Why I Wrote “Grace”


Grace is a fictional account of a family on the Cape Flats, living with the “open secret” of domestic violence.

The novel traces the main character’s development from a young girl who witnesses violence almost daily, into adulthood and motherhood.

It tries to show the lasting impact of living with intimate partner violence on the psyche of children who witness such abuse.

The idea for this novel came from my own childhood. Though Grace is fiction, much of my childhood was marred by increasingly brutal incidents of violence in our home, a space that should have been safe.

My writing on the topic started while I was completing courses in Gender and Women’s Studies, an academic discipline that gave me the language to describe and make sense of the violence I had endured as a child.

Writing allowed me to process the damaging effects of the violence I had witnessed, and enabled me to analyse the long shadow of such violence in my adult life.

The novel started off as random, cathartic ruminations on paper; an experiment to show, to some unnamed, faceless reader, what happens to women when they have no safe spaces in their lives.

Intimate partner violence, also called domestic violence, is a form of gender-based violence that occurs in the private realm of the home. It includes physical violence, sexual violence, threats or coercion, and emotional violence such as name-calling and verbal abuse.

Money can also be used to abuse an intimate partner.

South Africa has some of the highest rates of gender-based violence in the world, a trend which has persisted from apartheid through the transition to democracy.

As a survivor of domestic violence, I am relatively lucky. As a child, I was not the main target, only a witness. My scars were “only” psychological. I had a few caring adults in my life who provided some respite and a sense of normalcy.

My mother, sister and I were able, eventually, to safely leave the abuse. Many women are not as fortunate – a 2009 study on female murder rates in South Africa, found that 50% of women who were murdered were killed by an intimate partner.

Mortality rates from intimate partner violence were highest for women of colour aged 14-44.

Why don’t they just leave? This is a question often callously asked about people who suffer at the hands of a violent partner.

On average, a woman will leave her abuser seven times before permanently severing the relationship, but leaving an abuser comes with huge risks. Women who are abused by their partners are most likely to be murdered when they leave.

Research in the USA indicates that up to 75% of femicides – murders of woman by their intimate partners – occur at the point when women leave abusive relationships.

Children of domestic abuse face their own challenges. Even when they are not physically abused, children suffer lingering consequences of living with and witnessing intimate partner violence.

Girls who are physically abused, or witness their mothers being abused, are more likely to partner with violent men or women as adults.

A study conducted in South Africa in 2008 found that around 30 percent of men admitted to abusing a previous or existing wife or partner. This study further found that witnessing or experiencing domestic violence as a child was a significant indicator of becoming an abuser as an adult.

Living with abuse, apart from being life threatening and soul destroying, thus also increases the chances abuse being perpetuated in the next generation of a family.

These are all issues I sought to highlight in the form of fiction, which gave me the liberty of imagining how these people would rationalise and cope with their abuse on an emotional level.

* Barbara Boswell teaches English Literary Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, where she specialises in Black and African women’s literature. Her novel Grace is available from Amazon.com and modjajibooks.co.za

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Remembering Bessie Head at 80


Bessie Head would have turned 80 on July 6, 2017, had she not died prematurely in exile in 1986. In remembrance of her life and work, Mike Siluma of Khaya FM interviewed me about her contribution to African and South African letters. The interview can be heard here . Head remains one of Africa and South Africa’s most beloved writers, who has inspired subsequent generations in their artistry.

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Rest in Power, Miriam Tlali: Author, Enemy of Apartheid and Feminist


First published by The Conversation

Renowned South African author Miriam Masoli Tlali passed away on February 24 2017, aged 83. Born November 11 1933 in Doornfontein, Johannesburg, Tlali was the first black South African woman to publish a novel in English within the country’s borders. She is best known for this work, first published as “Muriel at Metropolitan” in 1975 by Ravan Press.

