Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.
Pierz Newton-John on meeting Sisonke Msimang
Sisonke Msimang has one of those accents that’s hard to place. You might guess American, but there are other notes mixed in that clearly mark her as someone whose history is, well, complicated. The daughter of a freedom fighter for the African National Congress, Sisonke spent her childhood in exile from her native South Africa, living in various African countries, as well as Canada and later the US. After the advent of democracy in South Africa in the early 1990s, she was finally able to return to the country she had always considered home. At last she was able to meet her extended South African family and to experience first-hand the euphoric early days following the election of Nelson Mandela as the country’s first black president. Yet in the end it was a homecoming that would prove bittersweet, as she was forced to come to terms with the gap between ideals and reality.
Sisonke’s is a colourful, moving and enlightening story that offers a deeply personal inside view of contemporary African history. It is all too easy, particularly in Australia which has relatively few historical ties with Africa, to view the continent through the lens of its most negative stereotypes: as the home of dysfunctional “banana republics” and tinpot dictators, of famines, genocides and seemingly endless civil conflict. Part of the value of Sisonke’s story lies in its ability to take us beyond such dehumanising generalisations, revealing modern Africa in all its storied complexity. The intimate family context in which her narrative is set brings home the impact of widespread violence in the new South Africa, the damage done by the thoughtless racism of a classmate, and exactly what is at stake in the political struggle for equality.
These days, Sisonke lives in Perth with her Australian husband and two children, and works at the Centre for Stories, helping marginalised people to find their voice. Her own story is a reminder of the power that personal narrative has to change perception. It is often noted that the personal is political. Sisonke shows us the equally important obverse truth: that the big stage of political issues ultimately matters because of how it plays out in the personal lives of many.
PIERZ NEWTON JOHN: So why have been a powerful thing throughout your life. And I’m interested in the origins of that conversation for you, and where it begins in your story.
SISONKE MSIMANG It begins with my father, with his story. With the fact that I grew up with a clear understanding that apartheid existed even though I didn’t live within its confines. In many ways my life was shaped by this grand political construct that made race and gender matter very much to me in ways that I had no control over. My father was born in 1941 in South Africa. Seven years later apartheid became official law in the country. So he very much grew up and was shaped by this new system, which really solidified what had been happening in South Africa under colonialism in any case. So when he went to a university called Fort Hare, which is a very well respected university for Africans, he came to a hotbed of activism. It was the university that Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and many other leaders of the African National Congress had attended. My father gets there in 1960 and quickly becomes radicalised. Soon after that, he leaves the country, slips into exile to join a newly formed African wing of the African national congress called Umkhonto we Sizwe which means, “The spear of the nation.” Then he roams around for about 15 years doing various things—goes to Guinea-Bissau and sees action with Amílcar Cabral, which is pretty incredible. He trains in Russia. He then sets up a camp in Tanzania and eventually makes his way to Lusaka in the early 1970s. So by 1972 he’s moved to Lusaka and met my mum. And then they had my sisters and I throughout the 1970s.
And you spent your childhood living in many different countries in exile during the apartheid years, essentially stateless. You lived in Zambia and then Kenya and then you moved to Canada. That must have been some cultural whiplash?
