Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 8, 2018

Shadow Sisters (2018), by Shelley Davidow

Shelley Davidow was born and educated in South Africa but now lives in Queensland where she teaches education and creative writing at the University of the Sunshine Coast.  Throughout an international career, she has published widely, including poetry; fiction for adults, YA and children; and non-fiction on a variety of topics.  Shadow Sisters is her absorbing memoir of life in an activist family under the Apartheid regime in the 1970s and 80s.

It is an extraordinary story.  The blurb describes it well:

During the terrifying years of Apartheid in South Africa, Shelley Davidow’s family was a crime. At a time when it was illegal for black and white people to live together, Shelley’s social activist parents took in Rosie, an abandoned black three-year-old. Rosie grew up as a beloved daughter and sister in a white household. Against the backdrop of racist laws and ever-present threats of violence, Shelley’s parents did all they could to provide a safe, happy home for their five children. But when Rosie was sixteen, devastating truths came to light, shattering the family’s understanding of the past.

The hero of this story is Shelley’s mother, who daily ventures into a black township to teach in school founded by Franz Auerbach, who was a white member of the ANC.  This was when there were widespread riots against the segregated education system which fitted non-whites only for menial work.

… an outbreak of education riots exploded in the townships. Black children and teens protested their lot. During the early 1980s, they had to contend with underqualified teachers (some Bantu Education teachers only had the equivalent of Grade Ten), a limited curriculum, crowded classrooms with 60 to 100 children in a room.  Beatings and intimidation by teachers and principals were the only form of behaviour management for thousands of youngsters.  Everything that came courtesy of the Apartheid regime insisted that these children stay in positions as ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’.

While the Fairvale students learned three foreign languages and strolled across well-kept grounds in the northern suburbs, the army moved into classrooms in Alexandra and Soweto.  Teachers taught with armed soldiers in their rooms.  Discipline now maintained through the barrels of guns. (p.27)

As Shelley tells it, while her mother was a well-loved teacher respected for what she was doing to help, and their home in Johannesburg – although not one of those high-walled mansions surrounded by security guards – was safe from home invasion because of the family’s activist reputation, any trip into areas designated only for Blacks was highly risky for white people.  But that was not the only risk this family was taking.

In 1981, when Shelley was still a youngster herself, her parents took a Black woman into their home.  Leena, a former servant to the parents of Shelley’s stepfather, arrived destitute one night because she had left her job due to ill-health.  An agreement was reached that she would do just enough domestic work to avoid attracting the attention of the authorities whose role was to enforce segregation in every aspect of South African life, but she slept in Shelley’s room rather than in separate servants’ quarters out at the back of the house. Leena ate at the table with the family and the children continued to do their own domestic chores as they always had.  In time Leena became Gogo (grandmother) to the children and they loved her like part of the family.  But the entire arrangement was illegal under the Group Areas Act.

Nevertheless, one day when Leena came back from a visit to her family in Hamanskraal (100km from Johannesburg) with her three-year-old grandchild Rosie, abandoned by her mother Brenda, it was but a short step to Rosie becoming part of the family too.  She went to kindergarten and then school with Shelley’s younger sibling, she celebrated birthdays with the family, and she grew up with a white South African accent, not a Black one.  But while she lived a life of luxury compared to other Black children, and most of the people she interacted with were people working for regime change, she was still always going to be subject to the overwhelming architecture of Apartheid:

The tension of my country’s distress wrote itself into a glance, a black person’s hollow stare from across the road, Leena’s sweat-drenched forehead as she ironed our clothes.  It lodged itself beneath my heart though I had no way of understanding the heaviness there, or the legislation that affected every breath taken by a black person in South Africa in the early 1980s.

Leena knew all the Acts.  She’d lived under the Group Areas Act since it first came into effect in 1950, defining where she could live and work; she lived under the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act, which came into effect in 1953 and dictated where she could go to the toilet or wait for a bus, or which office to go to for the documents she needed; the Population Registration Act of 1950 classified her as black and defined her movements across the country.  She grew up with the Immorality Act (introduced in 1927 and then revised in 1957), which made any sexual relationship between a non-white person and a white person a punishable crime. The Bantu Education Act, which separated her from white, coloured (mixed-race) and Indian children, ensured that when she went to school her curriculum prepared her and all other black children for a life in service to the ruling white race. (p.7)

The memoir includes Shelley’s adolescence and the sort of risky behaviour that many young people indulge in, and she recounts her relationship with a teacher only ever referred to as Mr J.  That turns out to have catastrophic consequences for Rosie, because he was the teacher who took time to help her with her learning difficulties, and he had to leave the school because of his affair with Shelley.  But there were also other subterranean events in young Rosie’s life which were yet more devastating, and which led to a rift in their bi-racial family which remains unresolved to this day.

What is most saddening to read, is the chaos, violence and crime that descended on South African after the death of Nelson Mandela.  The account goes well beyond the headlines that make it into the Australian media.  Shelley Davidow is one of many who sought safety in other places, but she knows that she is privileged to be able to leave.  Her family is white and educated, and she is a skilled-migrant who – by the look of her twenty years teaching in Europe, the Middle East, the USA and now Australia – is welcome in many places around the world.   That is not the case for the Black population left behind.

Author: Shelley Davidow
Title: Shadow Sisters
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press) 2018
ISBN: 9780702259883
Review copy courtesy of UQP

Available from Fishpond: Shadow Sisters


  1. This sounds like such a powerful story. Enjoyed your review.


  2. Thanks litlovers! I so appreciate your review! xx


    • Thanks for dropping by, Shelley:) Do let me know when you publish a new one!


  3. […] Shadow Sisters, by Shelley Davidow […]


  4. […] Shadow Sisters by Shelley Davidow […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: