The critical legacy of activist writer Miriam Tlali

Too often remembered only as South Africa’s first black woman novelist, Tlali illuminated the lives of workers living and labouring under racial capitalism.

South African writer and publisher Miriam Tlali threw a stark light onto the lived experience of oppression under apartheid.

Although she experienced the hardships faced by her fellow working people, Tlali had a sliver of freedom few Africans were granted, having pursued tertiary studies and then working as a bookkeeper. This allowed her to write, in the full knowledge that writing was not some rare ability, but an occupation made possible by a certain freedom from necessity.

The economic exploitation of the time denied the majority of the South African population that freedom. For the black African under apartheid and colonialism, the better part of waking hours was taken by a search for opportunities to sell one’s labour for a wage and, when a job was found, to struggle to maintain one’s self and family on that wage.

In a 1988 interview with Cecily Lockett, Tlali illuminated the too-often-invisible material reality that produces social life: “Social obstacles are always linked to political and economic obstacles. You have to have materials, you have to have typewriters, you have to read a lot. That also means that you have to have a lot of time.”

“You have to analyse situations, and all that needs peace of mind and time … you have to dream about it and a black woman does not have time to dream,” explained Tlali.

The colonial venture that developed mining capital introduced and depended on black labour at the turn of the 20th century. As Tlali put it, Africans were “indispensable nuances” in the apartheid economic system.

A systemic attack on family life

The systematic, racialised land dispossession and displacement of African people in the first half of the century fed the monstrous waged-labour system. Industrialisation during and after World War II brought thousands of African people to the cities in response to the demand for cheap unskilled labour. As Tlali writes in her novel Between Two Worlds (1979):

It is a system based on cheap labour, which undermines all laws of morality and decency, making nonsense of the concept of the family unit. On it the mining industry in the Republic of South Africa has flourished. To my mind, it is comparable only with the slave trade.

Tlali was living and began writing at a time when the capitalist economy of South Africa was changing from production to commercialisation. With the introduction of mechanisation and concentration of monopoly capital, unskilled and semi-skilled labour declined and unemployment increased. Movement and work opportunities were further restricted by the system of pass books that had been developed over some decades. In 1963, it became a criminal offence for African women and men to be found without one, making the lives of African people increasingly precarious.

Tlali’s first novel exists in two forms. The first version (1976) is a ghost of her original manuscript that she tentatively titled Between Two Worlds/I am Nothing. What remained was the novel Muriel in the Metropolitan, stripped bare of the telling accounts of economic exploitation and the negation of African people’s humanity. In 1979, Longman published Tlali’s intended version as Between Two Worlds.

In the opening scene, Muriel observes how the white boss of a furniture and electronics shop is brash and disparaging to black workers and customers. Until they hand over passbooks, the black miners wanting to have a radio repaired exasperate the shopkeeper, who regards them as a nuisance. In glaring contrast, he greets the white clientele with congenial smiles.

Within its first few pages, the novel establishes the fundamental conflict of capitalist, apartheid South Africa between the white ruling class and the black labouring class.

The colonial city

Echoing Frantz Fanon’s 1961 description of the Manichean colonial city, Tlali (1979) writes:

The Republic of South Africa is a country divided into two worlds. The one, a white world – rich, comfortable, for all practical purposes organised – a world in fear, armed to the teeth.

The other, a black world; poor, pathetically neglected and disorganised – voiceless, oppressed, restless, confused and unarmed – a world in transition, irrevocably weaned from all tribal ties.

She goes on:

The whites, with a few exceptions, are ignorant of the Africans’ living conditions. This is partly due to their indifference and partly to their misconceptions. The Africans, on the other hand, know more about the whites because they have to know them in order to survive. With even fewer exceptions (in fact a very negligible proportion) their daily bread depends entirely on their going into the white homes, factories, garages, offices, or standing at their doorsteps looking for work, pleading or even begging. With the Africans it is a matter of life and death.

Tlali lays bare the conditions of those workers living under a racialised capitalist system. In The Communists Manifesto, written over 100 years before Tlali, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels described the condition very similarly: “a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital.”

The novel looks at the everyday experience of racialised economic exploitation and how this produces a working people who must perpetuate the system that destroys them. As a salesperson says:

I sell big things like furniture, stoves, electrical appliances, and so on. But the only thing I am not happy about is the rate of interest at this place. It’s killing our people. Every time I introduce a person here, I know he’ll pay and pay and pay. It makes me feel guilty, like I’ve brought him to be slaughtered…

At the climax of her frustration with her job, Muriel wonders:

How was I going to work with people who were not even prepared to give me a chance and who were squeezing as much money as they could out of my own black fellow workers?

The gestures of respect offered to Miriam Tlali often hover on the surface of her contributions as “the first novel published by a black African woman in South Africa.” A faithful appraisal of Tlali’s work reveals that she wrestled over the worst contradictions the capitalist system produces in the lived realities of oppressing and oppressed people. Like all radical thinkers, Tlali shone a light on the constrained manoeuvres that human beings must make in a social order that daily dehumanises the people indispensable to its functioning.

She left us with a question that retains its urgency and power today: How do we continue to live in a world that thrives on the forceful extraction of life and labour from ourselves and our own fellow workers?

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