It was re-issued in 2004 by the title she had preferred from the start, “Between Two Worlds”. Based on her time as an administrative assistant at a furniture store in downtown Johannesburg during the height of apartheid, the novel documents the daily humiliations of petty apartheid. There were two types of apartheid, grand apartheid and the petty version, which the New York Times once described as,

the practice of segregation in the routine of daily life – in lavatories, restaurants, railway cars, busses, swimming pools and other public facilities.

“Muriel at Metropolitan”/“Between Two Worlds” was the first literary text that portrayed the degrading conditions under which African women laboured during apartheid. It highlighted how strict influx control into “white” cities hampered black women’s opportunities for employment and fulfilling family lives.

Tlali hated the original title of her first novel. She agreed to have it published under that name because her mother was close to dying, and she wanted her to see the novel in print before her death. In the preface to “Between Two Worlds”, Tlali recounted that after the novel’s publication:

I returned to my matchbox house in Soweto, locked myself in my little bedroom and cried… Five whole chapters had been removed; also paragraphs, phrases, and sentences. It was devastating, to say the least.

Despite these misgivings, “Muriel at Metropolitan” made a big impact globally. Forty five different editions of the novel were published between 1975 and 2005, with translations into three languages.

Protest literature

Tlali recovered from her devastation, going on to publish the Black Consciousness novel “Amandla” (1980). It was grouped by critics as part of the “Soweto School” of protest literature.

The novel is a rich evocation of the youth uprising against apartheid education and the apartheid state in 1976. Inspired by the uprising and Steve Biko‘s Black Conciousness ideology, it centres around Pholoso, a young freedom fighter who rallies the youth of Soweto against apartheid. He goes on to become part of the underground resistance, eventually going into exile.

Soweto, and its abject relationship to the wealthy Johannesburg, was an enduring concern for Tlali in her fiction. She published “Footprints in the Quag: Stories and Dialogues from Soweto” (also published as “Soweto Stories”), a collection of short stories delving in the experiences of Sowetans (mostly women) in 1989.

She also published a collection of short stories, interviews and essays in “Mihloti” (1984), published by Skotaville Press, which she helped establish. Tlali was also a frequent contributor to the anti-apartheid literary journal “Staffrider”, which she co-founded. The journal was an important vehicle for publishing black literature and criticism during the apartheid years, often the only South African outlet for black creative writing.

Enemy of the state

Because of her stature internationally and the political content of her novels, Tlali became an enemy of the state. Both her novels were immediately banned by apartheid censors. Her political and literary prominence made her a target of the regime’s notorious Security Branch. This dreaded secret police unit repeatedly harassed, arrested and assaulted Tlali as a tactic of intimidation.

When I interviewed her in 2006, Tlali recalled being brutally beaten in her home in Soweto by police on several occasions. During those years, she would wrap her manuscripts-in-progress in plastic shopping bags at the end of each day, and bury them in her back yard to avoid police confiscating them during raids.

Despite this persecution, Tlali never countenanced leaving her beloved Soweto. For her, going into exile was “unthinkable”, though she travelled frequently to take up residencies and teaching opportunities.

She recalled, on her return to South Africa from a residency at Iowa State University, having to smuggle her manuscript off the plane. Police were waiting for her at passport control, ready to seize any politically incendiary material. Tlali gave her manuscript to an American on board the flight while waiting to deplane. She quietly retrieved it from the American embassy at a later date.

She was also resident at Yale University between 1989 and 1990, wrote a play, “Crimen Injuria”, while at a residency in Holland, and was often more recognised internationally than in her own country.

Intersectional feminist

Tlali was an intersectional feminist long before this term was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. Or before intersectional feminist politics was made current in South Africa by the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall student movements.

Her fiction, at first dismissed by literary critics (mostly men) as too descriptive – they say it had an almost stenographic quality. It is the only work of its time and place that systematically dissects the overlap of apartheid racial discrimination and patriarchal oppression. Tlali’s fiction depicted the intersectional nature of African women’s oppression under both of these systems.

