Sisonke Msimang on exile and home, hatred and belonging


ANDREW LEIGH, HOST: Sisonke Msimang describes herself and her sisters as born in exile, and says that they spent their whole lives making your way and making our way back home. Always Another Country chronicles her journey from South Africa through Zambia, Kenya, Canada, the United States, back to South Africa, Mozambique and finally to Australia. It's strong, punchy and funny. confronting the reader with a sense of the complexities of race and identity. At a time when many around the world are seeking to create racial divisions. It carries an urgency and a sense of wisdom that's sorely needed. Sisonke has written for a range of international publications, including the new york times the Washington Post's The Guardian, Newsweek, and Al Jazeera.

Okay, I want to start off with your father, who was the reason that you left South Africa. What was it that led him to become a freedom fighter for the ANC?

SISONKE MSIMANG, AUTHOR ALWAYS ANOTHER COUNTRY: So thank you, Andrew. And thank you, everyone. It's wonderful to see people out. I'm always surprised when people actually show up to anything that I'm addressing. So thanks. So my father left South Africa, just as Nelson Mandela was being sent to Robben Island park, part of the reason why the trees and trialists were sent were ultimately convicted and sent to Robben Island was because they had been a decision taken by the African National Congress, that the fight against racism needed to take another front it needed they needed to take up arms. So my father joins this new Revolutionary Army called and controversies where, and when our ambassadors, father and other men, including Nelson Mandela, are sentenced to Robben Island, a small cohort of young men leave the country and go and get military training. And so in some ways, my my own personal history is very bound up in the idea of Nelson Mandela, and those men who went to Robben Island.

LEIGH: And they got the training in Moscow, which is a detail I'd sort of forgotten the relationship between Russia and the ANC.

MSIMANG: Right. It was the time before it was Russia, when it was still the USSR. There'll be a few grey haired people who are old enough to remember that time.

LEIGH: So he was trained as as a freedom fighter? What I guess some people would at the time referred to as a terrorist. But you describe him as such a gentle figure in your lives, there's there's no no sense that you get in, you know, in your description of your of your father of him being an angry or a violent person.

MSIMANG: Look, I think the thing about apartheid was that it made decent people, militant, it made people who were opposed to oppression, do things that they ordinarily wouldn't have. And so those who left South Africa left for reasons of of justice, and so my father was certainly not an angry or, or particularly gruff guy, as most of the Freedom Fighters weren't. He went to Russia. He studied Morse code and intelligence communications, they did learn how to shoot guns. He then went to Tanzania and spend time in Tanzania building the camp that was became more Goro in the 1960s saw a little bit of action that he rarely talks about. They don't they don't, they weren't. They don't talk. They never talked about that stuff.

And by the time my sisters and I came along, they were in love. My father had made his way to Lusaka, which was the headquarters of the African National Congress at the time because the ANC was band, a band organisation. And so the community that we then grow up in is this really eclectic cosmopolitan You know, group of people who are I think I described them in the book as first, you know, there was the first black nuclear physicist and the first black person to have ever lived in Norway and the first, you know, and then come back obviously, very quickly. So it was really a very, our childhood was full of politics, and the idea of revolution in its best sense, in the sense of revolution as aspiration as freedom as Justice.

LEIGH: And part of that shaking up seems to be in the shaking up of traditional gender roles. You speak about these extraordinary cadre of powerful women that you you grew up around?

MSIMANG: Absolutely, I think it was like in the 1970s was full of many of the children who had had left South Africa and the second wave. So there was a first wave, which was in the 1960s. And then there was a second wave of people who left after June 1976. And so it was one of those upbringings where

LEIGH: That’s Soweto?

MSIMANG: Yes, the Soweto uprisings and massacre. And so in 1976, then this new wave of people that never really stopped, ah started leaving South Africas, so they were young, and many of them had attitude, and they were loud. And they were, and would you would be kicked out of your bed because of someone else coming home. So it was always busy, always noisy, but very much an environment in which I grew up where women could do and be anything. The idea that an African woman couldn't carry a gun was ridiculous. The idea that an African woman couldn't be dainty was ridiculous. The idea that an African were so African women were everything, because that's the environment that I grew up in. So it was probably atypical. But African women in lots of contexts, do lots of things.

