Miriam (Masoli) Tlali Biography
Nationality: South African. Born: Doornfontein, Transvaal. Education: University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Career: Co-founder, Staffrider magazine; board member, Skotaville Press.
Muriel at Metropolitan. Johannesburg, Ravan Press, 1975; London, Longman, 1979.
Amandla. Johannesburg, Ravan Press, 1980.
Mihloti. Johannesburg, Skotaville, 1984.
Footprints in the Quag: Stories and Dialogues from Soweto. CapeTown, Philip, 1989; as Soweto Stories, London, Pandora Press, 1989.
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Miriam Tlali was brought up in Sophiatown, that legendary community within Johannesburg which was razed because it was the sole area where Africans were permitted to take permanent title to land. She successfully completed high school and entered Witwatersrand University. A series of practical difficulties forced her to seek employment as a book-keeper/typist. This background makes it the more remarkable that she is one of the few black South African women who have been able to express their experiences and concerns in print. Her first publication, Muriel at the Metropolitan, seems largely autobiographical, the events deriving predominantly from her office experience. In spite of being so personal this is not pure autobiography, the events are embellished with considerable skill and the sequence of incidents is controlled by a deliberate, artistic structuring.
Metropolitan Radio is a shop that provides radios and furniture to Africans on tempting but greedy hire-purchase terms. The staff becomes a microcosm of the society and the characters are designed to become representative of the racial elements which make up this complex country. The owner, Mr. Bloch, is a Jew who displays all the traditional expectations of sharp dealing to make a barely legal extra profit. There are two white female cashiers; an overtly racist Afrikaaner Mrs. Stein and an English-speaking liberal Mrs. Kuhn, whose racism is more subtle but ultimately similar. Then there are the "coloured" mechanics, and below them, a variety of African drivers and attendants. They work together not very harmoniously, and from time to time, all express antagonistic inter-racial prejudice.
If one took this work too seriously, the people would become mere symbols. In particular the underlying anti-Semitism would be cruelly evident. Mr. Bloch would become a modern Shylock, always eager to make a rand/ducat at the expense of the ignorant and unfortunate Africans. But the entire work is based upon an attitude of extraordinary tolerance and amiability. Muriel enjoys her work. She likes her involvement with the business. Generally she even likes Mr. Bloch. Since she is employed as an office worker, a status usually reserved for Whites, and manages her duties every bit as efficiently as they do, she is inevitably treated disrespectfully and often blamed for errors the White staff have made. She is used and abused; and given the task, beneath White dignity, of coping with a series of very legitimate African complaints. Sometimes she helps, by explaining the dangerous results of compound interest and is accused of disloyalty to the company. Sometimes she finds herself unavoidably becoming a tool of Mr. Bloch's calculated exploitation. The surprising thing about this book is its tone. It is occasionally defiant as Muriel stands up to false accusations with articulate denials. But there is a strange tolerance and humor, a genuine acceptance that sees the racist extremes as absurd as they are threatening. She can laugh at the comic illiteracy of the African clients' letters without unkindness. She beautifully rises above the political and racial status that has been imposed on her by saying, "I am just myself, just a person." It is this tolerant vein which sustains this work.
Eventually Miriam is offered the chance of a much better job. Government inspectors come and determine that the struggling immigrant employer cannot afford to build an "African woman" toilet. It is illegal for Muriel to share either African male or White women's facilities, therefore she cannot be employed. Although Muriel is denied her promotion, the explanation exposes the madness of the divisions imposed upon South African society. They are as ludicrous as wicked. Indicatively this book itself was immediately and even more absurdly "banned" by the government censors.
After Muriel at Metropolitan Tlali wrote a collection of short stories, Mihloti, some plays and essays. Her major work is a lengthy novel, Amandla. The title is chanted at public demonstrations and means power. This novel is very different from Muriel and displays no tolerance, rather, it takes a strongly committed and activist posture. The events take place in 1976 and such actual plot as there is, consists of a review of the circumstances of the Soweto rebellion against the imposition of Afrikaans in the African schools—the children's uprising. There is a single coherent aspect, violence imposed by the police, by troops, and by Africans against each other. Blood and shootings are a constant backdrop. There are various minimal sub-plots; a youthful love affair between the student leader Pholoso and his girlfriend Felleng which is aborted by his being driven to political activism by governmental persecution. There is an adulterous love relationship between the wife of the police sergeant and his subordinate. There is loving old Gramsy who contemplates the horrendous present from the warm sentiment of the past. There are other characters, too numerous to recall individually, who play their cameo roles but are forgotten against the main sweep of the story, which is political challenge against the existing regime. Many of such small incidents are portrayed with conviction. The language is colloquial and realistic, their concerns, though briefly detailed, connect to the local events at the true level of human consequence, the personal conflicts and miseries that are suffered. Unhappily these painful and tender circumstances are not the focal point of this novel in which the prime purpose is to make bitter political complaint about the appalling injustice of the South African system. In itself, this intention is legitimate enough. Hardly anyone would offer a defense of apartheid. But the writer of fiction must create a conviction in the reader by inventing realistic individuals who, by their acts, expose the social issues, and engage our imaginative sympathies. Richard Rive successfully acheived this with Emergency. Here Tlali prefers argument. Many will approve of her denunciations of this regime but the rhetoric in which it is conducted is full of improbably pompous speech and palpable jargon. The young students enforcing the trade boycott speak with an extreme formality before they pour the unacceptably purchased quarts of paint on the head of an unhappy man who sought only to renovate the walls of his house, and so politely explain why they must burn the new clothes an affectionate mother has bought for her children. One long section consists of nothing more than a debate between two characters, which is meant to educate the reader by making reference to the entire history of South African oppressive legislation detailing all the parliamentary enactments with their dates. Perhaps this has to be told. Many political scientists have expressed it more academically, but the inventor of fiction should give it life. Without that humanity the novel is stultified unless its admirers determine that its contents are of such supervening importance that the normal practices of fiction no longer apply. This is less novel than diatribe. At the same time it includes many enticing elements that show that Tlali is still a uniquely sensitive observer of the intolerably grotesque society in which she lives. When free from her perceived obligation to convince through denunciation and the political clichés which voice that stance, she still has all the qualities which will allow her to express with loving accuracy the human feelings of her people.