“Agency” by Sindiwe Magona

Sindiwe and Thembi

Thembi Mtshali-Jones is an international legend. Theatre Road, as the title suggests, is a book about the path, choices, hurdles, surprises and much more in Thembi’s life that have given us the actress she is today, an internationally celebrated icon. It is the first of what will probably end up a series of life stories about her. The book is a gift to South Africa and the world.

Thembi Mtshali-Jones’s life is a roadmap to the history of South Africa. When she was born, apartheid was one year old – barely understood by the bewildered ‘Bantu’ on whom it would be mercilessly inflicted for the next fifty years.

But Theatre Road is not an angry outburst about the evils and cruelty of apartheid. It is a gently-told story of a life, a very rich life. A life that happened because of the integrity of a family. Thembi is the embodiment of the saying ‘It Takes a Village to Raise a Child’.

Theatre Road depicts a life that has not been easy – not always; she has had a fair share of ups and downs, of loss, of missteps. But integrity, especially that of family, and a strong sense of self form the cornerstone of Thembi’s life: this is richly depicted in Theatre Road.

Thembi’s parents worked in Durban, where she was born. Black life being what it was then, they took newly-born infant Thembi to her paternal grandparents. She was barely a month old, still on her mother’s breast. She grew up in the village of Sabhoza where she was surrounded by the love and attention of her extended family and the caring, mindful attention of all the grownups in the village – when we still knew or remembered that a child is a child to all grownups, not only her or his biological parents. She was cradled in love.

The actress she has become is rooted in that rich soil. When challenges came in her life – as they do in all lives – her rootedness enabled her to not only endure those with fortitude but transcend them.

If there is one characteristic that shines through and through in the book – it is AGENCY. I love the book for that. It reminds me of one of my mottos: ‘If you do not like what you have become, who you are or where you are … M O V E!’

Nothing will move in one’s life unless that life moves.

To expect your life to change but do nothing is magical thinking. Thembi’s life may look like the stuff of fairy tales, but hard work, dedication, integrity have brought her to where she is today. Not dependency. Not chance … for when chance knocked at her door – it found her wide awake and ready to roll.

Theatre Road is a book that will inspire not only young people, not only aspiring actors and singers, but all who value their lives and know that whatever they may be doing … can be improved, made better, richer, more startling and more satisfying. For that is how we serve the world, how we fulfil our purpose on Earth … being the best we can be. Thembi Mtshali-Jones is all that … and more. Theatre Road captures this gem of a human being – umntu ngenene!

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THEATRE ROAD

(This piece was written for the promotion of the EB Homebru list, which has ended last week. We hope it will inspire new readers to embark on this incredible life journey of resilience and perseverance, evocatively portrayed by Sindiwe Magona in Theatre Road, the biography of Thembi Mtshali-Jones.)

Sindiwe Magona’s biography of Thembi Mtshali-Jones, Theatre Road, on the Exclusive Books HOMEBRU list

EB Homebru

Homebru: Meet South African authors in their own words

Themed under the banner of “Meet them in their own words”, this year we aim to make our valued authors the heroes of the campaign that celebrate the pens behind the text.

We have chosen books across a wide range of genres – reflective of the current burgeoning publishing of local writing. Cookery, biography, fiction, current affairs, inspirational and children’s are all covered in the selection.

This year, the Homebru campaign runs to the end of July 2020.

