Winter Reading List

A sample of Africa Is a Country editors and contributors list the books keeping them warm this winter.

Johannesburg skyline by contributor Ts'eliso Monaheng.

In Lost in Transformation: South Africa’s Search for a New Future Since 1986, Sampie Terreblanche (emeritus professor of economics at Stellenbosch University) argues that South Africa’s ANC government is in a catch-22 from which it is unlikely to extricate itself. Poverty, unemployment and inequality, what Terreblanche calls the near-unsolvable ‘PUI problem’ bequeathed by the apartheid government in 1994, continue to affect blacks disproportionately and, in some respects, have become worse and more persistent. At the same time, the ANC and its policies that were to address this problem have instead been co-opted inextricably into in an America-led neoliberal global economy where market forces trump justice, equality and other imperatives the ANC had during the liberation struggle. Terreblanche traces the seeds of this catch-22 the ANC finds itself in to the 1986-1990s negotiations to end apartheid and the secret meetings between senior ANC leaders and the country’s mining magnates, particularly Harry Oppenheimer. Terreblanche also critiques the transformative effects, or lack thereof, of the ANC’s policies since it took office in 1994. Lost in Transformation builds on Terreblanche’s other acclaimed work A History of Inequality in South Africa 1652-2002, but it stands in its own right as a minority report to the dominant view on South Africa’s transition to democracy and the black middle class that has emerged since. [T.O. Molefe]

Independent African by George Shepperson and Thomas Price: a massive history (first published in 1958) of the Chilembwe Uprising of 1915. Chilembwe is Malawi’s national hero (his face is on Kwacha notes) and recognised as its earliest freedom fighter. A baptist pastor, Chilembwe famously preached a sermon with the head of a white farmer fixed on a pike next to him in his church. The book is a rich account of the period between the beginning of the ‘scramble for Africa’ and World War I and shows the influence of African Americans on early African nationalisms. George Shepperson, now in his nineties, is a pioneer of black studies in the UK, and an excellent, vivid writer. AIAC readers will want to make a start on it this summer if they want to be finished in time for the centenary of the uprising (it clocks in at 600-odd pages). [Elliot Ross]

In Native Nostalgia, South African author Jacob Dlamini’s recognition that many, like himself, are nostalgic for a life lived during apartheid is less of a provocation than it sounds. The nostalgia is not for the racist policies, people, or police, but for the richness of lived experience which is so often left out in histories of apartheid that tend to reduce black experience to quantitative statistics about inequity and disenfranchisement. What Dlamini’s memoir about his childhood in Katlehong township does as a necessary corrective to this flattening out of experience, is to provide rich “thick description” of his childhood, of the people (and rats) that inhabited it, the radio shows he listened to, and the social customs that structured everyday life, with all of township life’s moral complexities or “grey zones” (a term I think he gets from Primo Levi). His emphasis is particularly on the way that attention to the senses create a history replete with the felt knowledge learned from seeing, smelling, touching, and listening to the world. He argues here for an embodied knowledge of the past; a recognition of the heterogeneity of black experience during apartheid; refusing, following Andreas Huyssen, to “collapse memory into trauma”. [Lily Saint]

From art to music to food to physical appearance, questions of beauty and its opposite, ugliness, permeate all aspects of society and cultural production. In Beautiful/Ugly: African and Diaspora Aesthetics, editor Sarah Nuttal has assembled an impressive collection of essays that boldly seek to deconstruct and challenge historical conceptions of beauty and aesthetic theories that have been projected onto African and Diaspora cultures from outside and within. Erudite, yet accessible, this wide-ranging volume’s authors tackle aesthetic questions surrounding Congolese music, South African literature, Brazilian cosmetics, public art in Cameroon and more. As readers, we are reminded of the politics of culture and how “nothing becomes visible for the one who does not know how to recognize disguised power.” [Zachary Rosen]

I am currently reading Risk by Jason Staggie, who is a nephew of two well-known Cape Town gang leaders. (In an interview recently author Staggie said he hardly knew his uncles.) The main character, Nelson Jegwa, is named for South Africa’s most recognizable political figure and first democratic president. Other than that, our protagonist is a black 20-something university dropout in 2000s Cape Town in a “fucking confused country and an extremely fucking confused continent.” He inhabits a haze of scoring sex and drugs (the book includes some unsettling scenes), until he and a few friends (they’re a multiracial trio) plan a series of heists to free Africans from unequal relationships with Western governments and corporations. Then things really turns ugly. One local reviewer likened it to “Trainspotting.” That’s actually an unfair comparison as the book should be read as postapartheid pulp fiction. That’s how far my spoilers go, except to add that South African publishers also do “book (video) trailers” in South Africa. Here’s the Risk book trailer. [Sean Jacobs]

