Magazine journalist Shona Bagley: Fly free, my remarkable friend
I count journalist Shona Bagley among the people who have made a significant impact on my career. She was very smart, with a razor-sharp wit, filled with grace and a generosity of spirit.
Lizeka Mda is a lecturer in the journalism department at the University of the Witwatersrand. She is a Nieman Fellow of Harvard University, Class of 2004.
Journalist Shona Bagley died on the morning of Friday, 25 June 2021, and I can’t help thinking hers has been a life of two halves.
I met Shona in 1982 when we were residents of Olive Schreiner House at Rhodes University. We immediately struck up a friendship; in hindsight, remarkable since she was from Springs and I was from rural Transkei.
She was very smart, with a razor-sharp wit. I can still remember that hers, written in that distinctive angular handwriting of hers, were always the best among the silly jokes we would post on the back of the restroom stall doors. One of those was a drawing of two men, holding a stick between them, from which hung a pointy sack. The caption: “Two men walking a-breast.”
I count Shona among the people who have made a significant impact on my career. I was working for Sached Trust, an NGO, in the late 1980s when she first commissioned me to write for Cosmopolitan, where she worked. The freelance work I did for Cosmo led to my getting offered the position of Johannesburg bureau chief for Femina, Cosmo’s sister magazine.
And then, a year later, Shona, unbeknownst to me, had nominated me for the World Press Institute fellowship at Macalester College in Minnesota.
We would work together again when I recruited her to be my deputy as editor of Sawubona. By then she had worked at Playboy, had been the launch editor for Elle and also group editor at Conservation Corporation Africa.
Shona was an exceptional writer and editor. Recently, she was a judge in the 2020 Standard Bank Sikuvile Journalism Awards.
Over the years, we have seen each other through some of life’s hills and valleys. After Sawubona, she moved to Cape Town, but the work she was able to find was not enough to sustain life in the Mother City. After several years, she moved to Port Alfred, where her parents had retired.
The vivacious, glamorous, popular, fashion-conscious it gal of her 20s and 30s had mellowed into a reflective, reclusive, gentle and yet still-so-classy Shona in her 40s and 50s. What also did not change was her grace and generosity of spirit.
She adored her niece, and she loved her dogs.
Shona became my sounding board as I considered Port Alfred as an option for my retirement. Unfortunately, on the day I arrived for a few days’ holiday in December to check the town out, Shona had woken up feeling the beginnings of the flu. Since these are Covid times, we cancelled our catch-up coffee. But typical of Shona, she then sent me via messenger a treatise on the pros and cons of living in the town, the highlights of which were:
“[Port Alfred] has always been a water-scarce area and as I said a while back, experts have said that the [Eastern] Cape is currently experiencing the worst drought in 1,000 years!
“… There are also sewerage issues in certain parts of town, often due to areas that still have soak tanks or French drains. There is an awful truck called the ‘Sucking Susan’ which travels around town emptying sewerage drains. (Erg, I have just made myself nauseous.)
“… There are no medical specialists here – one has to travel to PE or other cities to see a specialist. There is no mammogram machine here or in Grahamstown and only two ultrasound machines.
“ …From a societal point of view, [Port Alfred] is still quite a racist town. Too many people still refer to ‘the garden boy’ or ‘the girl’, or, in the case of black male employees, ‘my boys’. This often makes interaction with the white community infuriating.
“… I can say with knowledge, however, that crime is minimal, especially when compared to larger towns and cities.
“… I haven’t met many clever, intellectual locals, but I am a bit of a hermit so I may have missed out on meeting them. If you lived here you would definitely up the ante there and may introduce me to more intelligent [Port Alfred]-ites! There are, however, some very good, kind souls and salt-of-the-earth people and some real old E Cape characters.
“… I don’t want to put you off because I’d love it if you lived here but I want to give you the facts as I see them. I love living here in many ways. It is a kinder, gentler way of living compared to life in the big, bad cities.
“… The beaches are pristine and are very, very seldom crowded. I walk my dog [sorry Lizeka, I have a dreaded dog] around four to five times a week on the beach [beach lockdowns excluded] and don’t come across many people while walking. Ditto alongside the river.”
And then, a few weeks into 2021, she posted on Facebook that she had been diagnosed with Stage 3 oesophageal cancer, and was going to be getting treatment in Cape Town.
In the midst of chemo and radiation treatment, Shona took time to write a reference for me when my employer, without warning me, asked her. In her position I would have said bugger that, I have bigger fish to fry, but Shona just quietly got on with it, and the first I knew about any of it was when I was asked to nudge my other referees as the deadline was approaching.
Through the pain, she kept up her spirits. Just last month she wrote me:
“Yay! I have survived this far, albeit with 90% of my hair gone, constant nausea and lack of appetite… Anyhoo, aluta continua, kyk noord en fok voort and all that.”
But the cancer would triumph in the end.
To Shona, as Elton John says: “Fly away, skyline pigeon fly; Towards the dreams, you’ve left so far behind…” DM
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