“It’s kind of impossible to grow up in Africa and not know strong women,” South African writer and IWHC board member Sisonke Msimang reflected during the first leg of her US book launch for Always Another Country. “They’re part of the oxygen of where I grew up.” Msimang attributed her burgeoning feminism and political engagement to these strong women—women like her mother who was an accountant and the “breadwinner” in the family, and the unrelenting women members of the African National Congress, the political party that mobilized against and ultimately ended the apartheid regime.
Unsurprisingly, this lens has informed her understanding of South African politics—apartheid was not just a racist system, but a misogynistic one as well. In particular, it cast into sharp relief the power imbalance between young women and men. From the workforce to health care, gender inequality compounded racial inequality during the apartheid era and beyond. These chilling realities led Msimang to recognize that her generation’s battle would be one of reducing gender inequality and inverting the power dynamics that have long subjected women. This commitment to feminist advocacy is a common thread through much of her writing.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Msimang’s defense of women who have been branded as controversial or subverting the status quo. Her tribute to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela for the Washington Post earlier this year, for instance, highlights how her life was characterized as much by sexism as it was by racism. Msimang observed: “Her defiant attitude was profoundly destabilizing to men within her own movement as well as in the broader white society she was challenging.” Race and gender worked in tandem to undercut not just her authority, but her humanity.
Msimang has mounted similar defenses of other women who are supposedly “destabilizing,” either because of their actions and behaviors, such as former First Lady of Zimbabwe Grace Mugabe, or because of qualities outside of their control, such as South African runner Caster Semenya. Semenya’s career has been shrouded in controversy because of a fixation on her testosterone levels. In an essay, Msimang zeroed in on the “selective outrage” of the athletes that criticized Semenya’s victories. She argued that these athletes were “cherry picking one form of advantage while being unprepared to recognise the myriad ways in which they themselves are privileged.” When women do not adhere to normative standards—whether that is whiteness or femininity or something else—they are denigrated, especially if they are achieving any kind of success or power.
While we live in a time of increased consciousness of gender inequalities, Msimang notes that we face a global litmus test as a battle for power unfolds between patriarchal structures that seek to retain their status and privilege, and feminist activists that are looking for not only a seat at the table, but also a leading voice.
Always Another Country is more than a memoir, it is a tool for social change. Msimang’s writing provides a blueprint for how to interrogate the structures that impact women in their many identities and lived realities, and serves as a call to action for feminists around the world to demand that their voices are heard.
You can follow Sisonke Msimang on Twitter at @SisonkeMsimang.
Photo: Nick White