Ungovernable | Zengeziwe B. Msimang

She is self-affirmed, walking to nobody’s tune but her own. She rejects conformity and seeks only her own truth. She is ungovernable, and just the kind of woman we love. In the latest in our series profiling women whose paths and minds we admire, we speak to Ms. Zengeziwe B. Msimang – Chief Director of Strategic Communications and Marketing at the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO).

At the end of this interview, Ms. Msimang reminds us that she not ‘in politics’, but is in fact a civil servant. She is not just any civil servant either, she is a vital force in the diplomatic machine that presents South Africa’s best version of itself to the world. However, many a Diplomat’s best laid plans have been undone by a politician, but if such struggles have plagued Ms. Msimang’s tenure, it certainly doesn’t show, committed as she has been to a country from which she was exiled for much of her childhood. She recently indulged us with her thoughts on womanhood, motherhood, diplomacy, her boss’s eating habits and the hilariously mundane.

noted.man: In a paragraph, please introduce yourself. 

Zengeziwe Msimang: My name is Zengeziwe B. Msimang {(don’t forget the B! (As in Babeshilo – Editor)} and I am a fiercely independent, hopelessly romantic, annoyingly pedantic mother of one, sister of two and friend to thankfully few. I have a passion for traveling and get a thrill from going to places I have never been. Equal to travel is my passion for reading – there a few things more delicious than starting a new book on a flight – shoot me now and take me for dead! I am petrified of snakes and failure. I inherently do not trust people who speak in the third person and think Frozen is one of the greatest films of all time. The last thing I think about before I go to sleep is usually my daughter and the first thing I think about when I wake up is usually my (late) mother. Oh yes and one other thing, when I grow up I don’t want to be famous – but I would like to be patient, kind and rich-ish.

NM: What is your earliest recollection of ‘being a girl’, in other words, when you first realised what it meant to be female in this world?

ZM: I first realised I was a girl at dinner time. We ate dinner around the table religiously. It didn’t take long before I noticed that my mother would always dish the biggest juiciest piece of meat for my father. One day I asked her why and she said “Because he is your father”. Don’t get me wrong it’s not like as a girl I was eating scraps off the table or anything, but I remember thinking “Ahh so men are special I guess”. And I realised I was a girl.

NM: Was there a moment where you felt, officially, like a woman and why?

ZM: There are so many moments that make you realise that you are all grown up. The first time I bought a car all by myself, the day my mother died, the first time I stood up for myself when no one else would, the moment when I held my daughter for the first time. But truth be told these are all just moments. Most of the time I feel like a girl who is constantly being forced into adulting. And it bores me. It’s hard.

I am still a work in progress. But breathing exercises help. Eating a tub of ice cream doesn’t. Spending quiet time alone with self helps. Again, eating a tub of ice cream doesn’t

NM: How did you grow into yourself, if at all?

ZM: Ha! That is still a work in progress. I am still a work in progress. But breathing exercises help. Eating a tub of ice cream doesn’t. Spending quiet time alone with self helps. Again, eating a tub of ice cream doesn’t. Not taking life too seriously helps. So does trying not to judge myself too harshly and learning that every step forward is a step closer to realising my potential. Even if it’s a baby step. Did I mention that thing about ice cream? It doesn’t help.

NM: In a world that is hell-bent on hating black women, how do you practice self-love?

ZM: Eish and the world has it in for us. I think practice is the operative word. I speak to myself a lot (does that make me sound crazy?). I literally often have to talk myself into feeling the way that I should. Into believing in myself. “You have got this babe- you are going to blow them away”. “You look amazing in this skirt Zeng, you are killing it”. Thoughts eventually do become things. And if that fails I call a sister or a friend. They have an uncanny knack for making me feel totally fabulous. They are in many ways, my therapy.

NM: What was the most beautiful thing about your late mother?

ZM: Her belief. Her Christian name was Faith and more aptly named a person you couldn’t find. She believed in her abilities. She believed in her friends and her business ideas and that the sun would shine again and that good people do exist. She believed that the more you gave the more you got, that it was possible to make a gazillion rands teaching people how to feed themselves and that eventually love – in all it’s forms – conquers all. And off all the weird and wonderful things that she believed in the thing she believed in most was her three daughters. She had absolute faith in us. She believed in me. That was one of the most beautiful things about her.

(My mother) believed that the more you gave the more you got, that it was possible to make a gazillion rands teaching people how to feed themselves and that eventually love – in all it’s forms – conquers all.

NM: Tell us that untold story about how, over many years, you hustled into DIRCO?

ZM: I applied. And applied. And applied until I think I eventually just wore them down. Those Z83 forms were my hustle. The first time I applied it wasn’t even called DIRCO – it was still Foreign Affairs! After realising that there was a thing called Public Diplomacy where I could pursue my passion for communications AND still be a diplomat it was overs for me. I simply wouldn’t stop applying! Since I was a little girl I had dreamed that I would grow up to be a diplomat. Even before South Africa was free. I figured I would just wait it out at the United Nations until such time that we won and I could come home and serve South Africa in the foreign service. When I was eventually employed there, instead of saying congratulations most of my friends simply said “finally!”.

NM: Is Diplomacy a world that is welcoming to women?