I’ve just finished reading Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The story is about Ifemelu — a Nigerian woman who moves to the US to study, and who later starts a blog commenting on race or rather, ‘blackness’ in America — and her relationship with her high school boyfriend, Obinze. Adichie uses ‘extracts’ from the blog, titled “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-­American Black”, as well as Ifemelu’s experiences, to tease out many of the prejudices and complexities of race, culture and language that infuse everyday interactions in the US. Like many other authors before her, she also deals with the complexities and contradictions that bedevil any migrant’s relationship with ‘home’. I found it nuanced, intelligent and thoroughly enjoyable. [Brett Davidson]

Os Transparentes is Angolan writer Ondjaki’s new novel. And it is new too in a few ways. It is his longest novel to date and his voice has a different quality. Set in a building in Luanda’s Maianga neighborhood in the present, he’s shaken the nostalgia for the 1980s that is knit into his other works. All of the sweetness for his characters — their diction, their storytelling, their antics, their tragedies — is stronger than ever. This story gravitates around Odonato who, having fallen on hard times and worrying about whether he can provide for his family, stops eating. As the pain of hunger dissipates he notices that he is becoming transparent. Eventually, he gets lighter and lighter and his wife needs to tie him to the table, the bannister, and eventually onto the roof of the building. As various characters in the building tangle with life in the city and their personal stories, the city’s own drama unfolds: underground prospecting for petroleum led by the state and the death of an epochal party figure. With a lightness of touch, Ondjaki has captured the intensity of Luanda’s present. [Marissa Moorman]

I hope to read Pumla Dineo Gqola’s A Renegade Called Simphiwe, because I like Pumla’s writing and insights, I like Simphiwe Dana, and, most of all, I like renegades. What’s not to like? [Dan Moshenberg]

Summer reading for AIAC gives me a chance to remember some impactful professors and mentors that I encountered in the early 2000s at Yale as an undergraduate – Michael Veal and John Szwed. Veal and Szwed occupy parallel and intersecting spheres as biographers of some of the great geniuses of twentieth century black music. In anticipation of Veal’s forthcoming biography on Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen co-written with Allen himself, I’m turning back to Veal’s 2000 biography on Fela, Fela: The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon. I’m interested to read Veal’s Fela book while thinking about the ways in which Fela’s legacy has shifted in light of Occupy Nigeria, the Fela Broadway musical, as well as recent re-issues, marketing and branding campaigns around Fela’s name and music. Szwed, on the other hand, famous for his biographies of Sun Ra and Miles Davis, published Alan Lomax: the Man Who Recorded the World in 2011. It’s a fitting summer read for me as I head back into academia next fall with ideas about making dance films among footwork DJs and dancers in Chicago, my hometown. I’ve always known Lomax as a chronicler of black American music from the South, but I’m excited to read about Lomax’s substantial work around dance, dance films, dance scholarship and his related archiving initiatives. [Wills Glasspiegel]

Twitter was abuzz in 2012 with praise for the autobiographical musings of South African Talk Radio 702 personalities Eusebius McKaiser and Redi Tlhabi. I read McKaiser’s A Bantu in My Bathroom stateside — and it was worth it just for the title essay — so I made sure to add Tlhabi’s Endings & Beginnings: A Story of Healing to my reading list for a winter in South Africa. McKaiser’s Bantu in My Bathroom discussed frankly some of the paradoxes of contemporary South Africa and I suspect Tlhabi’s story will as well. Two years after her father’s violent death, the young Tlhabi met and developed a close relationship with one of Orlando East’s most fearful tsotsis, Mabegzo. Endings and Beginnings is Redi’s attempt to come to terms with her conflicted feelings for a young man she cared for deeply but knew she should despise. The back cover promises her story about Mabegzo goes “a long way in shedding light on the scourge that is violence in our societies and why young black men are consumed by anger.” I’ll see if it delivers. [Jill Kelly]

I work for a cycling magazine in London, and the upside is the occasional book proof lying around the office. I’ve turned down others in the past, but this one I couldn’t refuse. Yellow Jersey, the cycling-specific arm of Random House have published some great things in the past, and this, Land of Second Chances: The Impossible Rise of Rwanda’s Cycling Team by Tim Lewis, former editor of the Observer and Observer Sport Monthly, looks great. Inside, Lewis interviews Adrien Niyonshuti, a member of the Rwandan cycling team; Jock Boyer, infamous coach of the team and former pro-cyclist himself; and Tom Ritchey, the money man. I look forward to reading it, my only reservations are — the impulse to historicize and monumentalize something that hasn’t yet really happened, why write a book about the rise of Rwandan cycling when we aren’t yet sure where it will go… Second, the possible over-emphasis on the glory and suffering narrative, so prevalent in cycling anyway, but even more so when attributed to cyclists who have survived a genocide. I reserve judgement until after I’ve finished it, but either way, I’m very excited to read more about the rise of cycling in Rwanda. [Basia Lewandowska Cummings]

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.