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When you think of heroes, rather listen to your heart

My sisters and I are freedom’s children, born into the ANC and nurtured within a revolutionary community whose sole purpose was to fight apartheid.

We were raised on a diet of communist propaganda and schooled in radical Africanist discourse, in the shadow of our father’s hope and our mother’s practicality.

On the playground, we cradled imaginary AK-47s in our skinny arms and, instead of cops and robbers, we played capitalists and cadres. When we skipped rope, we called out the names of our heroes to a staccato beat punctuated by our jumps: “Govan Mbeki,” hop, skip, “Walter Sis-ulu,” skip, hop:

“One!” Jump.

“Day!”Jump.

“We!” Jump.

“Will!” Jump.

“All!” Jump.

“Be!” Jump.

“Freeeeee!”

South Africa is now free and those of us who care about the country are coming to see that the dream of freedom was a sort of home for us. It was a castle we built in the air and inside its walls every one of us was a hero.

When we first returned from exile the castle stayed firmly in our mind’s eye. We told ourselves we were special and we sought to build a Rainbow Nation.

Today, South Africa is politically adrift. People used to point to South Africa to demonstrate that good can triumph over evil. Today, suffering and poverty — once noble — are not only commonplace (they have always been) but acceptable. We no longer rage against them. We have come to look past the pain of black people because it is now blacks who are in charge. The wretchedness of apartheid is ostensibly over, so the suffering of blacks, under the rule of other blacks, is somehow less sinister — which does not change the fact of its horror.

So, here we are: Nelson Mandela is dead and so are Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki. Lillian Ngoyi and Ruth First and Fatima Meer and Neville Alexander and Dennis Brutus and a whole raft of great women and men who stood for and embodied a more just humanity are all gone. In their place is a new country, one that is ordinary and disappointing even as it has its moments of startling and shiny brilliance.

The South Africa I had imagined was a place of triumph, a crucible out of which a more dignified and just humanity would emerge. My parents were freedom fighters, so they cast our journeys around the world as part of a necessary sacrifice. Our suffering was noble. South Africa would one day be great because the indignities meted out to us were teaching us to abhor injustice, to inoculate us against inequality.

And yet here we stand in a South Africa that is free but not just. For me, this is perhaps the most difficult fact of all to accept. It is hard to say, but I am coming to understand that perhaps it is true — that heroism is impossible to sustain during ordinary times. When the guns died down and the smoke cleared we discovered we were not exceptional. All along, we had been only human.

This may be a message I have been fighting my whole life.

In spite of what it stole from me, exile was my parents’ greatest gift. Still, reft of a physical place in this world I could call home, exile made me love the idea of South Africa. I was bottle-fed the dream: that South Africa was not simply about non-racialism and equality, it was about something much more profound.

I grew up believing in heroes, so the past decade of watching the moral decline of the political party to which I owe much of who I am has been hard. My idols have been smashed and I have been bewildered and often deeply wounded by their conduct. I have asked myself whether I was wrong to have believed in them in the first place. I have wondered whether it was all a lie. I have chastised myself. Perhaps I was simply a foolish child.

If I were given five minutes with my younger self, I would hold her tight. I would do this in the hopes that the solidity of who I am today may serve as some sort of reassurance, a silent message that, no matter the outcome, she would survive and be stronger and happier than she might think as she stood at the threshold of each new country.

This, I think, is all she would need: a message so she may know the road is long, the answers incomplete and the truth fractured. I would hold her in her woundedness and her pretending and in her striving and her need, and hope she might learn on her own and without too much heartbreak what I know now, which is that her own instincts will be her best comfort and, time and again, her heart will be her saviour.

This book is personal and political — it is about how I was made by the liberation struggle and how I was broken by its protagonists and how, like all of us trying to find our way in South Africa, I am piecing myself back together so that never again will I feel I need a hero. I have written this book because too few of us — women, refugees, South Africans, black people, queers — believe in our instincts enough to know that our hearts will be our saviours.

This is an edited excerpt from Sisonke Msimang’s Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home, published by Jonathan Ball

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Sisonke Msimang
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