Rest in power, Miriam Tlali: Author, enemy of apartheid and feminist

Renowned South African author Miriam Masoli Tlali passed away on February 24 2017, aged 83. Born November 11 1933 in Doornfontein, Johannesburg, Tlali was the first black South African woman to publish a novel in English within the country’s borders. She is best known for this work, first published as Muriel at Metropolitan in 1975 by Ravan Press.

It was re-issued in 2004 by the title she had preferred from the start, “Between Two Worlds”. Based on her time as an administrative assistant at a furniture store in downtown Johannesburg during the height of apartheid, the novel documents the daily humiliations of petty apartheid. There were two types of apartheid, grand apartheid and the petty version, which the New York Times once described as,

the practice of segregation in the routine of daily life – in lavatories, restaurants, railway cars, busses, swimming pools and other public facilities.

Muriel at Metropolitan/Between Two Worlds was the first literary text that portrayed the degrading conditions under which African women laboured during apartheid. It highlighted how strict influx control into “white” cities hampered black women’s opportunities for employment and fulfilling family lives.

Tlali hated the original title of her first novel. She agreed to have it published under that name because her mother was close to dying, and she wanted her to see the novel in print before her death. In the preface to “Between Two Worlds”, Tlali recounted that after the novel’s publication:

I returned to my matchbox house in Soweto, locked myself in my little bedroom and cried… Five whole chapters had been removed; also paragraphs, phrases, and sentences. It was devastating, to say the least.

Despite these misgivings, “Muriel at Metropolitan” made a big impact globally. Forty five different editions of the novel were published between 1975 and 2005, with translations into three languages.

Protest literature

Tlali recovered from her devastation, going on to publish the Black Consciousness novel “Amandla” (1980). It was grouped by critics as part of the “Soweto School” of protest literature.

The novel is a rich evocation of the youth uprising against apartheid education and the apartheid state in 1976. Inspired by the uprising and Steve Biko‘s Black Conciousness ideology, it centres around Pholoso, a young freedom fighter who rallies the youth of Soweto against apartheid. He goes on to become part of the underground resistance, eventually going into exile.

Soweto, and its abject relationship to the wealthy Johannesburg, was an enduring concern for Tlali in her fiction. She published Footprints in the Quag: Stories and Dialogues from Soweto (also published as “Soweto Stories”), a collection of short stories delving in the experiences of Sowetans (mostly women) in 1989.

She also published a collection of short stories, interviews and essays in Mihloti (1984), published by Skotaville Press, which she helped establish. Tlali was also a frequent contributor to the anti-apartheid literary journal Staffrider, which she co-founded. The journal was an important vehicle for publishing black literature and criticism during the apartheid years, often the only South African outlet for black creative writing.

Enemy of the state

Because of her stature internationally and the political content of her novels, Tlali became an enemy of the state. Both her novels were immediately banned by apartheid censors. Her political and literary prominence made her a target of the regime’s notorious Security Branch. This dreaded secret police unit repeatedly harassed, arrested and assaulted Tlali as a tactic of intimidation.

When I interviewed her in 2006, Tlali recalled being brutally beaten in her home in Soweto by police on several occasions. During those years, she would wrap her manuscripts-in-progress in plastic shopping bags at the end of each day, and bury them in her back yard to avoid police confiscating them during raids.

Despite this persecution, Tlali never countenanced leaving her beloved Soweto. For her, going into exile was “unthinkable”, though she travelled frequently to take up residencies and teaching opportunities.

She recalled, on her return to South Africa from a residency at Iowa State University, having to smuggle her manuscript off the plane. Police were waiting for her at passport control, ready to seize any politically incendiary material. Tlali gave her manuscript to an American on board the flight while waiting to deplane. She quietly retrieved it from the American embassy at a later date.

She was also resident at Yale University between 1989 and 1990, wrote a play, “Crimen Injuria”, while at a residency in Holland, and was often more recognised internationally than in her own country.

Intersectional feminist

Tlali was an intersectional feminist long before this term was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. Or before intersectional feminist politics was made current in South Africa by the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall student movements.

Her fiction, at first dismissed by literary critics (mostly men) as too descriptive – they say it had an almost stenographic quality. It is the only work of its time and place that systematically dissects the overlap of apartheid racial discrimination and patriarchal oppression. Tlali’s fiction depicted the intersectional nature of African women’s oppression under both of these systems.

She belonged to the National Women’s Coalition, which advocated for the inclusion of women’s rights in South Africa’s constitution in the run-up to the first democratic election in 1994. As a member Tlali had an incisive analysis of women’s oppression, and was a passionate advocate against gender-based violence.

This is a prominent theme in her fiction. Both “Amandla” and “Footprints in the Quag” highlight the occurrence and effects of domestic violence, rape and sexual harassment in the township of Soweto. Yet her women characters are not victims – they fight back, physically or through educating their communities. They carve out for themselves social spaces where they are able to organise against such abuse.

Tlali received numerous awards during her lifetime, most notably, the Presidential Award, the Order of Ikhamanga (Silver) in 2008, as well as a lifetime achievement award from the South African Literary Awards.

Barbara Boswell, Senior Lecturer, English, University of the Witwatersrand

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Barbara Boswell A
Guest Author
Second Look Author
Guest Author
Advertisting

Stella set to retain her perks

Communication minister will keep Cabinet perks during her two months of special leave

Not a sweet deal, Mister

Mister Sweet workers say they will not risk their health, and the lives of others, to continue producing and packaging confectionaries

Covid-19 grounds Nigeria’s medical tourists

The country’s elites, including the president, travelled abroad for treatment but now they must use the country’s neglected health system

Nehawu launches urgent court bid over protective gear for health...

The health workers’ union says the government has rebuffed its attempts to meet about mitigating risks to workers

Press Releases

Rahima Moosa Hospital nursing college introduces no-touch facial recognition access system

The new system allows the hospital to enrol people’s faces immediately, using artificial intelligence, and integrates easily with existing access control infrastructure, including card readers and biometrics

Everyone’s talking about it. Even Kentucky

Earlier this year South African fried chicken fast-food chain, Chicken Licken®, launched a campaign for their wallet-friendly EasyBucks® meals, based on the idea of ‘Everyone’s talking about it.’

New energy mix on the cards

REI4P already has and will continue to yield thousands of employment opportunities

The online value of executive education in a Covid-19 world

Executive education courses further develop the skills of leaders in the workplace

Sisa Ntshona urges everyone to stay home, and consider travelling later

Sisa Ntshona has urged everyone to limit their movements in line with government’s request

SAB Zenzele’s special AGM postponed until further notice

An arrangement has been announced for shareholders and retailers to receive a 77.5% cash payout

20th Edition of the National Teaching Awards

Teachers are seldom recognised but they are indispensable to the country's education system

Awards affirm the vital work that teachers do

Government is committed to empowering South Africa’s teachers with skills, knowledge and techniques for a changing world