Sisonke Msimang: The impact of reconciliation



So if you're a white South African, Australia represents a South Africa that has a lot less black people in it. So history is not so close. As a South African writer and oral storyteller, who now lives in Australia, Sisonke Msimang has a pretty unique perspective on race. She spent the first half of her life in exile, wandering the globe. While her father was labelled a terrorist by the South African government. To her, he was a freedom fighter. Working to bring down apartheid. They formed a cell and they were amongst the first people who joined the military wing of the African national congress, which was called 'MK'. -He just up and left and disappeared?
-Yeah. So they couldn't tell anyone. Because they didn't want to endanger their families. So he left for uni. And he said goodbye to his father. And he next saw him 30 years later. He left in the 1960's. Went to Russia, did military training, did all the stuff. Met my mum and then my sisters and I were born. My mum was an accountant and my dad was a freedom fighter. So like… Part of me is very pragmatic and part of me is very idealistic. And so we grew up with that in our household. When did you first realise the inequality around you, in Africa? Colonialism had just come to an end. My parents were moving up. They were part of this new middle class generation of Africans who were emerging. And it wasn't confronting until I was a teenager. There was a particular moment where your bike was stolen. I'm riding my bike and I'm like literally, physically on the bike and he steals it. And it's Africa so its, y'know, mob justice. And so I scream, 'Mwizi!' -which means thief.' And they're off! Everyone is running after the kid and the kid is peddling away as fast as he can. And they grab the kid. And there's this scene. So I sort of stare down this kid and he looked at me with the most hatred that anyone had ever looked at me. He literally was like: 'You kid, who has everything. You're rich enough to have a bike.' I did reach this moment of crystallizing that this is not a fair world. When you were a young child you were assaulted by a gardener. What happened? I was left alone in the care of the guy who tended to the garden, who was like a family member. And he took advantage of me and assaulted me. I was 7 at the time. A lot of my sense that adults were only good, was shattered. You write that you didn't want to tell anyone because you feared about how it would make you an outsider. Where does that mindset come from? So there's something about gender violence. And about the way that women and girls are treated in our societies, that is so deeply shameful. That it's so owned by us, that isn't even the same when it comes to race. Because I knew as a little South African kid, who was fighting for freedom, who's parents were fighting for freedom, that racial abuse was something about which I could speak up and I would be protected. Gender based violence was not something about which I could speak up and be guaranteed that I'd be protected. Women still own the problem. Whereas with racial abuse the problem is the perpetrators. And everyone is clear on that. In the 90's you came home, to a country that you never lived in. That had just ended apartheid. You must of seen some pretty massive changes first hand. It was such an exciting time. It was incredible. The entire country was remaking itself. The first time that black people were allowed to vote. Which is what the big fight had been about. So that was good. We voted Nelson Mandela as our first president. So everything from having had 16 different departments of education, one for every race. Y'know park benches that had whites only signs on them. Separate toilets. Separate beaches. All of those signs had to go down down but more importantly all of those barriers had to go down in peoples minds. 'Your commitment and your discipline has released me to stand before you today.' The country decided on this thing called the 'Truth and Reconciliation Commission'. Suddenly all these things that had been done to people in private, in the "privacy" of jail cells. In the privacy of torture chambers. In the privacy of homes. Was suddenly public information. So Truth and Reconciliation Commission is something that Indigenous Australians' called for as part of the Uluru statement last year. What would you say to us about the impact of a commission like that? If you told the truth about any crimes that you had perpetrated you would receive amnesty. Of all the people who perpetrated crimes in that time and there were many. Only one person served jail time. His name was Eugene de Kock. Nobody else. 26 years after the end of apartheid, we have a new generation of young people who are incredibly militant. And incredibly angry that the perpetrators of crimes, got to walk away. The historical injustices and imbalance of power between black and white people continues. It's like, what are we doing? What was the point? So what the point then becomes is this spectacle of black grief. A spectacle of memory haunting black people. Which is what we have in many instances in this country. Where the grief of black people, of indigenous people is put on display, with very little consequence for those who caused the grief. There has to be a match. One of the things I saw you write in an article was one of the first thing that strikes you about Australia is how racist this place is. But how little we speak about it. There does seem to be a real dominance of the conversation, by people who aren't affected by racism and are often the perpetrators of racism. The volume and noise levels, particularly talk back radio and certain columnist, it's pretty intense. To be part of an oppressed group of people is to have to understand the mainstream culture and it is to also know your own value and worth. And in some ways, the joke is on the wider, mono culture. -We're all just laughing at the mainstream basically.
-That's it. A few years ago your mum passed away. What did she teach you about finding a home after all your travels? We spent our lives moving around the world, in search of this idea called South Africa. My mum really taught us that, the journey was home. That being together, loving one and other and being in someways independent of the approval of the place that we were in. And just being okay with ourselves. That's what home is. Right?

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