Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Sisonke Msimang

Jonathan Ball Publishers

Liminality is not a word in everyday use but it best describes Sisonke Msimang’s unforgettable memoir. Her life, birthed in exile and forged during frequent arrivals and departures, places her on thresholds where she peers into the promise of another new life and assesses its ability to enfold and welcome.

The dictionary definition of liminality is "the transitional period or phase of a rite of passage, during which the participant lacks social status or rank, remains anonymous, shows obedience and humility, and follows prescribed forms of conduct and dress". And so it was in Msimang’s childhood — born to an ANC guerrilla and Swazi accountant, reared in exile and moved several times before returning to the promise of a free SA.

Unlike most black South Africans in the 1970s, Msimang was born free in newly independent Zambia. Unlike most exiles she had a relatively stable family life with two parents and two siblings, attended excellent schools and explored several options for a university education.

As a child playing skipping games while chanting the names of ANC heroes, Msimang realises that she is different to her Zambian neighbours and appreciates the shelter they offer her family and the cohort of comrades who collapse into their hospitality. Until she is sexually assaulted and decides to tell no one because that would mark her as an outsider. When her parents announce that they are moving to Kenya soon after the assault, she is relieved.

Brash Kenya is far less sympathetic to South African exiles and freedom fighters and the three stateless Msimang girls are in need of citizenship. Once again they are uprooted and taken to Canada, which offers documentation but no community for African exiles. For the first time, Msimang is derided because of the colour of her skin.

Her masterful use of language and keen insight into the tribulations of statelessness brings to life a childhood of not-belonging while yearning for a home she has never seen.

"The immigrant child knows that the key to survival is in the inflection points. It is in the way the head is cocked, or the ease with which the foot pushes off the pavement before the first pedal on your bike," Msimang writes. "We had been indulged not in the usual way one spoils a child, but in the way that only a community of exiles can do. We weren’t just children — we were representatives of an ideal. We were a clean slate and a fair go and a new breed and everything our parents wished for in SA."

The family moves back to Kenya and it is there, at the age of 16, that Msimang watches Nelson Mandela walk out of prison. While her parents are wary about returning, she can visit SA with her Canadian passport. She has an urge to giggle at white, moustachioed officials at Jan Smuts airport, "a fascist fortress, designed to withstand attack".

A cousin takes her out for a night on the town. Their evening in Hillbrow is marred by a waitress shrieking at a pavement troubadour and Msimang and her cousins flex their free muscles. They elicit a grudging apology and the story they tell for years is about their chutzpah when they encounter "the racism we have been told about our whole lives".

Msimang leaves again, for Macalester College in Minnesota, US. Here, being black has a new meaning, "to be looked through, passed over, ignored or locked away. It is to be constantly misrecognised." She votes for the first time in April 1994 in Chicago, "it marks my place in a new nation at the start of a new era".

Back home in SA she moves in with her parents in a middle-class neighbourhood with no other black families. It is a place where "white righteousness is so powerful exhibited, it is easy to forget apartheid was a crime against black people. You might find yourself thinking whites were the historical victims of a system of injustice."

Msimang’s account of her gradual falling out of love with the ANC is similar to the tales of many birthed into the movement. Her reasons for the split are shared by millions more — HIV/AIDS denialism, xenophobia, crime and the callousness of leaders in the face of the generational poverty crippling poor black South Africans. But her heartbreak is a lot more personal.

"I have stopped believing that the leaders of the ANC are somehow special. I should never have believed it in the first place; that sort of thinking is dangerous," she writes. "But I did because I grew up in a magical bubble, in a time and place in which the worst excesses of the liberation struggle were invisible to me and the best of what we could be had been laid out in front of me, painted like a picture with words of strength and struggle and dangled before me by the uncles and aunties who danced in our living room."

She marries an Australian and moves into upper middle-class Johannesburg suburbia to raise their two children. Placed firmly "in the heart of whiteness", she struggles to negotiate the demands placed on an "African feminist madam … shot through with paternalism and condescension and liberal sloppiness".

After five years of struggling in a fancy neighbourhood in a beautiful house, Msimang discovers that in SA nothing is safe, "especially not your dreams". It is time to leave again, uprooting her children.

The pages of the book are laced with love for her family, particularly her parents. Her description of choosing a path different to theirs is filled with appreciation for the choices they made and the politics they passed to her.

SA’s descent into a downward spiral under the leadership of venal politicians has been described in many books, but Msimang’s liminal eyes provide a keen and unique view on how much it wounds those who sacrificed much and contributed courageously to the new democracy in the belief that it would make all childhood dreams come true. It is required reading for all who care about this country.

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