.
The Hartwick College of New York conferred her with an honorary doctorate in 1993 and the Rhodes University of Grahamstown in 2018.
Sindiwe lives in Cape Town and is currently Writer in Residence at the University of the Western Cape.
Author photograph: Victor Dlamini