LEIGH: So there's lots of wonderful people in there in this book, but one that really caught my eye was Go Go Lindy your your Aunt, tell us a little about her, and also about the role an ideal Aunt, which she seemed to epitomise for you.

MSIMANG: So when we were little, I have two sisters, two younger sisters. And my Aunt is this very regal, very sort of. She had just, she had lived in the United States, very well educated and she had come back to come to Lusaka because she was going to head up the culture division of the African National Congress, and that entailed making running programmes for radio freedom.

So Coco Lindy arrives, you know, and I'm about six years old and Coco Lindy arrives back in Lusaka. And there's all of this excitement because she's a very grand Dame. She wasn't all but she's always been a grand Dame. And so she arrives, and she notices what no one else had noticed, which was that as the eldest, I was extremely jealous of my two younger sisters, and there was a new baby, and everyone was paying attention to the new baby. And Coco Lindy was the only person who paid attention only to me.

So we developed this very special relationship. And everything that I did or said was extremely special. And we used to play all of these games and she kind of implanted in me this idea that I could do anything so the thing was that I was going to be in the Olympics. This was before it was apparent that there are no no athletic capacities anywhere around this person. dancing.

Yes. Um, so Coco Lindy was very special because she was both cerebral, very smart, moody. She there were a lot of people she did not get along with, but there was one person for whom she always had time, and that was me.

LEIGH: So is the thing about Aunts that they can play favourites in a way that a mother never?

MSIMANG:  Absolutely, and I absolutely. And that's and that's exactly what sort of what she's always done and what I realised now as myself as an artist, but that's what Coco Lindy did. Because as a mother, you can't do that. And as an aunt, that's precisely your role, particularly in African societies where there are so many aunts. So there isn't a sense that there's ever going to be a child left out of being the favourite, right, where there's lots of aunties and lots of uncles. There is always a special bond between two people. And when you choose one another like that, you as a child have a sense that you are special because your mom has to love you, but other people don't.

LEIGH: So then your family moves from Lusaka, which you talked about as being a sleepy town to Nairobi, which as you put it had harder edges. How did you find that transition?

MSIMANG: Nairobi was Nairobi was a bigger city. And it also wasn't a city where the government had welcomed us in the same way that the Zambian government did so in Zambia, it was like a second home. KENNETH Kaunda, who was the first president of Zambia was a remarkable man and very much Still, you know, many South Africans consider him like an honorary South African. And in Nairobi, it was a bigger economy. Nairobi was a faster city. And it had a more complex transition from colonialism to, you know, to independence. And, and Kenya, as it, you know, emerged, you know, over the next decade, was really a country where the elites were incredibly corrupt. And you could feel that even as a kid, you could sense that this was not a society in which there was a deep investment in and care for people. So Zambia was more chaotic, but caring. And Kenya was a more structured and harder society, but far less of a sort of national ethos of care for its citizens.

LEIGH: You talk about the President's never smiling, and that the what that conveyed to

MSIMANG: That's right. That's right, Daniel, Eric Moy was a very hard and extremely corrupt man. I mean, Kenyans are still I think dealing with the consequences and the legacies of a very long and overtime increasingly brutal role. So kk, as we called Kenneth Kaunder, had his own problems. But, but hardness and corruption was certainly not his problem.

LEIGH: And as you paint the picture of your childhood, there's, there's a number of people who hurt you. There's praise good, who assaulted you, when you were a young girl? There's another boy in Nairobi later, as you're a little older, who stole your bike. And in your telling of their stories, you you spent a surprising chunk of time talking about why they came to be what the what they were. Where does that generosity come from? And it's really striking to me to read the book, that before the the Hey, we read about the harm, we read about how those people became what they were.

MSIMANG: Maybe it's being a South African, have a particular generation, who understands that people are made, they're not simply born. And so and also being, I think, a South African of a particular class. So being middle class, provides you with all of these wonderful privileges and protects you in lots of ways that you often don't understand until you're older.

And so while we certainly were refugees, while we needed a state, both of my parents, for whatever reasons, had a very middle class sensibilities about them. So they're part of this long history. My father's family is part of a long history of African middle class people. So African middle class in the South African context didn't mean money, it meant education, that meant having gone through mission schools, and all of that stuff. So because of that, I think you do get a sense of how people are made.

