Review: Vivien Horler
Always Another Country, by Sisonke Msimang (Jonathan Ball Publishers)
As an immigrant, like I am, you are always just a little torn between the country you come from and the country in which you’ve grown up. Which is home?
The Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole says one way of resolving this dilemma is to ask yourself where you’d like to be buried? (He said in that context, Lagos was certainly not home – you’d get no RIP there.)
Sisonke Msimang is the child of exiles. She grew up in Lusaka, Nairobi and in Ottawa in Canada. But home was always South Africa, the place of the dream, where apartheid would be vanquished by heroes in the ANC, and there would be peace and freedom and belonging. The country she imagined as a child was a crucible from which a more dignified and just humanity would emerge.
As we all know, it has not turned out quite like that. Or as Msimang says, today we stand in a country that is free but not just, and she has enormous difficulty accepting this.
Her father was an ANC cadre who fled the country in the 1960s, and who married a young Swazi woman who was studying in Lusaka. They had three daughters, all born free, and lived heads-up and confident within a tightknit community of other ANC exiles. When the children played skipping games, they would chant: “One!” Jump. “Day!” Jump. “We!” Jump. “Will!” Jump. “All!” Jump. “Be!” Jump. “Freeeee!”
Sisonke is smart and does well. Good schools lead to college in the United States. She and her sisters are children of privilege. They were, she writes, the post-colonial children of the elite, “those whose parents’ hearts were filled with dreams – we carried the vision of a decolonised future in our smiles”
But they lose out, too. When they eventually arrive in the land of the dream, when Sisonke is 16, they discover South Africa is not exactly home. They are barely able to speak their “home” languages of Zulu and SiSwati, but do speak polished English. They stand out. Their grandfather, aunts and uncles and cousins are strangers.
And when she goes to college in Minnesota she is no longer one of the middle class African elite. She is just a black girl. She becomes angry, and gets angrier. She becomes something of an activist. She is scornful not only of whites, but of other Africans like her, studying in America, smiling and anxious to do well. She is, she says, full of judgment and righteousness. Having always admired her parents’ attitude of non-racialism, she begins to think they are naïve, people who “have been duped by whiteness”. She becomes “unbearable”.
So imagine the conversation when, during a holiday back in South Africa, Sisonke goes with her family to a guest house in the Drakensberg, where her favourite breakfast of mdogo – sour porridge – is served. She compliments the landlady on the dish, and the woman responds: “It’s wonderful, isn’t it? My Zulu made it.”
Eventually, after a disastrous love affair in the US, Sisonke graduates, heads back to South Africa and lands a job with the Australian high commission. And there she meets an Australian called Simon and they fall in love. He is 10 years older than she is, has children and is white. This is a major stumbling block.
How can he understand black suffering, a white boy who grew up on the beach in Perth? She doesn’t know much about suffering herself, but that realisation only comes later. They break up.
Later they marry, have two children and settle in a leafy Johannesburg suburb. One day, when their little daughter is out with Nikki, her nanny, they are held up in the street by a gun-wielding mugger who threatens to shoot them both.
Suddenly Sisonke feels “like all those whites we have been mocking for years – the ones who have fled to Australia and Canada and the UK and who Facebook obsessively about South Africa’s horrors”.
There are also problems with Nikki, who is eventually fired. Despairing, Sesonke sees herself as just another madam in Emmerentia. She may be more of an exile than she thought. She has to learn, she understands, how to manage her privilege.
As a white woman in South Africa I know I am privileged and that my son, who was just two when Nelson Mandela was released, has been privileged too. That is part of the white liberal narrative in South Africa; what makes Msimang’s book unusual and thought-provoking is that here is a black woman who is also privileged, and has to come to terms with that.
She also has to come to terms with her relationship with the ANC, a movement that was once home, was once “in her blood”. But now she realises, as the party’s politics worsen, the ANC is not in her blood, just in her memory.
And her mother’s legacy, writes Sisonke, is that it is “open hearts, not closed fists, that would help us navigate the world”.
This book provides an important, thoughtful and often lyrically readable insight into a South African life.
- This review was also published in Weekend Argus on Sunday on July 22, 2018.