The book to read is not the one that thinks for you, but the one that makes you think.
DIANE DE BEER
Always Another Country – A Memoir of Exile and Home by Sisonke Msimang (Jonathan Ball Publishers):
If this book proves one thing, it’s the difficulty of navigating a life in this country. Yet, that’s also what makes living in South Africa so exciting and invigorating. We are always being challenged to grow and expand in every way we can.
And if you take Msimang’s credentials on face value, you could automatically accept that in today’s world, in this time and in this country, she has it made. It’s exactly that which she grapples with and what makes it so intriguing. This is a real life filled with hopes and dreams and expectations and armed with all the values she thought would get her through this life.
The cover guides you into the story as it explains that she writes about her exile childhood in Zambia, Kenya and Canada, her college years in the US, and then returning to South Africa in the 1990s. The road seems already travelled but on a purely superficial level.
It also depends on where you stand, young or old, black or white, man or woman, all of these might influence your reading. What you can be sure of is that she will surprise you and take you on a journey of one woman’s hopes and dreams in a country that has taught us all lessons and always will. No resting for the wicked here –it’s the challenge that this country has given us.
Msimang didn’t have it easy even if it sounds like she did. Her parents were in exile, but they also didn’t have typical exile lives (if that even exists.) Her father, a South African black man who fled his country even before the Rivonia Trials, spent 10 years being trained and fighting as a soldier for the cause. In Lusaka, the closest he has been to his country of birth in 10 years, he meets a Swazi woman who is pursuing her studies and becomes his wife. She loves him, but she is ambivalent about his revolution.
“My sisters and I are freedom’s children, born into the ANC and nurtured within a revolutionary community whose sole purpose is to fight apartheid…On the playground we cradle imaginary AK-47s in our skinny arms and instead of Cops and Robbers, we play Capitalists and Cadres,” writes Msimang.
And if like me you are old and white, you will know how far removed from your world that game was at that time. That’s precisely what makes this such a compulsive read. As someone who grew up schooled in this fashion, living this life outside the borders of the country her family calls its own, once she returns with all life’s experiences part of who she is, what does she make of her country?
This is a place many were taught never to question, never to doubt and then reality sets in. But not just the reality of what some see as a crumbling ANC on different levels, also a country that having now put apartheid behind them, has the opportunity to fashion a brave new world. It’s a story about the obvious and the unexpected.
Msimang’s informative years are unique. She may have benefited from privileges many were denied in her country, but racism doesn’t need oppressive laws to thrive. Think Trump and his ascendancy and what that has meant for African Americans; or Europe’s reaction to refugees streaming into their countries.
She has experienced that, so what happened when returning to South Africa would not have been completely unexpected. And yet for many it was the hope – rainbow children and all those heady dreams and expectations. “South Africa is now free,” she writes about those early days, “and those of us who care about the country are coming to see that the dream of freedom was a sort of home for us. It was a castle we built in the air and inside its walls everyone was a hero. When we first returned from exile the castle stayed firmly in our mind’s eye. We told ourselves we were special, and we sought to build a rainbow nation.” Remember those early days of our young democracy when those kinds of sentiments would not have been out of place.
Even in 2010, the country again reached for that dream and what they thought could be achieved with the euphoria of the sporting world’s love and attention – but sadly it would not last. And like those shattered dreams, Msimang has had to take a step back, re-evaluate her hopes for this homecoming and plan her life accordingly. We can dream a world we want to live in, but this is seldom what we will get. Sometimes it’s neither better or worse – just different.
That’s is how she views her world and then decides to shape it. And that is what you will find when dipping into this extraordinary African adventure. With her earlier life, she had already faced many curve balls, and she was not going to buckle if everything didn’t go her way. She has a clearer view than many about her world, will fight against injustice with every fibre of her being and then tackle the road ahead.
Much of what unfolds in this story is unexpected and contributes to the final rewards of a life reassessed in a world that doesn’t always turn out the way you expect it to – and yet, sometimes it takes you down roads that open up unexpected and unexplored vistas that contribute richly to an already extraordinary life. It’s about grabbing and holding on to the moment – and when you have fought this hard, waited this long and lived the lives of others simply by being a child, that is your natural way of being.
Telling stories in this country adds texture and knowledge as we learn about the lives of people who inhabit our world yet were forced to live in specific way not of their choice. But then they also push on and turn everything on its head.