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Margaret Nixon, 87; Wrote Noted Biography of South African Woman

April 10, 2004|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Margaret McCord Nixon, who wrote "The Calling of Katie Makanya," a prize-winning biography of a South African woman whose life mirrored her country's transition from colonial rule to the resistance to apartheid, died March 29, said her daughter, Margaret M. Rocco. Nixon was 87.

Born and raised in Durban, South Africa, Nixon wrote her book when she was 80 and living in Venice, Calif. In recent months, she was treated for cancer and went to stay with her daughter in Carlisle, Mass., where she died.

The child of Caucasian missionary parents, Nixon befriended Makanya, who was fluent in Zulu and English, when Makanya worked as a translator and assistant to Nixon's father, Dr. James McCord, at the hospital he founded to treat black South Africans in Durban. Makanya remained on the hospital staff until she retired at the age of 70.

The book covers the better part of a century in South African history, starting in 1873 when Makanya was born. She was a black woman whose mother was a Christian schoolteacher from the Cape of Good Hope and whose father was a primitive mountain man.

A talented singer, Makanya joined a South African choir that was invited to England to perform for Queen Victoria. She stayed in England for three years and began a career in music, but at age 20, she decided to return to South Africa. She married and raised nine children, enduring racism throughout her life, but continuing to work for equal rights for her people. She died in 1955, more than 30 years before the end of apartheid.

Nixon's biography of Makanya was first published in South Africa in 1995 and won several literary prizes, including the Alan Paton award, named after the South African author of "Cry, the Beloved Country."

Two years later, her book was published in the United States.

To get the material for the book, Nixon spent six weeks in 1954 tape-recording Makanya's personal history while visiting Durban. Makanya died six months later, at 83. Nixon finished her book 40 years later.

"The result is oral history that reads like a novel, an engrossing personal take on a turbulent time," wrote one reviewer for the Ottawa Citizen in 1997.

Nixon was the sixth and youngest child of her parents, who were 46 and 50 when she was born. Neighboring Zulus offered their condolences on the birth of a girl; in Zulu tradition, a boy is desired for the last child in order to take care of his parents in old age.

In the mid-1930s, Nixon left South Africa to attend Oberlin College in Ohio, where she met her future husband, Charles Nixon. He became a professor of political science and the couple settled in Los Angeles in the 1940s. They had two children, who survive her, and were divorced in 1981. Nixon also is survived by four grandchildren and several nieces and nephews.

Nixon published one other work, a short story titled "A Woman Comes Weeping," which appeared in Woman's Day magazine in 1956.

Memorial contributions may be made to McCord Hospital, Attn. Helga Holtz, 28 McCord Road, Overport 4065, Durban 4001, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa.

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