The Paris Review

Re-Covered: The Protest Writing of South Africa

In her monthly column Re-Covered, Lucy Scholes exhumes the out-of-print and forgotten books that shouldn’t be.

“The Republic of South Africa is a country divided into two worlds,” wrote Miriam Tlali in the opening chapter of her debut novel, , which was published in 1975. “The one, a white world—rich, comfortable, for all practical purposes organized—a world in fear, armed to the teeth,” she explains. “The other, a black world; poor, pathetically neglected and disorganized—voiceless, oppressed, restless, confused and unarmed—a world in transition, irrevocably weaned from all tribal ties.” Set at Metropolitan Radio, a busy furniture and electric-goods store in Johannesburg, depicts the collision of these two worlds. It is narrated by one of the white-owned store’s black employees, a typist named Muriel, who recounts, in dogged, meticulous detail, the reality of life in the “black world,” the residents of which live on “shifting sands” as every parliamentary session brings in “fresh, more oppressive laws” that seek to dehumanize nonwhite South Africans while maintaining the power and privilege of their oppressors. The book is fictionalized autobiography, the verisimilitude of which can be traced to Tlali’s own experience working as a clerk-typist in a Johannesburg store. “The sunny Republic of South Africa,” Muriel notes derisively, “the white man’s paradise.”

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