She belonged to the National Women’s Coalition, which advocated for the inclusion of women’s rights in South Africa’s constitution in the run-up to the first democratic election in 1994. As a member Tlali had an incisive analysis of women’s oppression, and was a passionate advocate against gender-based violence.

This is a prominent theme in her fiction. Both “Amandla” and “Footprints in the Quag” highlight the occurrence and effects of domestic violence, rape and sexual harassment in the township of Soweto. Yet her women characters are not victims – they fight back, physically or through educating their communities. They carve out for themselves social spaces where they are able to organise against such abuse.

Tlali received numerous awards during her lifetime, most notably, the Presidential Award, the Order of Ikhamanga (Silver) in 2008, as well as a lifetime achievement award from the South African Literary Awards.

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Under the Influence of Miriam Tlali’s Amandla


This is the third in a weekly arts and culture series called “Under the influence”, in which we ask experts to share what they believe are the most influential works in their field. Here, Barbara Boswell, from South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand, introduces Miriam Tlali’s novel “Amandla”.

South African novelist Miriam Tlali‘s “Amandla” is one of a handful of Black Consciousness novels that renders in fiction the June 1976 Soweto uprising.

Published in 1980 by Ravan Press, it was only the second novel authored in English by a black woman to be published within the borders of apartheid South Africa (her 1975 debut, “Muriel at Metropolitan” was the first). Predictably, “Amandla” was banned upon publication.

“Amandla” offers a richly detailed fictional account of the 1976 Soweto uprising, when the township’s youth rose up against the decision to make Afrikaans compulsory as a medium of instruction in black schools. “Amandla” is written from the perspective of a number of young revolutionaries of the time.

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Literary geneaologies: Ntsikana ka Gaba

I am reading the fascinating life story of Ntsikana ka Gaba,(c 1760-1821), praise poet, singer, prophet, and one of the first and most influential Xhosa converts to Christianity in the Eastern Cape. Not only did he translate a number of Christian phrases into isiXhosa, laying the foundation for the Xhosa langauge to be, in the words of AC Jordan, “reduced” to the written form: he also synthesized African and Christian spiritualism to introduce a hybridized Christianity which melded Xhosa culture and tradition with western-imposed Christianity.

Ntsikana was one of the only early followers of Christianity who did not advocate a wholescale rejection of African cultural practices such as polygamy, divination or consultation with ancestors. His world view and Christianity sought to integrate these systems, allowing Xhosa adherents of his Christian theology to retain important parts of their culture. By all accounts, he was one of South Africa’s first liberation theologians: “Ntsikana appropriated Christian symbols and used them to empower black people to direct their own transformation, using an evolutionary model. His work was focused on the reconstruction of the Xhosa culture and religion in order for it to be consistent with his newly found Christian faith.” (R. Smangaliso Kumalo 2014: 30). ter his death in 1821, he left a legacy of hymns in the vernacular, according to AC Jordan, “the earliest legacy of anything ever written by a Xhosa-speaker in Xhosa.” (Jordan 1973: 38). His best known hymns were the “Life Creator” hymn, and “Ulo Thixo omkhulu ngosezulwini”. Kumalo argues that Ntsikana’s life and work holds salient lessons for democratic South Africa, where political and religious discourses are intimately interwoven. Read R. Smangaliso Kumalo’s article here.

Download a free copy of the HSRC Press’s African Intellectuals in the 19th and Early 20th Century South Africa, which contains a chapter on Ntiskana’s life by Vuyani Booi.


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On Violence: Whose Bodies Matter?

Violence is never acceptable.

In a democracy, where legal instruments exist as a remedy to injustice, the use of brute force to seek and maintain power or settle scores is abhorrent and unacceptable.

Yet we live in a country saturated with violence. Violence is in sharp focus as it spills over into the relatively protected enclaves of university campuses, in contestations over access and space. Continue reading

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Lauretta Ngcobo’s feminist contribution to African literature

Lauretta Ngcobo (1931-2015)

Lauretta Ngcobo (1931-2015)

Lauretta Ngcobo’s death has robbed us of a significant literary talent, freedom fighter, and feminist voice.

