Mother to Mother Summary and Study Guide

Sindiwe Magona

Mother to Mother

  • 54-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 12 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a literary scholar with a Master's degree in English Literature
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Mother to Mother Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 54-page guide for “Mother to Mother” by Sindiwe Magona includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 12 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Destructive Legacies of Colonialism and Apartheid and Fate and the Fragility of Human Plans.

Plot Summary

In writing Mother to Mother, Sindiwe Magona drew inspiration from a real event: the murder of a white American named Amy Biehl by young black men in 1990s South Africa. The crime caused shockwaves around the world, not least because Biehl herself had come to South Africa to combat apartheid—the system of segregation and discrimination that relegated black South Africans, as well as other people of color, to second-class citizenship.

On the face of it, then, Biehl’s murder was an incomprehensible and counterproductive attack on someone trying to make amends for the injustices of colonialism and apartheid. Mother to Mother, however, sets out to render the murder comprehensible (if not excusable). By tracing the life and upbringing of a young man named Mxolisi—a kind of amalgam of Biehl’s real-life killers—Magona works to show her readers the pernicious effects of colonialism and apartheid, which cause their victims to become “lost creatures of malice and destruction” (v).

Mother to Mother, however, is narrated not by Mxolisi himself but by his mother, Mandisa. In the opening pages of the novel, Mandisa speaks directly to Biehl’s mother, pleading for compassion on her son’s behalf; if Biehl’s mother understood Mxolisi’s past, Mandisa says, she would understand why he acted so violently.

From there, Mandisa launches into the narrative proper, imagining contrasting scenes from the day of the murder: the student attending her classes in Cape Town, and Mxolisi and his friends, in the segregated suburb of Guguletu, roaming the streets in frustration and rage. Mandisa cuts away before the murder itself, settling into the narrative pattern that will define most of the novel: Mandisa’s recollections of the days and hours following the murder, interspersed with lengthy flashbacks to her past.

Through the flashbacks, we learn more about the traumas that have defined Mandisa’s (and, later, Mxolisi’s) life. As a young child, Mandisa was forced from her home in Blouvlei by the South African government’s increasingly strict policies on racial segregation. As a teenager in Guguletu, she briefly knewhappiness with her boyfriend China, but her unexpected pregnancy cast a pall over both their future prospects; the two left school and married, though China abandoned his wife and son, Mxolisi, when the latter was only a toddler. In the years following China’s departure, Mandisa entered into relationships with two more men, and eventually gave birth to two more children: her younger son Lunga, and her daughter, Siziwe. Mandisa’s relationship with Mxolisi, however, remainedboth uniquely close and somewhat complicated—a byproduct of the “unusual way in which he came to this world” (40). What’s more, traumatic events marred Mxolisi’s early childhood—particularly the violent deaths of two of his friends at the hands of the police. For all his intelligence and sensitivity, then, Mxolisi grew up somewhat troubled, eventually becoming a leader in a group known as the “Young Lions.” Ostensibly an anti-apartheid organization, this group increasingly takes out its anger on the innocent residents of Guguletu—and, ultimately, on the American student who ill-advisedly travels there.

Meanwhile, in the present, Mandisa leaves her job as a maid early as a result of unrest in Guguletu—the aftermath of the attack on the student. Once home, she struggles to locate her children amidst the chaos, and she discovers that Mxolisi is missing.He fails to turn up that evening, but the police, who are searching for him, do. Some time after the violent raid, Mandisa receives mysterious instructions that lead her to a house, where she finds Mxolisi in hiding. He admits that he participated in the murder, and the two tearfully embrace.

In the final pages of the novel, Mandisa again addresses the student’s mother, commiserating with her and wondering what to do next. Finally, she returns to imagining the day of the murder itself, describing both Mxolisi and Biehl as unwitting victims of centuries of oppression and hatred.

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