This gripping memoir tells the story of a girl — and South Africa — coming of age

Always Another Country,” by Sisonke Msimang (World Editions/World Editions)

Msimang’s stories teach readers about race and racism, how one’s political ideology shifts, and about contemporary South African political history

By Kim Yi Dionne

In “Always Another Country,” Sisonke Msimang writes a gripping coming-of-age memoir, one that’s relatable — even if your father, like mine, was not a guerrilla fighter in exile trying to bring down apartheid. Msimang chronicles her life in a South African family living in Zambia, Kenya and Canada. She then takes us through a stint in the United States for college and her life as a young adult in a newly free South Africa.

As she beautifully narrates her personal stories of belonging, love and family, Msimang teaches readers about race and racism, the evolution of one’s political ideology, and contemporary South African political history.

If you’re specifically looking for that last part, you might want to see especially chapters describing and analyzing the AIDS crisis and the costs of denialism by South Africa’s president in the early 2000s (pp. 270-276); violence against immigrants in South Africa in 2008 (pp. 277-286); and the Marikana massacre in 2012, during which the South African Police Service fired on a crowd of striking mine workers, killing 34 and wounding 78 more (pp. 338-347).

Msimang’s early childhood — and the book’s early chapters — offer a window on life during authoritarian rule from the perspective of a middle-class African expatriate family. Although Msimang was only 8 when her family first moved to Kenya, she could feel that its then-president, Daniel Arap Moi, had a quite different effect on people than did Zambia’s then-president, Kenneth Kaunda. As she writes, “While the sight of President Kaunda had inspired excitement in us, here we watched the president with a sort of fearful awe.”

Msimang shows us how Kaunda welcomed South African freedom fighters, unlike apartheid-sympathetic regimes in the region such as neighboring Malawi. Kaunda’s welcome, however, did not necessarily represent the feelings of all Zambians. Msimang shares how even as a young child she observed how some Zambians saw South African revolutionaries in their midst as “rule breakers and layabouts. … The refugee women took Zambian men while the freedom-fighter men caroused and broke Zambian women’s hearts.”

Msimang is not the only character to come of age in “Always Another Country.” Her home country, South Africa, also comes of age, shedding political apartheid in 1994.

Msimang writes that during her childhood, “On the playground we cradle imaginary AK-47s in our skinny arms and, instead of Cops and Robbers, we play Capitalists and Cadres.” She and her siblings jumped rope while calling out the names of African National Congress (ANC) heroes Govan Mbeki and Walter Sisulu.

While earning her bachelor’s degree at Macalester College, she journeyed to Chicago in a rented minivan with other Minnesota-based South African university students so they could cast historic votes for freedom at the South African consulate. Her whole life — and more than half of the book — builds to this moment, when she marks her “place in a new nation at the start of a new era.”

But from there, the book traces the decline in her belief in the ANC as it becomes the ruling party. As a woman who has birthed two children in a free South Africa, she watches how inequality persists and how crime results from both current inequality and South Africa’s violent, racist past. She tells a harrowing tale in which a gunman attempts to rob her nanny — with Msimang’s infant child between them in a stroller — in front of her family’s home. Through this and other stories, she paints a distressing and vivid picture of life in Johannesburg that illustrate why she has lost faith in the ANC.

Msimang’s dwindling faith mirrors South African political trends since the transition to democracy in the 1990s. As last month’s elections showed, fewer South Africans now support the ANC; more have begun supporting the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a far-left party led by former ANC youth league president Julius Malema.

“Always Another Country” richly illustrates the experiences that led to those election returns and public opinion data. With “Always Another Country,” Msimang joins an important group of writers who have shown us that sometimes the best way to understand politics is through the story of a girl growing up.

Kim Yi Dionne
Kim Yi Dionne, one of The Monkey Cage’s senior editors, is an assistant professor in political science at UC Riverside. She studies identity, public opinion, political behavior, and policy aimed at improving the human condition, with a focus on African countries.

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