Born in 1931 in Ixopo in the then Natal Province, Ngcobo was one of three pioneering black South African women writers – the first to publish novels in English from the particular vantage point of black women. Along with Bessie Head and Miriam Tlali, Ngcobo showed the world what it was like to be black and woman in apartheid South Africa.

Where Alan Paton’s  Cry, The Beloved Country (1948) rendered African  women “silent, with the patient suffering of black women, with the suffering of oxen, with the suffering of any that are mute,” Ngcobo, along imagined women characters fully and gloriously human in their complexity.

Her first novel, Cross of Gold, was published in England in 1981, after she had left South Africa as a member of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) for exile first in Swaziland, then Tanzania, and finally, England.  Drawing on her experiences of harassment by the apartheid regime, the novel followed the fate of Mandla, a young political activist whose mother, Sindisiwe, dies in the novel’s first chapter.

Feminist critique that the novel’s only strong women character died too early, forced Ngcobo to reflect on the politics of representation in her work. In a conversation that we had in 2007, Ngcobo reflected that the decision to kill off the character was not intentionally taken:

“I wrote that chapter three times, and every time I came to a point where Sindisiwe was dying. My creativity just snowballed to that end and Sindisiwe died, and I didn’t try anything to save her. The third time she tried to die, she died.”

For Ngcobo, her view of this character’s life was limited by her socialization as a woman: “I had learned earlier that women didn’t count much. They hadn’t got an independent life of their own. When Sindisiwe dies, only her sons can live and go into the cities. Women remained in the rural areas.”

Stung by the criticism around Sindisiwe’s death, Ngcobo set out to write a second novel in which the women would not only survive, but be strong and powerful agents of history. The result was And They Didnt Die (1990), a novel that has staked out a place as an African feminist classic alongside Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood (1979), Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions (1988), Bessie Head’s A Question of Power (1974) and Nawal El Sadaawi’s Woman at Point Zero (1975).

And They Didnt Die is path-breaking in its portrayal of the experiences of a black woman that gives its main character, Jezile, an interiority and a voice rarely seen in South African literature before this novel’s publication.  It is singular in highlighting the damaging, overlapping effects of apartheid and customary law on the lives of African women confined to apartheid Bantustans.

Ngcobo deftly illustrates the ways in which African women are positioned between these two oppressive systems, with devastating effects on their own and children’s lives. The women of the fictional Sigageni district are highly politicized and unlike Sindiswe in Cross of Gold, active. They defy both apartheid and customary laws, at the cost of being imprisoned by one system, and being ostracized by the other.

The main character, Jezile is a highly-conscious narrator, who succinctly analyses her situation as being “trapped between the impositions of customary law, state law and migratory practices.” Once able to identify the sources of her oppression, she is able to act strategically, in concert with other women, to resist and mitigate these oppressive forces. In portraying Jezile’s situation, Ngcobo offered an intersectional feminist analysis of African women’s lives, producing, in effect, a theory of liberation which denied the prioritising of racial liberation over gender liberation.

Writing the powerful character of Jezile became part of Ngcobo’s personal liberation. During our conversation, she reflected:

“I think my own liberation came through this book. Again, I don’t know the moment, but slowly, not only in fact by the time I get to Jezile and Jezile has to go into town, you know the different little steps she takes towards her freedom? There is a point where I think there is a freedom that she grabs for herself. I think that’s a snapping point perhaps not just for my character, but perhaps for me. Because by the time I came to the end of this book, I emerged a different woman.”

Ngcobo was also a cultural activist determined to nurture the talents of other marginalised women writers. In exile, she edited the collection of essays,Let it Be Told: Black Women Writers in Britain (1987), and upon her return to South Africa, Prodigal Daughters: Stories of Women in Exile (2012). She also authored the children’s book, Fikile Learns to Like Other People (1994).

*Originally published by Vanguard Magazine

** Picture courtesy of eThekwini Living Legends

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