Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2179
Miriam’s Song, by Mark Mathabane, describes the life of the author’s sister, Miriam Mathabane, as she grew up in a South African slum called Alexandra. Miriam was born to a poor black family in 1969, at the height of South Africa’s racially oppressive apartheid regime. She came of age in the 1980s amid violent antiapartheid protests.
The preface to Miriam’s Song is an impassioned critique of Bantu education, the deliberate policy of inferior education for black South Africans, who were called "Bantus" by apartheid leaders. Hendrik Verwoerd, the man who designed the Bantu education system, maintained that it was pointless to teach black children high-level skills:
What is the use of teaching a Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice?...Education must train and teach people in accordance with their opportunities in life.
Under apartheid, schools enforced tribalism to keep black South Africans from unifying against their white oppressors. Schools prepared students for jobs as servants and unskilled laborers, teaching them mainly to be clean and obedient and to accept brutal punishment.
In the opening scene of Miriam’s Song, six-year-old Miriam is beaten by a teacher for failing to have her fingernails neatly trimmed. The book is filled with such examples of corporal punishment. Miriam is often whipped when her parents cannot afford to pay her school fees or buy her the proper uniform as well as for other problems she cannot control. Many of her school’s requirements are not only brutal but also humiliating. For example, teachers inspect the girls’ underwear and whip those who do not keep their undergarments clean or whose parents cannot afford to buy underwear at all.
At Miriam’s school, students learn basic reading and writing skills by rote. They are whipped when they give wrong answers, perform poorly on tests, or fall asleep from hunger. Many students faint frequently. When a child faints, he or she is carried outside and placed in the shade of a tree until he or she wakes up. One of Miriam’s only advantages at school is that she gets help from her older brother, Johannes (the author of the book, who is known later in his life as Mark).
Miriam becomes a Christian early in life when her mother consults a priest for help and shortly afterward gets a job that helps her feed her family. Miriam and her mother both regard this as a miracle of God’s intervention. Miriam begins saying the following prayer every night:
God, let Mama and Papa always have jobs.
God, let us always have food.
God, keep the horrible police away from our house.
God, let me get a new pair of shoes.
God, let the mistress stop beating me.
At home, Miriam’s family rarely has enough to eat. When the children get food, the oldest child at home eats most of it, leaving the younger children with little food. Miriam’s father regularly goes out drinking and gambling at night. Whenever he is out of money, he comes home and demands the money his wife is saving for food and school fees for the family. If she refuses to give it to him, he beats her or locks her outside in the cold.
The Christmas Miriam is seven years old, her mother has regular work and is able to buy new outfits for Miriam and two of her sisters. Her mother also buys school books, school supplies, and even shoes for Miriam. Miriam’s father is angry, saying his wife is wasting money. He stops sharing his wages with her, and Miriam’s mother is forced to feed and educate the children on her wages alone.
Until Miriam is eight years old, there is little black resistance to the apartheid laws that keep their lives so bleak. On June 16, 1976, all that changes. The older students stage a protest that results in police violence and rioting. Miriam’s teachers let her class out early, telling the children to run quickly home. Miriam’s oldest siblings join the protests while she and her other young siblings run through tear gas, frightened by the sound of gunshots, to their mother. Schools close for months, and many children—including some Miriam knows—are murdered by police.
When school resumes, Miriam becomes the enemy of a girl named Amanda. Amanda fights and steals; she even takes money she knows is vital for her classmates’ survival. One day while playing, Miriam finds some money. Amanda accuses Miriam of stealing it, and Miriam gets in trouble. Later Miriam finds money again, but when Amanda tries the same trick a second time, Miriam outsmarts her, vindicates herself, and gets to keep the money for her own family.
Miriam’s brother Johannes, a star student and tennis athlete, completes his high school education. He wants to go to college in America, but in the meantime he gets a job at a bank. As a high school graduate, he earns ten times what his parents earn combined. He pays all the family’s expenses, and Miriam’s mother considers it an answer to her prayers. One day, however, Johannes receives a letter from America inviting him to go to attend an American college. When he leaves, the family is thrust back into poverty.
When Johannes is gone, Miriam’s mother loses her sanity. She is hospitalized for several months, but that does not help. Eventually Miriam’s grandmother takes Mama away to a rural area, where she is treated according to tribal custom. While she is away, Miriam’s father drinks and gambles even more. The family rarely has food to eat. Miriam, now thirteen, considers dropping out of school to get a job, but one of her sisters convinces her to keep studying. After a year’s absence, Mama returns home, cured. She believes she went mad because she was bewitched by a neighbor.
Miriam’s family receives few letters from Johannes because the government confiscates them. Johannes has begun speaking out against apartheid in America, and the family knows the government wants to punish him. Mama says it is good that Johannes is speaking out, even if he is killed, because the world should know the truth about what is happening to black South Africans.
