S is for Samora Machel

We asked about a dozen Africa Is a Country contributors what their favorite books of 2012 were. Here are their picks.

Samora Machel and Robert Van Lierop, an African American activist who was a vocal supporter of Mozambique's independence struggle and new country, at the United Nations in 1977. Photo courtesy of Robert Van Lierop, credit Machel Van Lierop via the African Activist Archive.

Sarah LeFanu’s S is for Samora. A Lexical Biography of Samora Machel and the Mozambican Dream (UKZN Press, 2012) is a highly readable, informative and entertaining guide of the life and times of Mozambique’s revolutionary leader and first President Samora Moises Machel. It is also contributor Thomas Michael Blaser’s favorite book of 2012. LeFanu was one of the many young enthusiasts from the West who had sympathized with the struggle for liberation of the people of Mozambique and she travelled there in the 1970s post-independence to work as a volunteer or cooperante during reconstruction as a socialist country. It is then also a bit of a memoir, as she returned back in 2008 to revisit acquaintances and refresh her memories of those difficult but also rewarding times. A must read for those interested in the revolutionary history of Southern Africa. Thomas says thanks to Percy Zvomuya for a wonderful Christmas gift.

And here are 10 more AIAC contributors’ favorites:

Ronelda Kamfer’s Grond/Santekraam (originally published in Afrikaans in 2011; superbly translated into Dutch by Alfred Schaffer and published by Podium as Santenkraam in 2012) is her second collection of poems. A moving tribute to her family’s history and, specifically, the inspiring story-telling of her late grandfather, we get to know the history of the fishing village of Skipskop through the many voices of some its inhabitants. In a recent interview Kamfer said that as a young girl she would have loved to read her history in the form of a novel and that she hopes her poetry will get people to record their memories. “Apartheid somehow took those away from them.” Give Grond/Santekraam an English, French or an Arabic translation, and Kamfer’s name will travel far and wide. That translation will be no easy task though. Talking about translations, and as an honorable mention, will the non-francophone world get to read Sabri Louatah’s Les Sauvages next year?

Sean Jacobs added This is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz’s second book of short stories. He debuted with another collection, Drown, in the 1990s and a few years ago wrote the novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I’m still looking for someone to write about Cape Town’s working classes (where I grew up) in the same way Diaz writes about the worlds of Dominican immigrants in America. Honorable mentions: I am currently reading journalist professor Doug Foster’s After Mandela (I’ll write a review in the new year) and so far, this book which is really about a group of young South Africans, is quite good. Finally, I enjoyed reviewing the sixth (and final?) volume of the “From Protest to Challenge” series (full title: From Protest to Challenge: a Documentary History of African Politics in South Africa, 1882–1990, Volume 6, Challenge and Victory 1980–1990).

Gabrielle Hecht’s book Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade (MIT Press, 2012) looks at the history of what she calls “nuclearity” — how some things and practices become designated as nuclear and others not. She observes that “standing in an African uranium mine makes the contingent character of nuclearity much more visible” (13). Gathering vast materials (sometimes rescuing, although she’s all humility on this count) — 50,000 pages of documents from colonial, state, and company archives and 138 interviews — from numerous countries, and interspersing incisive comparative material from other places (Navajo reservations, for example), Hecht shows how states (colonial and independent) and institutions have worked to, in her words, “banalize” and “exceptionalize” uranium production to create a world uranium market, to claim or deny nuclear status (like apartheid South Africa’s claim to a seat on the IAEA but denial of radiation exposure of black workers in mines), and to negotiate the political and economic transitions of decolonization. Looking at particular histories from Niger, Gabon, Namibia, South Africa, and Madagascar Hecht writes about entangled histories, exposing the workings of power through technopolitics, without predictable narratives. [Marissa Moorman]

I really, really enjoyed Nadine Gordimer’s No Time Like the Present. It is a complicated story of relationships, hope, and the day to day realities of aspiration and disappointment in post-apartheid South Africa. Gordimer’s focus on the immediate, personal spaces of the interracial couple she follows for the two decades of life after apartheid documents the end of the Mandela era, the dismissal of Mbeki, and the incredibly complex and contradictory forces that dictate both the political and personal in the Zuma era. Gordimer continues to be in top form. Honorable mention: I’d also recommend Michael Mahoney’s The Other Zulus: The Spread of Zulu Ethnicity in Colonial South Africa (Duke University Press, 2012) for my favorite academic African Studies book this year. Fantastic work on the development of Zulu identity throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century. [T.J. Tallie]

No book captures 21st century Southern Africa’s place in the world order better than Julie Livingston’s Improvising Medicine: An African Oncology Ward in an Emerging Cancer Epidemic (Duke University Press, 2012). Livingston’s first-rate ethnography brings her readers inside Botswana’s only cancer ward, where doctors, nurses and patients struggle with cancer. The book is a readable and passionately humane account of the political economy of health in the 21st century, and will change how you think about the social experience of pain and healing in the contemporary world. [Dan Magaziner]

I thoroughly enjoyed London Recruits: The Secret War Against Apartheid (Merlin Press, 2012), compiled and edited by Ken Keable, a collection of first hand accounts by white activists — mainly English Communists — who were recruited in the 1960s/70s by the African National Congress/South African Communist Party to travel to South Africa posing as tourists to covertly disseminate anti-apartheid propaganda in the form of leaflet “bombs,” tape recorded messages from the exiled leadership, etc. A truly inspiring story of multi-racial, trans-national solidarity. [Dennis Laumann]

I really enjoyed José Eduardo Agualusa’s My Father’s Wives this year. It’s not new (originally published in 2007 as As Mulheres do Meu Pai) but it is/was a really ambitious translation project (the nearly 400 pages were translated in 2008 by Daniel Hahn) and it deserves a wide audience. Quarterly Conversations did a longer profile when it came out. Agualusa’s commitment to form brings out fresh insights into travel and movement: unexpected compromises between domesticity and stability. [Megan Eardley]

Walter Rodney’s classic How Europe Underdeveloped Africa turned 40 this year. And though it has been significantly and quite successfully challenged over the decades, its importance to the re-orientation of African political-economy and historiography away from narrow nationalist and Eurocentric developmentalism to a broader critique of colonial and capitalist development deserves celebration. Honorable mention: One Hundred Years of the ANC: Debating Liberation Histories Today (Wits University Press, 2012), edited by Arianna Lissoni, Jon Soske, Natasha Erlank, Noor Nieftagodien and Omar Badsha (full disclosure: Soske’s a dear friend). In the context of a negotiated settlement, victory, and thus history, is uncertain. In many respects, South Africa’s ‘post-apartheid’ dominant narrative is decidedly anti-ANC as various voices conspire to produce a version of what their counter-discourse would suppose the ANC narrative to be. Whether by default or design, this collection contributes to the understanding of on-going contestation over the past for futures yet to be scribed. [Melissa Levin]

Driven by narrator Adam Raven’s investigation into the murder of Taxi Poet Solly Greenfield, Imraan Coovadia’s fourth book, The Institute of Taxi Poetry (Umuzi, 2012), is a inimitable mash-up between detective genre, prose poetry, and satire designed to challenge the easy script of a South African literature that too often falls back on familiar racial melodramas. It introduces us to a fantastic industry, the art of taxi poetry, and then asks us to imagine how this world would operate in a Lusophone South Africa where a different colonial legacy was in play. Internationalist gangsters, uncompromisingly idealistic young taxi poets, sclerotic academics, and out-of-step revolutionaries cross path, creating a literary world almost fantastic enough to capture Cape Town’s sheer improbability. [Jon Soske]

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.