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book cover of always another country by sisonke msimang

Always another country

Sisonke Msimang was born in exile in the 1970s. She is the daughter of South African resistance fighter Mavuso Walter Msimang, who had to leave his country ten years earlier. At the time, South Africa was still firmly in the grip of apartheid. Always Another Country is Sisonke Msimang’s autobiography, in which she portrays her life as strongly influenced by the attitude of political exiles and the frequent moves of her family to different continents. In an extremely self-critical narrative voice, Msimang recounts the contradictions she had to – and also wanted to – learn to live with.

The book is chronological, and the detailed descriptions of her childhood in Lusaka, Ottawa, and Nairobi, as well as her studies and first love in Saint Paul, Minnesota, serve to explain how she became the person she is as an adult. It took me a while to get into the book, but it is eye-opening to read to what extent the political elite in exile – as well as their children, who had never set foot in the country – identify with the idea of a free South Africa. Msimang becomes a cosmopolitan, experiencing moments as an outsider both in other African countries and in North America, but on the other hand she gains enriching perspectives. She becomes particularly passionate about Black American thinkers during her studies – from Malcom X to bell hooks and Audre Lorde.

Eventually, apartheid ends and in the 1990s Msimang’s family moves to South Africa. There, Msimang’s father becomes one of the first Black CEOs, and her mother also distinguishes herself in the returnee community, becoming “Entrepreneur of the Year” and “Woman of the Year.” Msimang always portrays herself as more radical than her parents because she is so absorbed in the theories of her studies. But she often fails in the question of how to live a radical life with a clear conscience.

Msimang observes the gaps that are opening up in the “new South Africa” – not only between Black and white, but also among Black people. She and her sisters speak perfect English but less well isiZulu or seSotho. For this reason alone, they are often perceived as arrogant. Thanks to their education and experiences abroad, all doors are open to them, which is far from being the case for all Black South Africans. Msimang is concerned about appropriate ways of dealing with her privileges. When she starts a job in the development sector, she meets Simon, a white Australian, and falls in love. This relationship adds even more to her critical self-questioning. I don’t want to give it all away here, but the book explores the question of whether the history of racism and apartheid makes such a relationship impossible.

The book is complex and shows how personal the political is. It is also in some ways a sad document of how hope in a free country soon turns into disillusionment. Msimang criticizes the new political leaders of South Africa: their egos are too big and they are too power hungry. Finally, she realizes that home is not bound to a place – South Africa – but depends on people. Today she lives in Australia, though her heart is still closely tied to South African politics. I look forward to reading Msimang’s second book soon, a biography of activist and politician Winnie Mandela.

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