And so my sense is always that when somebody does something bad to you, in order for you not to own the terrible thing that has happened to you, you have to understand why it happened. So that it's not your fault. And part of making sure that it's not your fault, is understanding how a human becomes a human and how they can contemplate doing something terrible. So it just feels more logical than anything else.

LEIGH: Your family then moved to Ottawa, where you talk about the welcomes from some people, but also the experience of racism in the schoolyard. Tell us the story of the boy who called you an African monkey.

MSIMANG: So you know, the thing about growing up in Africa as I did in different countries, but still, nonetheless, in Africa is that you grow up always being part of the demographic majority, which means it doesn't occur to you that anyone thinks you might be ugly, or that you might be not intelligent. You grew up in a context in which African people are clever and not clever. They're beautiful and not beautiful. Some people come down, some people can't drive, we wear everything. And you take that for granted. There's nothing special or not special about African people.

And then you go somewhere where there's so few of you, and there are very few of you, but the ideas of you are big, you know, and so we get to Canada in the middle, mid 1980s. And there are very few black people. So we're a bit of a scene. And very early in the school year, we just started in a new school, we moved to Ottawa, and, and I was on the playground after school and this boy called me an African monkey and started sort of making the sounds and the rest of the kids on the playground who were mainly from my class, joined it. And it was very humiliated and I sort of ran away in tears, and I I get home and I tell my mother the story. And she responds, as a normal mother would. And she sort of conference me, she says, When your father gets home, we're going to talk about this.

And so my father gets home and I tell him the story. And he's like, what kind of a coward child have I raised? You ran away. So like, here's the freedom fighter is like. So you know, growing up, the thing was always that, like, you don't start fights. But if somebody starts, you finish, right. And all of that kind of evaporates in this moment, where you're racially humiliated. And also, you're 10 years old.

 So, right. So of course, my mom has to remind them and she's 10 years old, she's a child. And so we, you know, had this conversation that night, and the following morning, my dad takes me to school, which is mortifying on so many levels when you are 10 years old, and even more and more defined, because you've just feel like you're attracting this attention because of what you look like. And now he's attracting even more attention.

So here's the thing, my father is very tall, he's six foot five is a big, big African man, big Zulu man, if you want to use the stereotype, right? And so in, we walk to school, and he would go and sit in the principal's office, and the principal is, you know, very nice. And I'm sort of shrinking. And my father is sort of recounts what happened, and says, um, and so the principal is very sympathetic. And then he says, you know, but, of course, this is, you know, it's Canada, and this kind of stuff is gonna happen. And my father is like, what? Not, you have no problem that on your watch, as a leader of this institution, that my child should be subjected to racial abuse, you have no problem, say when these things happen. So he challenged him, you know, profoundly. And her and he demanded an apology.

And, and so it happened. So with mine, so my, you know, I'll never forget this, you know, besides as the principal and my dad, and I walked into my classroom, and my teacher came out, and there was this little huddle. And then my dad stood by the door, and we go in, and I stood at the front of the class. And the teacher said, class yesterday, something very bad happened. And we need to all apologise to Sisonke for for what was said, and in unison, all the kids in grade five at blossom, Park said, Sorry, Sisonke.

And it was a wonderful lesson that if something like if, if you are subjected to racism, it's not your fault. And so you don't own that hurt. And it was really important for me, because I think and I see this a lot here. You know, living in Australia with so many kids who grow up here feeling like they're the only ones are feeling like the very small group. And so for me, what was very lucky was growing up in a context where I never internalised racism.

So now, when you know, I completely respect and understand that people get hurt by racism, I don't get hurt by racism, because I think doesn't describe me. So it just kind of bounces off. Right? So it's wrong. But it doesn't penetrate. I don't get angry. It doesn't hurt my feelings. You know what I mean? Because it has nothing to do with me. It has something to do with the person who's who's, who's got a problem with black people or people of colour, whatever you want to describe it. It's not my issue.

LEIGH: Did you feel immediately proud of your father? Or did you feel mortified at the time and did your pride sort of grow?