[Laughs]. That’s a great term, cultural whiplash! Yes! I was 10 when we moved to Canada. I was 14 when we left. So it was adolescence, right? Very crucial time in terms of forming a sense of identity. So to speak to the question you asked earlier about why race and gender have always mattered so much to me, in part it was of course because of the historical circumstances and the role that apartheid had played in sending my dad outside of his own country. But it was also in many ways because if I had grown up in Africa and never gone to Canada I wouldn’t have understood the diminishing effects of racism in a first-hand way. My dad understood the diminishing effects of racism ’cause he grew up in a racist country. But I hadn’t. And in hindsight it was good to be exposed to racism in a first-hand way to understand that experience of being “othered”—in a way that I wouldn’t have experienced if I had only grown up in Africa and never South Africa. Part of what it meant to live in Canada between the ages of 10 and 14 meant I was quite conscious of trying to be a Canadian. And when we moved there my mum insisted that if I wanted a bike, and I did because that was the sort of emblem of Canadianness for me—every Canadian kid had a bike. I thought that having a bike was just a basic [laughs]. And she was like, [laughs], “No, it’s a privilege.” African mum that she was. So she made me save for this bike and I did. And I was in the end proud of myself for having done that. But as soon as I had had it for a year, we moved again. Back to Africa to Kenya. To a place that is familiar enough for me to know that I’m not really going to be able to ride around on this 10-speed shiny bike. But nevertheless, when our stuff arrived in the shipment from Canada I have my bike. And I insist on riding it everywhere, in completely unsuitable broken roads and no sidewalks and all this stuff. But I’m holding onto this sense of what it means to be Canadian. And this reformed identity that I have. Then one day I was meeting my friend Patience and I needed to cut through a path in order to get to our meeting point. And I’m lumbering along on this bike, going very slowly because you couldn’t ride properly on this broken baked clay, and then I feel from behind me my bike is literally being taken. My bike is stolen. There ensues this sort of mob justice scene where I start screaming and all these people come out of the woodworks and they surround this poor little skinny kid. And this guy in this big ute, he sort of cuts off the pass for this kid who stole my bike—it was very dramatic! There’s all these people screaming and helping me. And I’m looking at this kid and he’s looking at me like, “Fuck you with your little shorts and your little perfect life. You’re going to exact revenge on me for me stealing your bike?” It was so clear that he needed the bike in ways that I had never needed the bike. So I intervened and was like, “Please just leave him alone, I just want my bike!” Then I had it again, he slipped away, which was great. But it was very much a double-edged sword. This idea of being a middle class person in a society where very few other people are middle class. And then in that context the middle class being rendered meaningless.
Yeah, and you’ve said that the dream of freedom became a kind of home while you were in exile, which is an interesting idea that a dream can substitute for home. But it’s like living on a promise isn’t it? That you can sustain it for a while but at some point you’re going to want to cash it in for the real thing.
That’s right. That’s right. And how incredibly lucky were South Africans, black and white, that those of us who lived on the dream of freedom were able to finally feel as though we were achieving it?I mean that’s what makes the story of South Africa, still, it fills me with goosebumps and it is such a remarkable story. Because my father really, really believed that we would achieve freedom. Nelson Mandela, all of those guys in Robben Island, they were so clear that they would achieve that in their lifetime. I remember so very well as a child that the phrase, “In our lifetime we will be free.” It was like a mantra. And then it happened. Then it happened. So it was a dream but it was also one that we got so close to achieving.
You have an interesting relationship with South Africa in that you always saw it as home but you didn’t live there as a child. You didn’t grow up there. So when you finally got to live there, how did that feel? I mean did it feel like a homecoming?
I think there’s a difference between a homecoming and feeling at home. The homecoming happened when I was 17 and it was the most poignant and powerful experience of my life. Coming home and meeting my grandparents and seeing all these cousins and just being in this country was amazing, and that happened the year Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island. The end of 1990 I went to South Africa. It was everything I had ever dreamed it would be. Then there was the experience of actually moving to South Africa and setting up a life there and making it home. That was a different experience. It certainly had its joys but then it also had the mundane elements of life which make you realise that you know nothing about a place, like, in the very real ways of, “I don’t know which street to turn onto and I don’t have any memories of this place as a home. I don’t have any friends who aren’t from exile.” At least initially. So because of the way that that transition to democracy happened in South Africa, a great bunch of people—there was never a proper count but I know there were many, many South Africans who lived in exile through those years—we all came home pretty much at once. Between 1992 and 1996. Hundreds of thousands of people closed up the lives they had been living for 20, 30 years and moved back to South Africa. Initially everyone moved to where they had been from. But then eventually everyone found themselves in Jo’burg and so I knew lots of people who were in exile. We hadn’t shared any joint experiences in terms of having grown up in the same places but we certainly knew one another because of the exile network. So making South Africa home was a very different difficult experience at an emotional level. And trying to make South Africa home made me realise how un-South African I was in so many ways, and how lucky I had been not to be exposed to racism in that way.
You relate a really telling story about supermarket parking which is kind of funny but also quite revealing. How, after the fall of apartheid and the beginning of democracy, white people struggled to adjust.