HOMEBRU – THEATRE ROAD

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Theatre Road: My Story

THEATRE ROAD: 16 June 1976

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One cold midwinter morning, snuggling in bed because the
previous night had been one of those insufferably late ones, I wanted
to squeeze the last drop of sleep from the night gods. I had a vague
sense the sun had long risen, for the room had shed its gloomy night
coat; but, warm and cosy, I was in no hurry to get out of bed.
Suddenly, peace fled from the room as a loud, unruly noise rudely
peeled back my eyelids. Silently cursing, I dragged myself out of bed,
for the noise grew instead of subsiding, and I knew time to rest was
over. I went out to check what the din was about.
‘The school children are protesting!’ the announcement came
from an unidentifiable mouth, spreading to other sources with a
varying pitch.
‘They do not want to be taught in Afrikaans at school!’
As the information began pouring in from the communal radio,
the angry students drew nearer and nearer, the noise levels rising.
The electric mood in the air pushed me out of the house and yard,
into the thronging street. I could not resist joining the jittery crowd,
waiting to see the approaching students. The shouts and sounds
of stampeding feet coming our way were alarming. These were no
quietly marching Sunday school brigades but, by the sound and look
of it, young people angry enough to spit fire. The head of the crowd
emerged. Knees up in the air, fists stabbing the sky, mouths wide as
hot ovens: the angry, young people poured into our street.

Wednesday, 16 June 1976.
‘Come! Come, join us!’
The students were everywhere, although there was some semblance
of a body, the main body of the march. They spilled out into every
street, jumping fences and popping up in sleepy yards – shouting
and screaming, recruiting support.
‘Join us! Come and join us!’
‘This is your war, too, come!’
At the heart of the march was the rejection of Afrikaans as a
medium of instruction in most of the subjects in Higher Primary and
Secondary Schools. The students had taken to the street, marching
to Orlando Stadium, holding placards with ‘Down with Afrikaans!’
emblazoned prominently on most. Afrikaans was detested by most
Black people since it was the language of the ruling National Party.
It was seen as the language of the oppressor.
What began as a peaceful march slowly became chaotic as the
police moved in to stop the children from proceeding with their
protest. The police, using loudspeakers, ordered the children to go
back to their schools. We could hear the shouting. We could smell
teargas. And the children were running for shelter all over Orlando
West and Dube.
There were those who were crying, blinded by the teargas. We
soon became involved, taking sides, in something that had initially
nothing to do with us grownups. As the community, how could we
not offer to wash the faces of victims of police assault? We could hear
gunshots and were told the police were firing rubber bullets at not
only the students but anyone and everyone out in the streets now.
If the march had provoked police attack, their attack provoked
retaliation. Students began throwing stones at the police. By the
afternoon, we heard the police were firing real bullets directly at the
children. Two children had died and many were injured.
Before nightfall, the whole of Soweto was engulfed in smoke. I
remember trying to go to work late that afternoon and wondering if
we would be able to return.
That night, we performed and the white crowd rose to its feet. The
standing ovation was an every night occurrence. And it pleased us
to no end. But that night, our hearts were in Soweto. As the curtain
rolled down, we all ran to our dressing rooms. After a frenzied
change of clothing, we ran to our bus, hopped in, and then it roared
away. Rumours had already reached us about more and more people
being injured.
Soweto was a fortress that night. Soldiers everywhere. They
stopped each car driving into or out of Soweto. Our mini-bus had Ipi
Tombi conspicuously emblazoned all over it. It was stopped anyway.
‘Where d’you come from, this late?’
The driver explained.
Still the bus was searched.
Driving up to Ephefeni (Orlando West) felt like driving through
a war zone: terrifying. Smoke enveloped everything. The smell of
death hung in the air, palpable.
Trying to sleep that night, I wondered how a day that had started
so peacefully could end up like this.