Miriam begins teaching Mama to read because Mama wants to read the Bible and write to Johannes. Mama wants Miriam to be a teacher when she grows up, but Miriam refuses. She wants to become a nurse. She hates teachers for the brutal punishments they mete out on the students. One day in class, Miriam is so hungry she is afraid she will faint and fail a test. She begs her classmate to share part of an orange. For this she is severely whipped. On several occasions, her teachers extort money from the students, threatening whippings if the kids do not pay.
Miriam’s older sister Maria gets pregnant and has to drop out of school. After the baby is born, Mama wants Maria to go back to school, but Maria is too ashamed. Miriam finds this sad. She vows to stay in school and avoid boys. More than anything, she wants to finish school and become a nurse.
In 1983, Bishop Desmond Tutu wins the Nobel Peace Prize, and Miriam and her family realize that the world knows about the struggles of black South Africans. In their neighborhood, strikes are becoming common again and often lead to violence. Alexandra is occupied by the military to keep it under control.
In spite of the upheaval, Miriam maintains her focus on doing well in school. She works hard in her final year of elementary school and manages to make it to high school. She loves Alexandra High, although she is frustrated that Bantu education prevents her from studying the sciences.
Miriam has little desire to leave school and join antiapartheid protests, which she knows regularly lead to massacres by police. However, the protestors, called Comrades, leave her little choice. One day in 1985, several teenage Comrades at Alexandra High forcibly close Miriam’s school and lead students to the streets. Miriam and her friends join the protests because they know that antiapartheid leaders often attack black neighbors who appear sympathetic to the white government. Miriam is reluctant at first, but she soon gets swept up in the protest, singing songs of defiance and helping to loot a Coca-Cola truck.
The next day, Miriam and her friends try to go back to school, but it is closed. Once again, the Comrades force her to go out and participate in the rioting. Miriam’s loyalties are torn. On one hand, she believes in antiapartheid ideals. On the other, she wants to go to school and avoid violence. In the end, she joins the protests because the Comrades threaten or kill anyone who is suspected of collaborating with white people. They come door to door and demand that Miriam and her siblings come out to join their rebellion. Meanwhile, the police outlaw large gatherings and often end up shooting into rioting crowds.
When school finally resumes in January 1986, students are accustomed to protesting and violence; they are aware of their power as a group. The Comrades demand that the teachers pass everyone on to the next class. Miriam is glad not to have to repeat a year of school, but she is also worried because she knows she will be tested on the material she has missed.
The return to relative normalcy does not last long. A security guard kills a black child in Miriam’s neighborhood, and Miriam attends the funeral. As mourners gather, police arrive and tear gas the crowd. Once again the neighborhood plunges into a state much like war. Several of Miriam’s friends are arrested and tortured by police.
At one of the protests, Miriam meets a boy named Sabelo who claims to hate violence as much as she does. At first she is afraid to trust him, but slowly she begins to think he is okay. One night when they are at a protest that is stormed by police, she hides with him in his house, where he rapes her.
The violence fades slightly, and schools reopen again. Miriam, however, realizes she is pregnant. Miriam’s parents treat her pregnancy as a betrayal, but she promises to get a job and finish school after the baby is born. She take a year off from school, works hard, and saves money to pay for her hospital fees, but her brother George steals the money. He also steals money from their mother’s bank account.
In America, Johannes has published a book, Kaffir Boy, about life for black South Africans under apartheid. He sends the family money, which helps Miriam when she gives birth to her son, Sibusiso. Johannes invites the family to visit him in America and go on the Oprah Winfrey Show, but Miriam is not able to get a passport in time because she thinks her new baby cannot go on a plane. Her father and her sister Maria stay behind as well, but Mama goes to America with Miriam’s grandmother and her other siblings. When Mama returns, Miriam finds out that three of her other siblings remained in America to go to school. She is devastated that her pregnancy prevented her from doing the same.
Miriam resolves to finish her high school education and hopes that she and Sibusiso will be able to join Johannes in America. Girls with babies are often prevented from going to school, so Miriam lies to her teachers to prevent them from finding out why she missed a year. She has trouble being a mother and a student at the same time, but Mama and Sabelo both help. In spite of her challenges, Miriam continues to do well in school.
Slowly, the political situation in South Africa begins to change. In 1990, President F. W. de Klerk announces the dismantling of apartheid laws. Nelson Mandela, an antiapartheid leader, is freed after twenty-seven years of imprisonment. Miriam is hopeful about her future, but her school continues to close periodically as violence breaks out.
Miriam remains in a relationship with Sabelo, the boy who raped her and fathered her child. One night when she is studying for exams, he arrives at her house. He is drunk and beats her so badly her eyes are swollen shut. Afterward, he is embarrassed by her appearance. To prevent anyone from seeing her, he locks her up and refuses to let her go out to take her final exams. She is forced to repeat a year of school because of it. However, she perseveres and eventually gains her high school diploma.
Johannes is thrilled that Miriam managed to graduate in spite of all her challenges. He agrees to pay for Miriam and Sibusiso to go to America so Miriam can study nursing. As the book ends, Miriam and Sibusiso are boarding a plane to the United States, unsure but hopeful about what awaits them on the other end of their journey.