I hung my head in shame when I heard the news of the passing of South African author, journalist and anti-apartheid activist Miriam Tlali (83) on the 24 of February. I hung head my in shame because despite having been a supporter of the Miriam Tlali Book Club run by Writes Associates’ Raks Seakhoa, I never once read a book of hers. I’ve been meaning to but never quite got around to it. This is a particularly shameful admission because not only was Miram Tlali the first black woman in South African to publish a book under the title Muriel at Metropolitan (1975) – she was also a journalist. I had never come across any of her works, it was never a part of the curriculum when I was studying journalism at Natal Tech now the Durban University of Technology. I hung my head in shame because I wanted to write something moving and meaningful about her but realized that actually, I know nothing. I didn’t know her and I had never had an opportunity to speak to her or to interview her, let alone read her books. This of course, was going to remain a private shame, I was going to keep this shameful fact to myself and try correct it through other means. By reading her books. So I made a request through my book club: The Joburg African Literature Club if we could read her next month.
None of her books are available for purchase. They are out of print. With the exception of used copies on Amazon.
This turned my private shame into a public one. It was so shameful it made me recall the piercing words of Ghanaian writer, Ama ata Aidoo during her tour in South Africa last year when she confessed that she was too shocked to learn that Rhodes University students didn’t know who Lewis Nkosi was. It made me flinch. It’s a sad day for South Africans indeed. It is regrettable that we have not been admirable custodians of our own history as black people – that we are neglecting our ancestors (read answers) even as they live and breathe among us. We no longer see any value in their beings. No only are we failing to acknowledge and honour our living legends – even when they have left something of value – we throw it to the dogs. We don’t take it, treasure it, feed it to our children, so they never forget.
Tlali’s first book published at the height of Apartheid in 1975, gave the world an inside view into what it was like to be Black, Female and oppressed living in South Africa. When she published her second book Amandla! which was banned because it chronicled the 1976 Soweto Riots she wrote with us in mind. In her interview with Steirn from 21 Icons she said she put her hope in future generations.
“I knew it wouldn’t be accepted I really didn’t mind about that, I knew that coming generations would pick it up and publish it. I was already now infused with the idea that I have to write everything.”
She continued to write – documenting the lived experiences of millions of South Africans – in the hope that we would one day read them, know them and ourselves. I suppose the greatest honour for any writer is not just to receive awards of which ma Tlali was a recipient of many. The greatest honour for any writer is to be read, and read widely by her own people.
Are we going to fail her? How can Miriam Tlali rest in power when we don’t even read her?
The best way we can pay our respects to those who paved the way for so many of us, is to read and teach about who they were, at the very least.
And it’s a real shame that none of her works can be found in our country’s leading bookstores today. As Jodi Picualt said if we don’t change the direction we’re headed we’ll end up where we are going.
Miriam Tladi’s story is one of unmitigated courage, strength and determination against an oppressive regime which not only saught to control the black body but the black mind.
She demonstrated through her dedication and fearlessness that we are greater than our physical circumstances. She epitomised the kind of leadership our country sorely lacks in this moment. Leaders with a vision not only for themselves but for future generations.
How can we become such leaders if we have no models of it. If we don’t know our own herstories?
It is sad to realize that the Apartheid regime succeeded in conquoring us. We have been conquered in the cruelest way possible. We have internalized the oppression so much that we don’t even see how we are still living in subjugation and bondage. The stories we choose to tell about ourselves bear testament to this. We are missing out on a chance to change – a chance to become more than we thought we could be.
This time there’s no one else to blame. It is simply too soon for Miriam Tlali to be out of print. It is way too soon for that. We don’t know nearly enough.
“A good book, if it has the right messages in it, it can change a whole human being into something he never thought he would be” Miriam Tlali