There is a quiet anguish between the pages. A love letter to a mother. A poke at nosy neighbours. An epistle to a nation still searching. A caution via an exhaustive personal examination; a tapering of self.
Some weeks ago, I prodded Sisonke Msimang, the activist, thinker, columnist and now author, to send me Always Another Country, her first book, before it hit the shelves. I wanted first dibs.
Ever so courteous and kind, and despite the warnings of her publisher, Sisonke sent me a final draft, but also let me know that she was nervous. Nervous of what? I wondered.
It was only after I started my pilgrimage between the pages of her book that I began to understand, even if only a little, why the contents would cause her some trepidation.
Always Another Country is the story of Msimang, as a child of the revolution, growing up in exile in neighbouring Zambia and Kenya, adulting and rebelling in Canada and the US, and returning, with elation to Mandela’s new country, which after a while, began to crack, slip and slide.
As a deeply personal account of a waiting and a longing for life and freedom enveloped in finally returning home, it is second to none. And Msimang manages to marry the romance of revolutionary politics: A life of voracious music, and lusty drinking, intellectual rap battles over revolving dinner tables of fighters, artists and thinkers who refused to be oppressed with the streaks of loneliness and disconsolation of a war without end.
As Msimang puts it in a text dripping with gingerish one-liners: “In the Lusaka of my childhood it was perfectly plausible that we could go to outer space under our own steam.”
Her memories are vivid, lucid. You can smell the fried kapenta fish in Woodlands, Lusaka, and hear the judgement in the never-ending stream of gossip by neighbours. You can feel Gogo Lindi’s tender, albeit peculiar, affection and Mummy’s steely resolve; what the world might be if all young girls would inherit the fortitude of female elders. The cloud of odorous dust emanating from President Daniel Moi’s motorcade as it whizzes past with pride through Nairobi will dry your lips.
Later, when Msimang moves to Canada as an adolescent and is called an “African monkey”, you live her grief. A little girl being dragged across the ends of the Earth in search of home is clearly not enough. She must also carry a reminder of her humanity wherever she goes.
And still she dances between the pages, moving effortlessly between personal reflection and the prose of history and context. Msimang is self-aware, at once well acquainted with her sensuality, attentive of her mastery over language, ideas and philosophy and still so unsure of her footprint. To the revolution back home, she is both observer and insider, neither irrelevant nor requisite. The wheels will turn anyway.
When I wrote Zuma’s Bastard, almost a decade ago, it was the story of South Africa through the lens of a (rather foolish) brown youngster who enjoyed no umbilical cord to the revolutionary politics of the ANC or the movement against apartheid. I held no allegiance to the ANC, unlike my elders.
Likewise, in 2014, the so-called born frees, with no sense of allegiance to party or politics, were expected to take centre stage during the country’s fifth presidential election. But less than 25% of born frees registered to vote. They, it turned out, had no trust in our hard-earned democracy.
Like me, many born frees had no idea what it meant to grow up in a house where the ANC could well be the difference between life and death, where the universal suffrage was the difference between “us” and “them”.
It is from within this vortex of millennial skulduggery that makes Msimang’s story such an urgent read. It is easy to castigate the ANC (and it deserves it) but what does it mean to disown that which helped emancipate you? How do you invalidate the lyrics of freedom that once brought you solace? And what if the freedom it bequeathed was yours, and only yours. Msimang’s lens is a sobering reflection.
There is too little written about and by the children of revolutionaries whose dreams were deferred by a machinery outside their control. Even less has been written by those prepared to leave it all.
Msimang was born in Zambia, the headquarters of the ANC during apartheid. Hers was a life that drifted, like Palestinians and Kurds do today, between statelessness and the privilege of living "free lives" outside; they are armed to the teeth with the vision of a future of a freedom that must come. They carry a burden of expectation and entitlement that only children of exile can relate to.
But Msimang does not attempt to fawn herself with a bravery of being a child born in exile. She flaunts only the expectation of returning to build home in the vision of her parents’ sacrifice.
She is also mindful that the fight against injustice wails beyond large calls for a societal shift.
It is, however, in the latter half of Always Another Country that her honesty takes an audacious and provoking, even uncomfortable turn.
Msimang returns from exile, after Madiba is released, to take up home in a Johannesburg suburb. She marries a white man and becomes part of a system that she once loathed. Apartheid was over, but a different South Africa had not yet been born.
“The house makes me complicit. Suddenly I own shares in South Africa Inc, and my participation makes me anxious it places us firmly in the heart of whiteness.”
Despite her better self, she becomes a white liberal madam, who spoils “the help” with “kindness”. She attempts to compensate and fails. She finds herself trapped in an endless circle of trauma: suburban crime and xenophobic violence. The massacre at Marikana tests her resolve and faith for a country she is desperate to call home.
There is no shortage of literature about post-apartheid South Africa and the dystopia to come. The How Long Will South Africa Survive, The Looming Crisis, When Zuma Goes and We Have Now Begun Our Descent are little more than different slogans for well-trodden discussions.
I wish to inform you then that Always Another Country is not one of those books. You always get the sense that unlike the rest, Msimang has something to lose from the words crafted on the pages. There is nothing dispassionate nor clinical about her analysis of state, family, community or self. There is a quiet anguish between the pages. It is personal. And it must be read.
* Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also co-founding editor at The Daily Vox.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.