Miriam Tlali was born in Doornfontein, Johannesburg in 1933 and grew up in Sophiatown. Tlali enrolled at the University of Witwatersrand, but was not admitted due to the reservation of positions for white students. She later went to University of Lesotho (then called Pius the XII University ), at Roma, but could not complete her studies due to financial difficulties. It was her employment as a bookkeeper at a Johannesburg furniture store that prompted her to write her first novel, Muriel at Metropolitan. Completed in 1969, the book was only published in 1975, and subsequently banned in 1979. Tlali was co-founder and a contributor of Staffrider magazine, which aimed at providing an outlet for anti-apartheid creative writing by blacks and penned a regular column, “Soweto Speaking”. Amandla, a novel based on the 1976 Soweto riots, was published in 1980. It was well-received and sold a remarkable successful 5 000 copies in a few weeks, but was banned immediately thereafter. Both novels were translated into several other languages, including Dutch, Japanese, Polish and German. They were unbanned in 1986. Tlali wrote a play, Crimen Injuria, whilst on scholarship in the Netherlands, and it was presented both in Holland and the USA. Mihloti is a collection of short stories, interviews and non-fiction and was published in 1984 by Skotaville Press, a black publishing house of which she was the founding member. Footprints in the Quag was published initially as Soweto Stories by Pandora Press in 1989.
Tlali was a visiting scholar at the Southern African Research Program at Yale University between 1989 and 1990. In 2001, she was honoured as the first African woman to publish a novel in South Africa by the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology. In 2005, she was again honoured by the Department as a recipient of their Literary Lifetime Achievement Award. As a member of the Women’s National Coalition, she assisted in drafting the Preamble to the South African Women’s Charter.