MSIMANG: pride came later? A long time later, I mean, no look at that my parents always found a way to convey it. They were they always made us proud. Even in the sort of adolescent time, when you're like super embarrassed by your parents, there was there's always been something about the way they conducted themselves and held themselves in the world that that I admired and respected and was fearful of. And I think fear is very important for children to have their parents. And so I hope my children are afraid of me in the same way that I was afraid of my parents, which means they're afraid to disappoint. I was always afraid to disappoint my parents.

LEIGH: It's an extraordinary thing for your father to have done and to for many migrants to even go and see the principal, let alone to demand from the principal and apology.

MSIMANG: Yeah, and that's and I think this is why I always emphasise, like, my parents sense of themselves was very sort of strong. So it was funny when we moved to Canada. It was the days before Google, right. So we didn't know where we were. My parents had no idea where we were going. We knew we were going to Canada we had a globe, they showed us right? Yeah, like like that's like the USSR because the globe had the USSR on it, right? very ancient idea. So, so my parents asked at the Canadian High Commission, where do you I think we should settle. And the guy at the Canadian High Commission said, Oh, you have three young daughters. Saskatoon is a great place to live, which is completely crazy, right? And so that's where we went.

So when we moved to Canada, we moved to Saskatoon. And it's like so classic, because here are these cosmopolitan freedom fighters who think they're so like wonderful and eclectic, and they like always have, you know, drinking rosae and doing all these fabulous things. And they go to Saskatoon. So within six weeks, we were gone. So that, so that was very much my parents, and part of my father's anger was, we came here for documents we need, I need to be a person with a state. But I also am someone who did not leave South Africa for my child to be treated like this. So racism was like the one thing that that he was simply not going to accept. So that's part of what why that was also particularly important to him.

LEIGH: You do not turn the other cheek?

MSIMANG: No, no turning the other cheek in our house.

LEIGH: You attend university in Minnesota Macalester College in the early 1990s. And you soon have that experience that America made you a soldier. And you spoke about feeling a particular kinship with African Americans, not with Africans, and not with white Americans. Where did that sense of camaraderie come from?

MSIMANG: A couple of things that when you grow up, in exile, it disconnects you from lots of things. So you always grow up knowing that you're an African, but you're not living in the African country where you're from. And in many ways, it parallels the African American experience, profoundly African. And yet living in this place where they are never fully accepted. So citizen, not citizen, right. And that's exactly what I was South African, not South African. So there's a there's just a kind of, there was just a visceral connection to lots of friends. But then also, my politics was was was inherited, I got my politics from my parents, you know, I was talking about Marx, you know, at home, because, you know, my father was a communist atheist, right?

So, so when I was in university, I wanted to develop my own politics. And so it was about moving from political awareness to political activism to really choosing what I cared about, and how I wanted to be in the world. And part of that is, of course, rejecting your parents politics. So my parents were, you know, into like this namby pamby, you know, multiracial. One day, we're gonna have a South Africa where whites and blacks all hold hands together, I was like, no black power.

Right. So I very much embrace that kind of very angry, militant racialized politics, which I'm really glad I did. I was very, you know, it was if it was between Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, like I was on Malcolm X's side, right. And that was very important for me, and I, you know, continue to respect and admire people of those views. But I'm also really glad it happened to me a long time ago. Because I think it's nice to grow older, and to be able to soften your ideas and to be able to understand how certain things fit into larger frameworks. So I was insufferable for a while.

LEIGH: But you talk about the important work you did trying to shape McAllister college, the sit-ins working to get more African Americans, on faculty, the chalking, and then also the poetry troupe tell us about systems and struggle?

MSIMANG: So we had this poetry grip is very bad poetry, extremely bad poetry. We started performing the poetry of others. And then we moved into performing really bad poetry of our own, which was terrible. We started as Sisters of the rainbow. And as our politics hardened, we moved away from the rainbow the multiracial, you know how lovely and we were like, no, so we kicked out the members of the poetry troupe who were women of colour. And it was just black.

And it was called sisters and struggle, because we were struggling on our beautiful, elite university campus, we were struggling. And so we were sisters in struggle, and I could recite some poetry for you now, but I think that must end this very quickly. So yeah, it was sisters in struggle was but again, it was also like really powerful and I so while I make fun of you know, my younger self a lot, I also think it's important to recognise what we were doing. They're the kind of coming to consciousness, the performance of your identity is something that I think lots of young people do today.

