Telling South Africa’s history to children through books

Forty six years after the Soweto uprising in 1976, standing outside a bookstore somewhere in Melville, Dr Nokuthula Mazibuko Msimang takes us back to 1980 by reading a copy of her new children’s book, Soweto Tea Party. 

South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s was still shackled by the chains of apartheid. Thousands of young people protested against the use of Afrikaans as the main medium of instruction in schools. 

In Soweto Tea Party, a little girl named Princess and her father Fanyana Mazibuko, referred to as “Baba ” in the book, host an imaginary tea party that is attended by Miriam Makeba, Winnie Mandela, Nadine Gordimer, Nelson Mandela and Hugh Masekela. Msimang says that it was important for her to honour the memories of the women she included in the book because they played pivotal roles not only in South Africa’s history, but also in her personal life.

Trying to hold back tears — and with a slight stutter in her voice — Msimang says, “People like Gogo Nadine, whom I was quite fortunate to meet paid our rent; people like Mam’ Miriam Makeba worked with Mama and I am fortunate to have her cook for me. My mother runs a children’s home in Orlando in Soweto and even when the cameras were off she would still send food to the kids.” 

The characters in the book mirror Msimang’s own life while growing up. Her father, much like Baba in the book, was also a teacher at Morris Isaacson High school in Orlando and a freedom fighter. Msimang’s own father was under house arrest by the apartheid state during the 1970s and 1980s. In the novel, Msimang tells how her parents kept the family’s children mentally resilient by relating stories about struggle heroes and playing African music, which she explained was the highlight of how her family focused on the kindness they shared with others while dealing with the trauma of living under apartheid. 

“Malaika, nakupenda malaika! Malaika! Malaika, nakupenda Malaika” — Msimang sings Makeba’s iconic song which translates as “Angel, I love you, Angel”, while reading a line from the book and recalling how home echoed the sounds of struggle songs while she grew up. 

The book, aimed at children between five and eight years old, presents South Africa’s tumultuous history in a manner that young ones can both understand and enjoy. Msimang says that it was important for her to document the stories of freedom fighters while maintaining the joyful memories she had growing up in the township at that time.

“History gives you focus, it makes you sturdy, it gives you balance. And then you can better navigate the way you are going forward once you have that historical grounding,” she says.   

Msimang stresses that in writing this novel she wanted to capture a spirit of resilience, strength and being joyful. She hopes this will encourage parents and their children to share in the magic that is the township she still calls home. 

“Whenever you congregate with your children around a story and a book, those moments are priceless and I hope that I can gift that experience to parents and their children,” says Msimang. 


Soweto Tea Party is available from New Africa Books at R145 a copy.

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