The Scotsman

“South Africa is a new country, one that is ordinary and disappoint­ing”

A child of exiled ANC activists, Sisonke Msimang grew up believing in the dream of a perfect post-apartheid South Africa. The reality and painful truth, the author says in her memoir, is that the country is free but not just


One winter’s morning in 1962, in South Africa, in anger and exhausted by the condition of being black, a young man joins an illegal army. The following year, he slips out of the country. The year after this, his leader Nelson Mandela is captured and tried for sabotage. In that trial, Mandela faces a life sentence but his bravery does not flag. Instead he rises to the occasion and utters the famous words ‘I am the first accused’, and the world takes note as it watches an African man stand firm in the face of almostcert­ain death.

By the time Mandela appears before the judge to answer to sabotage charges in 1963 – by the time he has said he is prepared to die for the struggle against white domination – the young man who will one day be my father has fled the country and has already been in Russia for a year, learning how to shoot a gun and decipher Morse code.

Like other recruits, he leaves without saying goodbye to his parents or his cousins or his best friend. He wakes up, after months of careful and near-solitary planning, and disappears into the mist. A decade later, he is in Lusaka. After leaving the Patrice Lumumba Friendship University in Moscow, he goes to Tanzania where he works alongside other comrades to establish a military base. He travels to Guinea-bissau and stands alongside Amílcar Cabral’s forces staring down the Portuguese on the frontlines. By the time he reaches Lusaka, the man is no longer so young and has seen friends die. He meets a pretty young Swazi woman who is pursuing her studies. That woman becomes his wife and, eventually, my mother.

She loves him, although she is ambivalent about his revolution. She is smart enough to mistrust wolves in revolution­ary clothing but wise enough only to air her scepticism in private.

Together Mummy and Baba travel the world. My sisters and I are born in the 1970s, when my parents live in Zambia, where the African National Congress (ANC) has its headquarte­rs. From there we move to Kenya, and then to Canada, then back to Kenya and after that there is a brief stint in Ethiopia. Eventually, after Nelson Mandela is released from prison in 1990, we come home.

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. We are raised on a diet of communist propaganda and schooled in radical Africanist discourse, in the shadows of our father’s hope and our mother’s practicali­ty.

South Africa is now free 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 every one of us 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. We knew South Africa was a complicate­d and brutal place and not just a country for dreamers, but this did not stop us from dreaming.

Today, South Africa is politicall­y adrift. Many of us – the ones who went into exile, the ones who were imprisoned, the ones who lost loved ones to the bullets of the white minority regime – are unsure about our place in the country, and uncertain of South Africa’s role in the world.

People used to point to South Africa to demonstrat­e that good can triumph over evil. We used to be proud of ourselves. Today, suffering and poverty – once noble – are not only commonplac­e (they have always been), but acceptable. We no longer rage against them. We have come to look past the pain of black people because it is now blacks who are in charge. The wretchedne­ss of apartheid is ostensibly over, so the suffering of blacks, under the rule of

My idols have been smashed and I have been bewildered and often deeply wounded by their conduct

other blacks, is somehow less sinister – which does not change the fact of its horror.

So, here we are: Nelson Mandela is dead and so are a whole raft of great women and men who stood for and embodied a more just humanity.

In their place is a new country, one that is ordinary and disappoint­ing even as it has its moments of startling and shiny brilliance. The South Africa I had imagined as a child was a place of triumph, a crucible out of which a more dignified and just humanity would emerge.

And yet here we stand in a South Africa that is free but not just. For me, this is perhaps the most difficult fact of all to accept. It is hard to say, but

I am coming to understand that perhaps it is true – that heroism is impossible to sustain during ordinary times.

When the guns died down and the smoke cleared we discovered we were not exceptiona­l. I have always been a believer and the thing that I have believed in more than anything else has been South Africans’ ability to triumph over apartheid.

I have not had much of a faith in God, but I have been guided by a belief in humanity – in the leadership of the ANC, in my parents, in the collective of South Africans of all races to be better than their circumstan­ces dictated. I believed in all these things until apartheid ended and, if I am to be honest, even though the past two decades have been disappoint­ing in many ways, I am grateful that my wideeyed wonder has been tested. For what is life if we live it only in a dreamlike state, believing what we are told and not knowing what is there in plain sight for us to see? In South Africa, the past 20 years have taught me that some people are complicate­d, that they will disappoint you and that you will love them still.

It has taught me that some people are unrepentan­t and will never be sorry and that there is a place for them here, too, because history tells us grace is more important than righteousn­ess; that uneasy peace is better than war. In spite of what it stole from me – many of the securities usually associated with home, my ability to speak my mother tongue, access to aunts and cousins and nephews and neighbours whom I may have been able to call friends – exile was my parents’ greatest gift.

Still, reft of a physical place in this world I could call home, exile made me love the idea of South Africa. I was bottle-fed the dream: that South Africa was not simply about nonraciali­sm and equality, it was about something much more profound.

When you are a child who grows up in exile as I did, when you are a refugee or a migrant, or someone whose path is not straightfo­rward, you quickly learn that belonging is conjunctiv­e: you will only survive if you master the words ‘if ’, ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘either’ and ‘both’.

I grew up believing in heroes, so the past decade of watching the moral decline of the political party to which I owe much of who I am has been hard. My idols have been smashed and I have been bewildered and often deeply wounded by their conduct. Like all of us trying to find our way in South Africa, I am piecing myself back together so that never again will I feel I need a hero.

 ??  ?? Author Sisonke Msimang, main; with veteran antiaparth­eid activist and politician Lindiwe Mabuza, above right
Author Sisonke Msimang, main; with veteran antiaparth­eid activist and politician Lindiwe Mabuza, above right
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 ??  ?? ● Sisonke Msimang is a South African author and activist, now living in Australia.Her memoir, AlwaysAnot­her Country, is published by World Editions,£11.99, out now
● Sisonke Msimang is a South African author and activist, now living in Australia.Her memoir, AlwaysAnot­her Country, is published by World Editions,£11.99, out now

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