We live in a much more polarised world. I think it's really important to allow young people to do that. It's a it's important to our expressions of that and to allow people to be angry and to allow people to contest for space. I think too often. And particularly when it comes to race, we're so fragile, and particularly white people can often be so fragile. And yet, and yet in in so many other ways in our democratic processes were so robust. So so that Yeah, that was just as a struggle.

LEIGH: Good for you, too, in terms of your craft, right as a writer now to have written poetry. I mean, poetry is spare and difficult in a way that you can't have extraneous words, you can have the wrong word, do you find you're a better writer for having kicked off as as a poet?

MSIMANG: That is so generous Andrew, I really appreciate that because our poetry was verbose was not very well thought through. But I appreciate it [laughter]

LEIGH: So you have this throwaway line, just after you've talked about this, this phase in your life where you talk about later, much later on. coming on to Bell Hooks, ideas about radical love. Now, Bell Hooks is about as far away from sisters and strugglers, as I can imagine, how does that transition happen? That notion of Agha pay of loving, loving everyone.

MSIMANG: So I think the thing about any time in your life, when you are exploring ideas is that you are looking you are searching. And the search leads you to more and more refined sets of ideas more and more interesting ideas. So I will always continue to respect even some of the bad poetry and bad poets that we liked. And I do respect lots and lots of ideas about black nationalism I do. But what then happens is that you read, you read and you read and reading this thing leads to reading that thing. And it leads you to exploring ideas, and it leads you to talking to more and more people.

And so that's how I find bell hooks. That's how I find the Nikki Giovanni, who is you know, still one of my favourite poets to this day. And this is how, so you also you also at the same time, find like Toni Morrison, and you read her in this overly simplistic way, like all you love is The Bluest Eye, and you're reading her at the surface, and then you go back, and you read her, you know, and and it's and there's so many layers, and there's so much there. And you find other books. So that's how that's how you get there.

LEIGH: How important is Simon in this transition? You talk about meeting him and wanting him to be black? And is saying your What does he know that suffering? Because he's he's a white Australian?

MSIMANG: Yeah, so we move so we moved back, I moved back home. So I finish university, I fall in love with this terrible, you know, boyfriend and I, we move in together. My father is mortified. My mother is sort of trying to bridge the distance between my father and I about this living together situation very, you know, conservative, and that's very traditionalist in that sense. Not in any other sense. But in that one is mortified.

And then I moved back to South Africa, and it's 1997. And everything is new, and everything is wonderful. And we are building now. So we are in power. And we have to build all these new institutions. And it's an amazing time. And this, and I'm working for the Australian aid agency. So it was my first, you know, proper grown up job, which was fantastic. And this handsome white guy walks in the door, and he introduces himself and we start chatting, and I'm like, Oh, he's kind of cute.

 And I never really thought about white guys in any particular way. Like cute or not cute. It just wasn't really a factor. And he's cute. And I'm like, okay, and and he asked me to lunch and we go out on these dates. I'm like, what is happening with these dates? Am I dating a white man? This is tricky. This feels tricky. This does not feel like what I need to be doing.

 You know, I just was like, totally uncomfortable. I'm like, this is the new South Africa. Yeah, I'm conflicted. So we go out for a while. And then I break up with him. Because he's white. And people and people often are like very lots of white people. It always imagine that it's white families that have a problem with the black person, because they have this sense. Because it's this this like, crazy idea that like we don't that we don't that we want white people, which is kind of crazy, right? It's like, it's like some black people do and some people don't. But there's a sense that we want white people to be part of our families. So my family is fine. My mom loves Simon, but I am not right.

So I break up with him. And I miss them a lot. And my sister eventually like gives me this big talk and she says like if you are going to make this decision that you're not going to be with Simon because he doesn't get what it's like to be black, then the only person you will ever Within your life is a five foot nine lesbian who's black with dreadlocks just like you. And that kind of was a great clarifier this idea and I think it is, in some ways a quite an immaturity or that you that we fall in love with people who are like us who understand every single thing that we have been through. And so that obviously, has worked. And here I am in Australia.

LEIGH: And tell me about the role of writing and your personal development, you have this lovely description of writing as drawing the venom out? Have you have some?