Yeah, so by now we are living in a South Africa that was integrated. We could live wherever we wanted. And one of the things about apartheid was of course that black people and white people lived in separate neighbourhoods. But beginning in the early 1990s, lots of black families moved into previously white areas. My family lived in Pretoria in this little neighbourhood. And my sister and I would tool around in my mum’s red Toyota corolla. One day we were at the grocery store looking for parking, circling, circling, and eventually we find a parking spot. And [laughs] this white lady tries to dash in and get the parking spot. This happened so frequently, this passive-aggressive fighting with people. It was such a common thing. And I basically lost it. So my sister and I get into this massive fight with this woman, in the store. She’s trying to call a security guard. And essentially she encounters what is now very much what happens in South Africa all the time—black people who are not prepared to countenance racism, who are self confident enough to speak back. And my sisters and I are pretty obnoxious with our resistance to racism at this point. So it wasn’t just that we got angry, it’s that we’re droll and we’re ironic and we’re completely comfortable with who we are. That was both something that we brought with us with the arrogance of exile but also was profoundly annoying to a white South African who is used to you bowing to them.
Yeah. You can see how they must have gained a sense of personal specialness out of this relationship of superiority to this whole other race. And would have been quite distressing for them to have to let go of that.
To have to let go of it but also to be confronted with people who themselves have such a sense of superiority! [Laughs]
Right! So you talk about thinking of yourself as a child of the African National Congress because of your father’s involvement with them. And yet over the course of the late ’90s and the 2000s you gradually became disillusioned with them. What happened to cause that?
A bunch of things. I think the breaking point for me was the way that the ANC dealt with the AIDS crisis. It was a very bizarre thing, even talking about it now it’s hard to explain ’cause it makes no sense. But we had this terrible AIDS epidemic, just as we get freedom this virus is making its way into the bloodstreams of all these people in South Africa for lots of demographic reasons that are perfectly scientifically rational. And the second president of the country Thabo Mbeki basically goes into denial mode. On one level part of me wants to feel sorry for the guy. Like you’ve just taken over, you’ve just inherited freedom, the future is looking so bright. And then you have all these challenges to deal with, and on top of that you’ve got this sexually transmitted virus that’s exploding. So he goes into denial, which is never a good thing for a leader. And people protest and cry and I was very much a part of that movement of people who really were first filled with disbelief and then really angry and saw it as our role to challenge and to protest. And Thabo Mbeki’s intransigence on this issue was a breaking point for me when it came to looking at these people who had been freedom fighters and realising that power is just a bitch. Power will make you lose your principles. I think that’s definitely what happened to the ANC. The story has been a very painful one for all South Africans because we believed so much in the ANC. But for me it was also that my proximity to these people was so significant. Members of cabinet were literally aunties and uncles. So it was not just that it was disappointing at some political level, but it was really personally disappointing at a granular way.
I want to know more about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was established at the time. I read somewhere you described it as satire?
Well maybe that’s too strong a word, because it was so meaningful for so many people. The TRC operated at multiple levels. It was premised on the idea that if South Africans were going to be able to meet the future together across race we were going to need to reckon with the truth.And this took on a very literal tone which meant where there were people whose family members had disappeared, who had been assaulted by the police or other security forces, the former regime needed to own up and the individuals who had been responsible for those crimes needed to confess and give a measure of peace to the families. Where were the bodies? In exchange for telling the truth and being able to face the future without bitterness and acrimony, the victims, the survivors, black South Africans, our end of the deal was that we were to forgive what had happened. And that forgiveness was a sort of moral forgiveness, a kind of collective sense of, “Okay, it’s okay.” But also within the ambit of the truth and reconciliation process, which was a quasi-legal structure, what it meant was that if white people had told the truth then they were eligible for amnesty. Which means they didn’t have to do time for those crimes. So if you had murdered a few political activists you wouldn’t serve time for it. You would be exonerated.
