‘They do not smile or welcome us but they let us in’: Sisonke Msimang recalls returning home to South Africa
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The Johannesburg Review of Books has shared an excerpt from Sisonke Msimang’s new book Always Another Country.
In the excerpt Msimang, who grew up in exile, describes her first visit to South Africa in December 1990, the year Nelson Mandela was released.
Baba is cagey about going back. He wants to be sure that the unbanning of all political organisations is real, that this is not a trap. But it will be safe for me: I am a child who has never been linked to any terrorist activity and I have a foreign passport. Uncle Stan is coming back as an academic and it is different for him too. He is offered a job at the University of Natal. He accepts and in December that year as the Sangweni family boards a flight to Johannesburg I am with them. We are headed home.
* * *
Jan Smuts Airport is bathed in a dirty fluorescent light, the kind that makes even perfect skin look pitted. The ceilings are low and there is too much brown brick. The airport is a fascist fortress, designed to withstand attack. The interlocking buildings all have small windows—air holes rather than features really. Jan Smuts is modern if you consider the 1970s modern. I do not.
Our passports are stamped by a row of stern-looking immigration officials who ask what we are doing here. Each of them seems to have a moustache and I have an urge to giggle, but I sense this would irritate them. I say I am here to visit family and they ask no further questions. Mandela has guaranteed us safe entry into South Africa, even though apartheid is still alive. They do not smile or welcome us but they let us in.