Miriam’s Song

by Miriam Mathabane, Mark Mathabane. Simon [&] Schuster 2001

The power of a song, and the power of storytelling is what we learn from African books; whether they are about war, political conflicts, prison or rape, story and song have a healing effect on the individual and connect the individual experience with that of a community.

Miriam Mathabane’s account is a true story. It tells about the last decade of apartheid, when the townships of South Africa became the battlefield between the black residents and the white government. It was a time when the violence against women, engendered both by apartheid and by traditional African attitudes, seemed to destroy their hope for a better future.

Miriam Mathabane grew up in Alexandria, a sprawling black township to the north of Johannesburg. Miriam was the middle daughter in a poor family made dysfunctional by circumstance. Her illiterate father, unable to find better-paying jobs, drinks, gambles away their food money, and beats the children. Her mother, a devout Christian, lacks the proper documentation and also has employment problems. And her elder brother steals Miriam’s savings. We learn the details of township life: the food eaten (a whole chicken was an undreamed-of luxury), the small houses, spotless despite the number of people living in them, the uncollected trash in the streets. The black schools were poorly equipped, the teachers were sadistic. Violence and constant humiliation, including daily school beatings and nightly police raids, determined her life. Miriam, who wanted to become a nurse, soon found her ambition thwarted by the times and by custom. Apartheid was at its peak in the 1980’s, and in response, the revolutionaries decided to make the townships ungovernable. Miriam Mathabane, like her mother deeply religious and nonviolent, had no choice but to join the struggle. Not only was she trying to support her people, but also wanted to protest the inferiority of Bantu education.

Spanning the years 1969 to 1992, her account focuses on the hardships women faced in a society where rape was common and early unwanted pregnancies almost a certainty. Mathabane was determined to achieve her goal of finishing high school and becoming a nurse. This book was nominated for the Alan Paton Award.