Sisonke Msimang’s father fled South Africa and the violent repression of the African National Congress (ANC) in the early 1960s. She was born in Lusaka, Zambia and raised in a family at the centre of a revolutionary community in exile. They were forever moving to yet “another country” – Kenya and Canada were to follow. “…the dream of freedom was a sort of home for us,” she writes. They return to post-Apartheid South Africa in the early 1990s. It’s thrilling at first. But soon, Msimang realises that her absence from the country during the toughest years of struggle alienates her from the experience of other black South Africans. She discovers that it is one thing to be “of” and another to be “from” a country.
Along with belonging, race is a dominant theme of Always Another Country, as it must be in any story originating in South Africa. Her parents subscribe to “non-racialism”. But by the time Msimang is at university in the United States and an old white man hisses “nigger bitch” at her on a bus, she is reading Malcolm X and posting signs warning white students to “Be afraid”. She becomes, by her own admission, “unbearable”, judging her parents to be “slightly naive” in their moderation. Years later, when she falls in love with a white Australian, she struggles afresh with ideas and ideals around race and identity.
An unapologetic feminism, too, is central to Msimang’s experience and analysis. In the end, however, she is forced to come to terms with the central importance of class – to confront her own privilege as a member of the South African middle class.
Msimang is a talented and passionate writer, one possessed of an acerbic intelligence. “I feel,” she says, of her welcome to her American university by a garrulous, well-meaning white boy, “like an allergy-prone child who has been accosted by a friendly Labrador.” If that sounds hard, neither does she spare herself. Yet this memoir is also full of warmth and humour.
Today, Msimang, a widely published commentator on gender, race and politics, lives in Perth with her Australian husband and children. She notes how the “polite white folks” in her neighbourhood seem pleased by her presence: “It adds a bit of chic to their suburb.” Yet their “inquisitive looks remind me that I don’t quite belong here”, even if her children do. Then again: “I am part of a tribe, we who occupy the land of almost-belonging.” CG
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 11, 2018 as "Sisonke Msimang, Always Another Country".
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