MSIMANG:  Yeah, I think that, for me, I'm, I, I think my way into the world. And so writing helps me to clarify things. And I also have chosen writing relatively late in my life. So I did all this other stuff, I worked in policy, I worked for human rights organisation, I really felt like it was important to be part of shaping the New South Africa. so committed to the democratic project that we were and still continue to build today.

And then I took a step back a few years ago and thought that the one thing that I realised that lots of activists in South Africa didn't do particularly well was right, that they didn't reflect on what they were doing in the world, and how it was or wasn't making a difference. And they often, and often in our newspapers, we saw lots of stuff about politics and about corruption. But we didn't see too much reflection on the situation of refugees or on social justice issues. And so I wanted to be able to reflect that in into the public discourse. And I also had a sense of myself, as I'm important enough, that if I decided that I would do it, right, this is the legacy of having those parents that I could do it. And so it's been it's been, I've been lucky, but also I've worked hard to be able to do that.

LEIGH: Sisonke, what advice would you give to your teenage self?

MSIMANG: Oh, my goodness. I as a, as an elder eldest child, and as a girl, I was full of the sense of not wanting to disappoint people around me, and particularly my parents. And so every time we moved, I felt that I had to act like it was all okay. And was always, of course, okay, because my parents worked very hard to make sure that we were okay. But it often was also very difficult. And I think that to my teenage self, and more importantly, to teenage selves. In the world, I would say that, that it's actually okay to, to feel bad and to feel sad, and to let people especially your parents know that you're feeling bad and sad. And I say that as adult as the mother of a 10 year old now.

Like, I hope that as she approaches that sort of really tough adolescent phase that she feels like, she doesn't have to keep up a good face to make me feel like whatever it is that everything is okay, because I really had took a straw I took my parents sense that we had to move we had to do this, I took it very seriously, that they should be okay. So yeah, that's the advice I would give.

LEIGH: what something you used to believe, but no longer do.

MSIMANG:  something I used to believe and no longer do. Mmm hmm. I used to, I used to believe that Australia had a really healthy democracy.

LEIGH: When are you most happy?

MSIMANG: I should say something about my children because they make me very happy. So So cuddles, and better, very good. But for the for long stretches, and probably most happy when I'm at my computer, and a really good vibe of writing.

LEIGH: What's the most important thing you do to stay mentally and physically healthy?

MSIMANG: So I went for a nice run today. And that's a recent thing. Like in the last couple of years, I've really started this happens when you get into your 40s you're like, oh, wow, I can't take this frame for granted. Right? I can't take the fact that I have a body in it moves and does things for granted. So probably exercise. I wish I were more spiritually attuned. It's all that communist thing when I was a child. Do you have any Guilty Pleasures? Too many kind of sores. connoisseurs ice cream is an absolute guilty pleasure vanilla. absolute best sounds like it would pay well with the running. Yeah. That's why I run so.

LEIGH: and finally before we turn to audience questions which person or experiences most shaped your view of living an ethical life?

MSIMANG: It sounds so cliche, but I will say it. Nelson Mandela. It really is cliche. But if I've been, I'm writing a book about Winnie Mandela at the moment, I'm just finishing up. And so I've been reading their letters to one another as part of the biography and there's this wonderful letter that he writes to her. She's She's detained. And he has no way of contacting her. He's already on Robben Island. So the kids are who knows where and he and he finally he's been waiting for letters from heart and he finally finds out that she's in she's in Pretoria Central Prison. So he says, so he writes to her, and he says, My darling Winnie, you know, this is what I've done these arrangements I've made I would like the lawyers to get in touch with you, blah, blah, blah. He says, while the rest of the time while you are in prison, I will no longer refer to you as my darling wife. We are now comrades we are equals. And until you get out, I will refer to you as comrade and every letter from then on is referred to as comrade.

And that's a such a remarkable, beautiful way he had a being of seeing and thinking but also of them showing his respect and love. So yeah, definitely Nelson Mandela.

LEIGH: Wow. Thank you. Thanks for listening to this week's episode of the good life. We love getting feedback, so please leave us a rating or a comment on Apple podcasts formerly known as iTunes. Next week, I'll be back with another inspiring guest to discuss living a happier, healthier and more ethical life.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.