Even murder. Because it was carried out in the context of political instructions and that was the order of the day and the law of the land as it were. That was the logic. If it was felt that you had not told the truth then the TRC could refer your case to the courts and then you would be dealt with for murder. Right? Some cases actually went into the legal system. Very few. But that’s how that happened. So that’s the setup. What becomes satirical is when you see the many police officers and senior officials, government officials, white men order regime who went before the commission and said they couldn’t remember. “I don’t remember, I don’t remember, I don’t know what happened.” Extremely evasive. And because at that level of leadership nothing could be pinned on them in terms of directly killing somebody, they got to walk away scot free without eventhe moral condemnation. So that becomes a satire. Like, you can’t remember? Come on! On the other hand, of course lower level officials, not many of them but a couple of them did help to find the bodies. Those tears and that grief and that eventual peace that came to those families was a remarkable process to behold. And under the leadership of Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu who held the space remarkably, even as they are often caricatured, you know, today. At that time it was a pretty incredible thing to watch. So it was a difficult, painful period. I was lucky enough to be working for the Australian government in my first job covering the TRC hearings on behalf of AusAID. I would send these cables back to Canberra reporting on what had happened with a view to how Canberra might be able to provide some assistance to South Africa as it emerged from the TRC. So what South Africa tried to do was dramatic and well intentioned and beautiful. To say that it had happened and we needed to look at it but it wouldn’t matter in determining your value and your worth in the society moving forward.That was wonderful both in terms of black South Africans who were able to walk forward with dignity in a place that had reduced them to such profound indignity. But it was also a real liberation for white South Africans who were forgiven for participating in a system in which they voted year after year after year and participated in a democratic system that sat on top of the most ridiculous racism. So for them it meant freedom. And the compromise that we drafted together was amazing but also only one side really had to give certain things up. Which was black people. What we lost moving forward was the ability to get more material economic benefits for black people. Because if we had had a different kind of revolution, a bloody, violent revolution, then what would have happened is white people would have been kicked out. There would have been bloodshed and trauma and it would have been horrible and may still have been going on now. So I’m certainly not advocating that that would have been a good route. But then the lines would have been clearer and black people would be living on the old estates and the country would look very different today. So part of moving forward in the way the ANC chose meant it didn’t change. It meant that the country remained the same—with the same people living in the same old houses. And that is something that sits very uneasily and uncomfortably with many people in South Africa today.
And you paint a very vivid and horrifying picture of the violence that still exists in South Africa. You say at one point that violence is the organising principle of the community in which we now live. And your nanny was actually held up at one point by a gunman who threatened to shoot your child. How did that change things for you? In terms of your relationship with South Africa?
It didn’t change my relationship other than to make me much more realistic about what we were dealing with. One of the things that is hardest for me about being in Australia is that I wish that I lived in South Africa. And were I not married to an Australian who has zero tolerance for living with that level of inequality and violence, I would be prepared to countenance that violence. Which is a terrible thing to admit. Because I understand it as a function—the violence is a function of a set of circumstances that preceded the end of apartheid. So there’s nothing new about that violence. What’s new on the scene of violence in South Africa is me in it. And it feels like I got away with so much by missing the whole apartheid thing, that pulling away in the face of the violence feels like a sort of betrayal.
Yeah, you’ve said, “Apartheid’s legacy seemed to have woven itself into the most intimate of spaces. Dysfunction pulses at every streetlight and violence seeps under every door.” And that really makes clear the dimensions of the challenge doesn’t it? Because if the damage is in the most intimate spaces as you put it, then the healing has to take place there as well.
It does. As I wrote about South Africa I was sitting in Australia because distance is often useful in that regard. But I was also sitting in an Australia where there is so much historical violence and injustice that hasn’t been reckoned with and hasn’t been accounted for and hasn’t been accepted. I remember when we first got here it was around the period where there was all that brouhaha happening around Adam Goodes. And it seemed to me that there was just so much in common between South Africa and Australia. Certainly not the magnitude of violence in South Africa but the way in which problems of the past weren’t being reckoned with. And then certainly in the last decade and probably longer, the problems of migration, and not just migration, but this whole asylum seeking problem that has been pushed offshore. There’s something about not having to see or deal with problems that I’m still working my head around with this country. Because it isn’t Europe where you actually see asylum seekers. Where you actually have to walk around people in order to avoid them.In Australia that’s been outsourced to Manus. So there’s a sense in which this beautiful country with very high standards of living, there’s a sheen to this place. Like it literally glows and shimmers—the sand and the beaches—when you’re landing here! Like, what is this? Everything is so new! The grass is so green! And there’s this dimension in which this shiny-ness belies, like, this horrible stuff that’s pushed off into the margins. Pushed into the desert, pushed into detention centres, waved away like those terrible move-on laws and notices. There’s this constant pushing away of history and of politics in this country that I find really interesting but am still trying to get my head around. There are policies in Australia—the architecture of asylum-seeking in particular—that make certain forms of racism, certain manifestations of racism, quite unique to this place.
There is a tremendous denialism. Growing up here and learning history at school, we didn’t learn anything about the dispossession and massacre of Aboriginal people. That’s all stuff that’s come into public consciousness in relatively recent times. What do you say to people who insist that because they didn’t directly take part in that dispossession and that massacre that they shouldn’t need to apologise if they are responsible for it?