The next morning, the nation was hit by the photo of a boy, mouth
wide open in a silent scream as he runs with all his might, eyes
bulging in search of help he hopes against hope will come. Every
muscle in the taut body strains under the sad, limp human cargo
he carries.
Hector Pieterson died in the arms of eighteen-year-old
Mbuyisa Makhubu. He was shot by the police and made history:
The First Victim of Police Shooting of Unarmed School Children –
June 16, 1976.
That was an event South Africa will, no doubt, forget one day.
But, that day is not in the country’s foreseeable future. Hector was
followed by many more, killed and injured, hospitals filling to
capacity, often overwhelmed. Mbuyisa eventually went into exile.
That unforgettable afternoon, on my way to work, I took a taxi
to Pimville to check on my daughter. Phumzile, then seven years
old, innocently showed me how ‘the big children, students, said we
must get out!’ Even children that young were ordered out of their
classroom and told to join the protests in the streets.
Turmoil. And, like a wild veld fire, that turmoil grew and grew
and grew until it filled the land. The students’ protest turned into
an uprising and then a revolution and engulfed all youth – those
in school as well as those who were not. The shooting in Soweto
sparked a massive national agitation and soon, even adults were
involved, politicians leading the rest. The fire of discontent had
spread everywhere. It crackled and sizzled throughout the country,
reaching urban and rural areas, big cities and small towns, dorpies
and villages.

Pages 109-112 of Thembi Mtshali-Jones’s Theatre Road: My Story as told to Sindiwe Magona.

Thembi and Sindiwe

Nancy Richards reviews Theatre Road for Breakaway Reviewers

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From domestic worker to diva – a truly South African story

“To a greater or lesser extent all biographies, auto or otherwise, tell the story of the times as much as that of their subject. In Ms Mtshali-Jones case, her story reflects the anomalies and atrocities of apartheid as well as her own journey through theatre. But to begin at the beginning, young Thembi, born of a childlike ‘makoti’ (new wife) grows up in rural Kwa Zulu-Natal with her grandparents. Her early childhood is simple, honest and filled with old school love and care. Things change though when aged 13 she is put on a bus to join her mother in Durban where her eyes are opened wide – and she sees white people for the first time…”

Continue reading: From domestic worker to diva – a truly South African story

Robyn Y. Cohen reviews Theatre Road

The Cape Robyn

Arts and lifestyle writer Robyn Y. Cohen reviews Theatre Road, Thembi Mtshali-Jones’s story as told to Sindiwe Magona:

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“A big surprise for me in reading Theatre Road is that it operates along two converging points. There is the Thembi Mtshali-Jones story – how she made her way from domestic worker to international star on her personal theatre road. And there is the story of the theatre road of Black artists in South Africa and how they have been – and in many instances continue to be –side-lined in terms of recognition (creative and intellectual property) and remuneration.”

“Absence and presence resonate powerfully in reading in Theatre Road and will stay in my mind – long after learning about the details of Mtshali-Jones’ life. From an early age, she dealt with the absence of her mom who was a domestic worker. She was not absent by choice but circumstance of Apartheid which forced her to be separated from her child in order to earn a living. Until she was 13, Mtshali-Jones saw her mom only about once a year. She stayed with her grandparents. Although her mother was not physically there, she was very much a loving presence and this is conveyed deeply by Mtshali-Jones in this book. Her father was generally absent. He was keen to get back into her life when she was famous. His absence was felt but it didn’t define her life and she didn’t shroud herself in anger and resentment.”

Click here to read the entire review: The Cape Robyn

Theatre Road chosen as one of this year’s “most outstanding books”

 

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Sunday Times outstanding books1Theatre Road, the story of Thembi Mtshali-Jones as told to Sindiwe Magona, is among this year’s “most outstanding books”, chosen by the reviewers of the Sunday Times. Thank you to Nancy Richards for including the biography among her picks.

Great to see quite a few independent presses, local and international, getting a mention on this wonderful “Grand Book Tour” of 2019.

Cheers to a great year in books!

Karavan Press title: a biography of Thembi Mtshali-Jones – THEATRE ROAD: MY STORY as told to Sindiwe Magona

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DESCRIPTION

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.

Listen, as she tells her story to her friend and collaborator, SINDIWE MAGONA

ISBN: 978-0-6399942-3-9 

Publication date: November 2019

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sindiwe Magona

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 ChildrenForced to Grow, Mother to MotherBeauty’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 by Victor Dlamini

Author: Sindiwe Magona

Sindiwe MagonaBorn 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 ChildrenForced to Grow, Mother to MotherBeauty’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 by Victor Dlamini