S. African authors speak out on Africa's woes, triumphs

By Talia Whyte

Originally published in The Bay State Banner

South African activists and writers Elinor Sisulu and Sindiwe Magona came to Boston last week to participate in a series of seminars to celebrate the children’s literature of their home country. The seminars were part of the 10th anniversary festivities for South Africa Partners, a Boston-based nonprofit organization that supports relations between the U.S. and South Africa through education and health initiatives.

In one of those initiatives, according to Sisulu, for every book donated to South Africa Partners, the organization will purchase an additional book written by a South African author, which will then be distributed to children throughout South Africa. Sisulu said she supports the effort because it aims both to support the South African economy and enable children in her country to read more books written by native authors.

“Many well-meaning people send books to Africa, but most of them are not culturally appropriate for our children,” Sisulu said. “Children should read about their own culture and see themselves.”

Sisulu is the author of “The Day Gogo Went to Vote,” a children’s book about a grandmother who is determined to go to her local polling place in the first election allowing black South Africans to vote. Magona is the author of 18 children’s books, including “The Best Meal Ever!” and “Life is a Hard but Beautiful Thing.”

Magona said that South Africa’s education system is suffering because the government doesn’t provide equal support for students at all age levels or those learning in different languages. She also said she finds it discouraging that today’s youth use the Internet, instead of traditional storytelling from their elders, to gain information about their culture.

“During apartheid, we had our languages and storytelling,” she said. “Now that we are free, South Africa is like America during slavery. Our children are being prevented from an education and their history.”

Education in South Africa garnered international attention last year when the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls opened outside of Johannesburg. The boarding school was established to increase opportunity for South African girls who had shown academic talent and leadership skills, but came from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

The school has received praise from some, including former South African President Nelson Mandela, but has also been criticized by many who say they are displeased that it only caters to the needs of a small number of children.

“Oprah’s school is great, but doesn’t make a dent,” Sisulu said. “It doesn’t begin to address the problems in South Africa. No one can really say that education in South Africa will be improved by Oprah.”

The educational and social problems in South Africa have been compounded recently by woes throughout the continent, especially in neighboring Zimbabwe.

As the official mediator appointed to deal with Zimbabwe by the Southern African Development Community, South African President Thabo Mbeki has faced heavy criticism for taking what many believe to be a soft stance against the actions of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who was declared the winner of the nation’s runoff election last month. Many in the international community have questioned the legitimacy of Mugabe’s victory, calling the June 27 runoff neither free nor fair.

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai won the most votes in the March presidential election, but not the majority required to avoid a runoff. He withdrew from the second contest after weeks of military-orchestrated violence left dozens of his supporters dead, thousands severely beaten and thousands more homeless as they were chased from villages, fled attacks or had their houses burned down.

Sisulu was in Zimbabwe last April and said she was disturbed by the poverty and political corruption that have taken over the country.

“As a human rights activist, I believe in speaking out against injustice,” Sisulu said. “Not speaking out against Mugabe goes against everything the anti-apartheid movement stood for.”
Magona said she is particularly concerned about the silence from many African leaders and African Americans on the problems in Zimbabwe. While she is happy that the African Union (AU) strongly opposed the establishment of the United States African Command (AFRICOM) military base, Magona is disappointed that the same anger has not also been directed toward Mugabe, saying that the AU has evolved into a “friendship club.”

“There are no standards in the AU anymore,” Magona said. “Mugabe gets support from them because he skillfully talks about himself as anti-Western and anti-imperialist. As an individual, do I want Mugabe as a leader? No, I do not. What does he stand for?”

As the political and economic problems worsen in Africa, Magona feels good that change is in the air in the White House, and hopes Africa can have a better relationship with the United States in the near future.

“We are excited about [Democratic presidential contender Barack] Obama, not because he is black, but there is a chance that he would want to have a better engagement with the world,” Magona said. “He is a good role model, and he makes us feel proud to be black.”
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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