Extended Summary

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...

(The entire section is 2179 words.)