Change is in your pocket

The Big Issue is a socially responsible non-profit organisation that enables willing unemployed and marginalised adults to take responsibility for their own lives through a developmental employment programme.

Sindiwe Magona

Cape Town’s Sindiwe Magona, an accomplished author, playwright and public speaker, looks back on her life and shares some words of encouragement with her impatient younger self. As told to Melanie Farrell

Young people always want everything immediately and I was just like everyone else when I was young. I wanted a husband and babies… not necessarily in that order. At 19 I had my first child and when I was pregnant with my third child, my husband left me.

At the age of 23, I was a has-been. I had no money, no matric and no prospects. We forget that life is very long. It’s not just five years or 10 years. It’s bigger than we are.

I know of people who will do crazy things to get a man back but I was so angry I didn’t even try. It wouldn’t have helped anyway – he had no money.

I would say to my teenage self: Take it slowly. There’s no rush. You don’t have to find a husband and have children when you’re young. Hurry slowly.

First grow yourself and be the best you can be. Then when you enter a partnership, stay financially independent. Marriage shouldn’t be about becoming a child to your husband – independence is very important.

In my culture we love children but we hate women with children. I knew I was responsible for the state I found myself in and I decided that the only way that I could escape poverty was through education.

I hated being poor and unable to provide for my kids. I found jobs as a domestic worker and studied for my matric through Damelin College.

One woman I worked for in Ottery asked me to sleep in, although she didn’t have a room for me. Just a mattress on the garage floor. I didn’t blame her for making me sleep on the floor. I blamed myself for putting myself in that position and hated the poverty that forced me to go through such situations and accept them.

To my younger self: Dream big, dream bold, go for it! Find a life before you find a man. Set goals for yourself.

When I woke up I had a five-year plan and I stuck to it. When everyone else was at the Community Hall in Gugulethu listening to Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens and other bands I would work on my next assignment. I was not going to allow my son to be forced to become a gardener or my daughters to become domestic workers. That was my goal.

My aunt, who was a registered nurse, was a role model for me. She had qualified as a nurse and I thought that was huge.

I give talks to young people today and I say to them: Before you have a baby, build an infrastructure. You need a house, you need money and you need to be able to educate and care for your baby.

Young girls today are having babies to get the R300-a-month child grant. Do they really think that they can look after a baby properly on R300 a month? Have you seen the price of nappies?

I like to tell young people the story of the ducks. When ducks want to raise a family they spend a long time preparing. There’s courting and building the nest and sitting on the eggs. When they hatch there’s the job of feeding them and making sure the ducklings are safe until they are old enough to look after themselves. I say to young people: “I’m sure that your brain is bigger than that of a duck. If a duck can prepare for parenthood then surely that’s the least that you can do!”

Every time I got an educational certificate my life improved. After I finished my matric, I did A-Levels through correspondence and then a BA through Unisa. The amount and types of jobs that I could apply for increased and I could pay my rent and send my kids to school.

My world expanded. I mingled with people outside of the township and life was much more exciting than I thought it could be. It was amazing to find I had wings. I feel as if I became a real South African then because I wasn’t confined to my particular ghetto. I met people from all over the place. Irrespective of the racial classification the government had given them, to me they were human beings, just like me.

Today I look at other South Africans and I want to say to everyone: “If your circle of friends hasn’t changed significantly since apartheid then there is something seriously wrong.”

To the younger Sindiwe: Don’t hold back, make friends, meet, mingle, learn from other cultures. Embrace humanity. The more I discovered about people, the more I realised that we are actually all the same.

After my husband left me I educated myself and started to live a more conscious life. One where I could grow myself, look after me and not spend time on him.

I’m a scaredy cat and I managed to make it, despite apartheid. I think people now have a better chance of success (than I did). But you have to have a plan. Nothing is going to happen if you sit and wait.

Poor people stay poor because there’s no planning or dream. A plan, with dates attached, is a sure way to make a dream come true.

• Dr Magona is currently working on a children’s book in collaboration with Nina Jablonski and Lynn Fellman called Skin We Are In, ‘“a celebration of the evolution of the glorious human rainbow in South Africa and beyond’. (David Philip Publishers)