ZM: Excuse me for sounding like a bit of a cynic here but there is no career really that is welcoming to women. Not even those traditionally held by women. So as far as that goes it is what it is. Patriarchy is real my friends. That said the past twenty or so years have really seen diplomacy opening up for women and I have been on the positive receiving end of that. We have had Ellen Sirleaf Johnson in Liberia, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini -Zuma as Chairperson of the AU and during the seven year span of my career in diplomacy I have worked under Minister Maite Nkoana Mashabane. Furthermore there are no shortage of South African female Ambassadors many of whom I consider my mentors. So outside of the difficulties that arise from simply being female and being employed – yes I would say that of late there is a conducive environment within which female diplomats can flourish.

NM: What do you fear the most about your daughter’s future?

ZM: I fear everything about my daughter’s future. I think it is part and parcel of motherhood. I fear that she will be harmed by a total stranger or someone she knows. I fear that she will be told that she is not smart, or too black or too sassy and she will believe it. I fear that her heart will be broken, that her dreams won’t be realised, that her voice won’t be heard. I fear car accidents, bruises, airborne diseases and senseless wars. I pretty much fear it all. And it’s draining. (“Baby steps Zeng, baby steps”).

I fear everything about my daughter’s future. I think it is part and parcel of motherhood. I fear that she will be harmed by a total stranger or someone she knows. I fear that she will be told that she is not smart, or too black or too sassy and she will believe it.

NM: What traits must an ‘ungovernable’ woman necessarily exhibit?

ZM: Self assuredness; no fear of judgement and the ability to ask for help.

NM: Who is your iconic ungovernable woman?

ZM: The list is endless but at a push I would say Winnie Mandela, Angela Davis and Nina Simone. Eek. And Toni Morrison. We can’t leave out Toni. None of them need any introduction or explanation and if they do to you…Google them and get back to me. You can thank me later.

NM: What was your favourite literary discovery last year?

ZM: As in with all things 2016, it was a horrible literary year for me. I just kept picking blah books. But this year has been better. Petina Gappah has been giving me life. The Book of Memory was everything. But if I had one literary wish it would be that I had never read The God of Small Things ( Arundhati Roy), Song of Solomon ( Toni Morrison) or the Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver) so I could discover them again! and again!

NM: How do you ensure that you actively impart ‘ungovernability’ to your daughter, even at that young an age?

ZM: She is so young! Only 20 months old ( before becoming a mom I hated it when mothers told you their kids ages in months but I totally get it now!). So far it’s by teaching her her manners. Please and thank you very much! Being ungovernable is by no means being rude or inconsiderate. In fact it’s quite the opposite. Being ungovernable is about core. It is about growing up to be someone who will not be trampled on but just as surely not trample on others. Ubuntu is a central part of ungovernability – and it starts small. It starts with please and thank you. Or no thank you. But the thank you must be there.

NM: Having lived in different parts of the world, do you find that your personal experiences of black womanhood differ according to location?

ZM: Nope. Being a black woman is being a black woman is BEING a black woman. No matter where in the world you go there are two things you can be sure you will feel – the fact that you are black and female. I believe that both the experience of blackness and womanhood is so unique that somehow it becomes universal for those that experience it. Whether in Beijing, Bloemfontien, Harlem or Kuwait City you will find the experience is more or less the same. Of course the reactions may vary (can we get an amen for Harlem,) but the reality is that the difference is pretty much the same. And it can be wonderful and liberating and fun. But it can also be dangerous and exhausting and utterly painful. Life.

I believe that both the experience of blackness and womanhood is so unique that somehow it becomes universal for those that experience it. Whether in Beijing, Bloemfontien, Harlem or Kuwait City you will find the experience is more or less the same.

NM: What is the one thing nobody knows about your boss, Mr Clayson Monyela (the Deputy Director-General of Public Diplomacy) ?

ZM: Clayson Monyela drenches absolutely everything he eats in ketchup and fresh chillies. Everything. I’m not sure if you heard me the first time…I said everything.

NM: Both your sisters, Mandla and Sisonke, are accomplished in their fields. To what extent, as the youngest sister, have their accomplishments inspired you? Or has it been burdensome?

ZM: There is much to admire about my sisters and they have always been a huge inspiration to me. We come from work – a – holic parents who have always preached that if you work hard enough in life you will make it. Whatever “it” is for you. They also tried their hardest to instill a sense of confidence and individuality in all three of us. Nonetheless I have spent most of my life wanting to BE my sisters. Literally. And that can never be a good thing. I was briefly in gender because that’s what Sonk did. I was briefly in Telecoms because that’s what Mandl’ did. It’s only in the last few years that I have started stepping out of the self imposed sister shadow and being me. It was never them. They are truly my biggest fans. That one I am afraid was all on me. My smart, funny, worldly accomplished big sisters. The older I get the more I realise that I AM like them. Just in my own way. And that’s becoming good enough for me. Being the baby is fun…but it ain’t always easy.

NM: If you were not in politics , would stand up comedy have been a bridge too far?

ZM: I am not in politics. I am a civil servant working in international relations, which is an inherently political environment. But I’m not “in” politics. As for stand up comedy – I would rather eat my leg than be a stand up comedian. To this day I have never thrown a huge party because I am petrified no one would come. Now imagine standing on a stage and telling a joke and no one laughs. The pressure!! No no no. I’m not strong enough. I’ll stick to the things I know thanks.

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