A meditation on home

A new memoir by South African-American Stephanie Urdang offers a remarkable and feminist view of love, longing and revolutionary struggle.

Image credit: Leonard Waldon

Stephanie Urdang didn’t leave South Africa at the age of 23 because she was forced into exile. She left because she “hated Apartheid.” It was the late 1960s—mid-hiatus between the Rivonia Trial, the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela and other anti-Apartheid leaders (in 1964), the burgeoning of Black Consciousness (from the late 1960s onwards), the resurgent trade union movement (1973), and the Soweto uprising (1976). Avenues for fighting Apartheid had narrowed; the comforts of whiteness expanded.

Urdang grew up in a staunch anti-Apartheid family (her father practiced law in Athlone, a coloured township on the Cape Flats), but very much a white South African, with all the trappings of privilege that her skin color guaranteed. Admittedly, it took her some time to “understand the gross inequality,” and it festered, eventually to the point that she “didn’t seem to have a place” in the South Africa of the time. She chose to move with her fiancé to start another life in the United States, where he would study physics. “I never talked to anyone, but underneath I had great ambivalence about the decision. I couldn’t even talk to myself about it. I didn’t want to leave, but I couldn’t voice it.” Following the banning of the International Defence and Aid Fund (IDAF), where she worked in support of political detainees and their families, she felt torn further. The only alternative she saw was to leave the country, get involved in the movement abroad and to come back at some point in the future.

Urdang’s journey from the leafy suburbs of Cape Town—first as “a dutiful wife to be,” later as an activist and journalist during the most difficult and exhilarating years of struggle for liberation on the African continent and alongside some of its most committed revolutionaries—is brought to life in her remarkable memoir, Mapping My Way Home—Activism, Nostalgia and the Downfall of Apartheid South Africa. It lives alongside the significant books she has written on women in Guinea Bissau and Mozambique.

Home, for Stephanie Urdang, is not an uncomplicated idea. It is, at once, associated with the familiarity of place, and of people. But it is also about a desire for a particular way of being, of freedom, of solidarity. The longing for home, for Urdang, rested on a desire for a future South Africa free from Apartheid. Urdang’s nostalgia was not for the past, but for the future, for a democratic South Africa. She wanted “the food, and the house, and the mountains… but couldn’t have the place without the change.”

This meditation on questions of home, belonging and solidarity is timeous, emerging as it does in a moment of resurgent ethno-nationalism everywhere and its accompanying xenophobia (prevalent in the once-longed-for South Africa). Urdang’s book helps us think about border crossings, borderlessness and literal liberated zones as domains of the everyday rather than the expectation of bourgeois privilege.

Activism, nostalgia and the downfall of Apartheid are dealt with in fascinating reflections and witness accounts that reveal Urdang’s narrative gifts, her incisive mind, and her deep commitment to feminist principles and the struggles against colonialism. Her enduring relationships with African revolutionaries in Guinea Bissau, Mozambique and Egypt offer a different and refreshing lens through which to understand the heady and often dangerous period of the fight for liberation in the so-called ‘late decolonizers’ and in post-independence Africa. As Urdang recalls in an interview with the authors:

The late 1960s and 1970s was such a vibrant time. We really believed that we would change the world, and that capitalism was going to fall—especially after the liberation victories in Mozambique, Guinea Bissau and Angola. These were the countries that would put in place the ideologies of socialism, the theories of [Amilcar]Cabral and other revolutionary thinkers, for the benefit of the people. Poverty would be dealt with. This is what spurred us on.

Urdang tells the story of a period of her life that unfolds through a series of mostly defaults and some design. Her trajectory, for a time, was driven by the privileges afforded by her race and class, as well as the self-doubt and lack of confidence that were a mark of her gender. In the US, she began working for a community organization, to provide support while her husband completed a PhD. She may have been unaware of it at the time, but now, through her memoir, through her decades of political work, Urdang understands well the advantages that she had:

We came from countries where there was a struggle, but I got on a plane and I came here (to the US). My husband had a scholarship. I didn’t think about the extreme privilege of that. We had no money. We lived in poverty while he did his Ph.D. But I knew we would be out of it; that this was temporary.

For most people, significantly in Urdang’s adopted country, this condition of precarity is permanent. Her memoir is thus suggestive of a new longing—for a place, a politics of the unsettled, of building “a notion of home that is post-border in some ways.”

After two years in the US, Urdang’s desire to continue the fight against Apartheid led her to the offices of the American Committee on Africa (ACOA). There, she joined the Southern Africa Committee and was asked to edit the important Southern Africa magazine. As editor, she began to travel to Africa (to Guinea Bissau, Mozambique, Egypt and Ethiopia), expanding her horizon beyond the struggle in South Africa.

Moreover, her relationships with African women in these countries profoundly impacted her life, her work, her politics and depth of experience:

These friendships were extraordinary for me. I got so much more from them. They were going on with their work. I had come from such a different place, culture, experience. It sobered me. Made me think about what was important about my life, about community. I had a sense of home in so many places, because I connected deeply and primarily with women. There was such a generosity of spirit on their part.

Urdang’s memoir stands out in its narration of her time at Southern Africa. She produces what can only be regarded as a feminist memoir: a genre through which the self is neither condemned to obscurity nor elevated to the center of social processes. She, at once, participates in social change as she is produced through her interactions with others. Urdang has an important story to tell, of her own life, perspectives and contributions. But her ideas, hearts and actions are crafted in community with others. They are not a transcendent condition.  This is a major contribution to memoir writing.

Her story centers short biographical accounts of the many women with whom she forged community, or solidarity, or love. The vignettes of these women’s lives suggest that hers is conditioned by them. Even the women’s groups that Urdang participates in and builds are afforded agency in the book. Urdang takes seriously what Chandra Mohanty later reminds us, “Beyond sisterhood there are still racism, colonialism, and imperialism”. As such, Urdang participates in producing a sisterhood that is “forged in concrete historical and political practice and analysis”. She produces a memoir that projects a woman who has found her voice through activism with other women, at the same time as it refuses the centering of her story over others, or detracting from the broader historical narrative.

Urdang, thus, finds home.

About the Author

Melissa Levin, from South Africa, lectures in African Studies at New College, University of Toronto.

Andrea Meeson is a copy editor for Africa is a Country and other pan-African publications. She manages a graduate training program for aspiring health researchers at University of Toronto.

Stephanie J. Urdang worked as a United Nations specialist on gender equality and gender and HIV/AIDS.

Further Reading

Exile, Return, Home?

Many will read Sisonke Msimang’s new memoir for its musings on exile and home, but it is also a political telling of the complicated South African transition.

The uncompromising Zoë Wicomb

Zoë Wicomb’s fellow South African, JM Coetzee once wrote: “For years we have been waiting to see what the literature of post-apartheid South Africa will look like. Now Zoe Wicomb delivers the goods.”