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

Portrait of Miriam Tlali as part of Adrian Steirn’s 21 Icons South Africa project. Date: 15.10.2014. Adrian Steirn/Courtesy of 21 Icons South Africa

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.