When Njabulo S. Ndebele's The Cry of Winnie Mandela was published in 2003, Antjie Krog endorsed it by saying: "For so many decades South Africans have been thirsting for this text. I feel privileged to be of the country where it has originated." This is precisely how I feel about Sindiwe Magona's latest novel, Beauty's Gift. Every one of its brave pages quenches a thirst caused by silence and denial.
Ndebele wrote about black women waiting for their men to return home during the apartheid era, whether from work, exile or prison. By thematising the agonising situation of South African black women confronted with the stigma and fatalism attached to HIV/Aids, Beauty's Gift has also given voice to the experience of thousands of women, some of whom today, unfortunately, have to fear their partners' homecomings because of HIV. The wisdom and courage with which Magona has approach the topic, will rank Beauty's Gift among the most important novels to come out of post-apartheid South Africa.
Beauty's Gift opens with a funeral scene, one of many which we witness in the course of the book: "Business had never been brisker for the undertakers." Four out of the Five Firm Friends (FFF) – Edith, Cordelia, Amanda, and Doris – have gathered to say their last goodbyes to the fifth member of their formidable group, Beauty. After the funeral, Beauty's uncle speaks to the crowd gathered in her parent's house: "We live in terrible, terrible times when relatives are forced to line up funerals, programme them, because more than one home in the same family are busy with the same kind of sad work."
As the friends try to cope with their loss and remember the last weeks before Beauty's death, they also have to confront the unusual gift she has bestowed on them: "Ukhule!" she had told them – "May you grow old!" Although the gift is given with love and sincere wishes for the future, to receive it the four remaining Firm Friends have to face one of the greatest challenges of their lives.
These are strong, successful women who live in seemingly stable and secure partnerships. But Beauty's gift puts all their beliefs and their relationships to the test, in the most literal sense of the phrase. Beauty died because her unfaithful husband infected her with HIV. In order to protect themselves from the same fate, the four friends decide to ask their husbands and partners to test for the virus with them.
Cordelia warns her friends: "Only a fool goes to bed with the enemy – an armed enemy, at that. What do you think the black man's penis is? I'll tell you what it is. It is a deadly weapon!" She looks around her, knowing that if attitudes do not change many people will turn into "walking corpses". She is also aware that her partner, Vuyo, is not loyal to her, and when she insists on an HIV test he leaves her, but not without a parting 'gift' – an eye shut swollen.
Things are also tough for Amanda. Her resolve to have no unprotected sex until the test causes a lot of friction between her and her husband. The conflict also reveals aspects of his life to her, which make it impossible for her to continue being his wife.
Initially, Doris finds herself in an easier situation. She and her fiancé Selby have to test anyway because of their application for a bond. The test results, however, although negative, expose to Doris a side of Selby which she had not suspected existed.
Edith tries to follow Amanda's example, but she soon finds out that her husband Luvo is willing to go beyond her "No!" to get what he wants.
Devastated, the four friends have to confront a whole web of ideological, traditional, historical and social concepts which stand in the way of their resolve to stay alive long enough to see their children's children grow up.
Beauty's Gift offers a space for identification and understanding for women which is an enormous gift in itself. It is a difficult book to read, because it reveals truths about our society and the people closest to us which are hard to accept. But exposing and confronting them is the first step to a better future for all. The message is simple: "Don't let sex kill you. Use condoms. Stay faithful. Test and test again." Or more simply: "Choose life." For yourself and for the people you love. In this respect Beauty's Gift is didactic and activist but in the best sense of both words, and I salute Sindiwe Magona for the courage and integrity with which she has written this terrifying and at the same time touching and necessary book.
by Sindiwe Magona