I think it’s a vexed question for all of us right? Anyone who comes here has to deal with the fraught history. I have a medicare number. I pay taxes but I certainly benefit hugely from the wealth of this country. I am certainly complicit simply by my arrival here and my treatment being welcomed as a migrant, a skilled migrant. The other day I was walking down the street and this guy who saw me on ABC was like, “Hey, I saw you on ABC!” I was like, “Yeah, you did!”
And he was like, “Thank you so much for coming to Australia! Thank you for living here!” And I was like wow. That’s crazy. Really beautiful but also like that makes me feel unsettled when I think about my Indigenous friends who have had the opposite experience in their own country. That kind of reception would never be extended. I just can’t see a scenario in which they are met with anything but guilt, denial and of course in some instances a hand of friendship. But it’s much more rare. So it’s a very profound and vexing question for me all the time. What I say to people is that none of us can control history. And there’s a huge difference between intentionality—what harm you mean to cause? Versus privilege, which is about what harm has been done and how it has accrued to you. So I can’t control what privilege has accrued to me. It doesn’t mean I should not do everything in my power to share it, to use that power in ways that no longer replicate or amplify that harm.But I have to be able to at least acknowledge and own it. And then if you acknowledge and own it then why wouldn’t you express, as a human to human, a sentiment that says, “I’m really sorry that that happened. I’m sorry that I have been able to benefit from something that has never led to benefit for you.” Why wouldn’t you say that? You know what I mean?
Yes, yes. Yes. I mean it’s like if your parents had murdered some people and taken their house and then you grew up in the house and then their family comes back and says, “Hey.” You’ve got to own it.
What’s interesting to me is how we have these conversations and who can say what. I think it is entirely correct and appropriate for you to say what you’ve just said and make that analogy. I have found living in Australia it is almost an impossibility for me to make that analogy.
By virtue of the colour of your skin?
Absolutely. And it’s also why I am at pains to talk about my own complicity. There’s a couple of things that that does. One is it disarms people and that’s an important strategy if you are interested in building a political future where we can live together. But the other thing that it does is it forces people to think about levels and nuance. Because far too often the debate is only black and white. And if the debate is only black and white then all black people are always innocent in these conversations and all white people are always guilty. It’s really, really important to me both in terms of principle but also tactically to be able to move beyond that frame.Because it is far more complicated than that. It also creates opportunities for building shared points of view, spaces where we might come together. If we can own some level of guilt together then I’m not just accusing. I’m also becoming someone you can relate to. And then we can work on wider struggles together.
I love that perspective. I want to talk about storytelling now and your work for the Centre of Stories and how that shapes you and the communities you work in.
Sure. The Centre for Stories is this fantastic organisation which exists to tell stories by and about Western Australians. And it’s really important that it’s local. One of the things that I found when I first moved to Perth was how invested people are in stories from over east or stories from Europe. It was clear when the centre was set up that we wanted to say that stories from here are really interesting and important. And don’t have to be cast as being parochial just for being interested in the local. So the sense of this place grounding a set of stories that are interesting, important and shareable by us, meaning by people who live in this state and who are interested in history and wider political processes, and are also global, like trying to do that all at once is a big part of what the Centre for Stories does. And we explore the fact that we do live stories. I’m always interested in small “P” politics; I’m interested in the politics of what gets done when you’re living in the day-to-day. It’s part of why I really like Perth actually. In spite of myself [laughs]. I really, really like it. Because so much is happening in the granular interactions that people have. And because people are so outrageously offended by the idea of talking about politics with a big “P,” where they actually get their politics done is in their friendships and in what they term “community.”So storytelling is certainly a place where politics happens. A lot of the stories we tell at the Centre of Stories come at things sideways. Instead of telling a story about what it means to be a migrant in Australia, which is always a story about what it means to be Australian, I’m more inclined to say, “Tell me a story about your first experiences with swimming.” If you ask migrants about their experiences with swimming they will typically be very different than Aussie stories about swimming. And in the telling of that story and in the hearing of that story then we’re getting at something really interesting that does allow us to do politics differently. That does open you up to the possibility that someone could have grown up completely unlike you but there are places of commonality where you’re like, “Oh, I can get with that.” So you’ve done your small “P” politics without necessarily activating people’s sensors and black and white responses. For me that’s really critical—it’s in many ways how I think we will change the deep structure of our societies.Through deep, challenging engagements, through humour and listening, and of course doing the hard yards.