Dr Sindiwe Magona on Futhi Ntshingila's new novel, They Got To You Too

Futhi Ntshingila is a writer from Pietermaritzburg, They Got to You Too is her third novel. Her previous books are Shameless (2008) and Do Not Go Gentle (2014). Her work centres on women and marginalised communities. Futhi holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution.

They Got to You Too is the deeply humane and thought-provoking story of Hans van Rooyen, a former police  general  who finds himself being cared for in an old age home by the daughter of liberation struggle activists.

At 80, he carries with him the memories of crimes he committed as an officer under the apartheid government. Having eluded the public confessions at the TRC for his time in the Border Wars, he retained his position in the democratic South Africa, serving as an institutional memory for a new generation of police recruits.

Zoe Zondi is tasked to care for the old man. Her gentle and compassionate nature prompts Hans to change his mind about going to the grave with all his secrets. She has her own harrowing life story to tell and, as their unlikely bond deepens, strengthened by the isolation that COVID-19 lockdown brings, they provide a safe space for each other to say the things that would have otherwise been left unsaid.

Dr Sindiwe Magona is an author, storyteller, motivational speaker, poet, playwright, and actor. She has received numerous literary awards as well as awards in recognition of her work around women’s issues, the plight of children, and the fight against apartheid and racism. Dr Magona recently received the Ellen Kuzwayo Award as well as her third honorary doctorate, from Nelson Mandela University.

Here's a powerful piece that Dr Magona has written in response to They Got to You Too.

Futhi Ntshingila is so skilful in portraying the characters that I had to take a second look – was this writer using a pen name? I did that because, from the opening sentence, I heard the voice of an aging man of a different race from the one I had assumed was the writer’s. And, sure enough, as the character told the story of his life, it was clear he was a man nearing retirement as the demise of apartheid became clear to all. First person narration, nogal! I could not believe such authenticity could come from creation or recreation. But then, the more I read, the clearer it became: I was in the hands of a brilliant storyteller. When she needed to be an aging, ailing, ex-soldier who fought in the South African War in defence of apartheid, she was that. But when she needed to be a middle-aged, female nurse, black, she also came through as just that … and all the other supporting actors are well represented, well drawn. That is quite an achievement … sensitivity, research … of a well-intentioned writer, respectful of those she portrays in the pursuit of the story she tells.

"Futhi Ntshingila is a brilliant storyteller. The way in which she inhabits each character, portrays the inescapable inter-relatedness of humans and weaves the different layers of quite disparate lives is nothing short of magic."

Then how she weaves the different layers of quite disparate lives is nothing short of magic … a seamless orchestration of events of each life that then goes on to echo, blend, highlight, or refute a layer or layers of the other’s life … and, surprisingly, sometimes of the same, same life.  The wonder of life – that, as it is often said, ‘the only constant in life is change!’ But, how often are we humans blind to that fact – whether in ours or the lives of others?

There is no message in this magical story, so realistic, so necessary. What there is, is the portrayal of the inescapable interrelatedness of humans --- the need humans have for one another to be whatever life deals them. Humans are communal creatures; in the voyage that is life, one may not always be at the helm of the ship nor its destination. How then can they know who will be at the helm, especially at the time of their greatest need?

Madala and Zoe – Boer and Bantu: their stories are enhanced by historical episodes rendered to the reader by the appearance of two-three supporting or minor characters. That helps us more to better understand the stories of the two major characters as they learn more about themselves through learning each other’s stories for it is then they see the faultiness, the similarities, the life-long held beliefs now proven null and void. The discovery is bitter sweet. Ntshingila is to be congratulated on listening to the stories of beings dissimilar to herself and managing to capture their essence – proof she is listening with more than just her two God-given ears … but also with her heart.