Two great new books on Africa

Just got back from launching the book in Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia (more of that later). Between powerpoints, I read two great but contrasting new books on the region, both by ‘muzungus’, as whites are known in East Africa.

Richard Dowden is a bit of an institution, a British journalist who has been writing about Africa for over 30 years and is now Director of the Royal African Society. In ‘Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles’ he sifts back through three decades of extraordinary experiences to set out his understanding of the continent he loves, starting from his first hilarious cultural blunders as a leftie teacher in rural Uganda in 1971.

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He’s intellectually courageous, taking the plunge into tricky areas like witchcraft, corruption and different concepts of power, risking generalizations about different aspects of African culture. He steers between the temptations of myth – Africa as ‘heart of darkness’ v the ‘African renaissance’ – as he tries to get beneath the skin of culture, politics and the similarities and differences between ‘Africanness’ in different countries.

He’s a good writer, interweaving easy journalistic reportage with handy historical exposition and portraits of 13 countries from Sudan to South Africa. It’s easy to be sceptical about ‘White Boy in Africa’ accounts of this sort (in the title of another great book), but I suspect this is the real deal.

Meanwhile, as Thabo Mbeki was conceding defeat in South Africa, I was reading about his rather more revered predecessor. ‘Playing the Enemy’ is a beautifully written page turner-cum-tear jerker about Nelson Mandela, written by a friend of mine, John Carlin. You can read the book, or wait for the movie starring Morgan Freeman as Mandela (perhaps a natural progression from playing God in Bruce Almighty).

Since one of my many vices is a deep love of rugby (a gloomy obsession if you have the misfortune to be English), John’s book is a particular treat, as he focuses the narrative not on Mandela’s election or release from prison, but South Africa’s victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup final, when the new president astounded whites and blacks alike by donning the Springbok shirt (long hated as a symbol of white afrikaanerdom), and convinced a nation of soccer-loving black ANC supporters to start supporting the ‘Boks’. The Boks duly overcame the favourites, New Zealand’s mighty All Blacks, and gave the Afrikaaners the best possible argument for ending apartheid. John beautifully captures Mandela’s almost unique ability to reach out to his enemies, in this case huge, rugby-obsessed, racist Boers, most of them profoundly hostile to black majority rule. The account of how the team finally had to learn (and were moved to tears by) the words of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica is unforgettable.

John’s always been more interested in the personal stories of politicians than in the structural stuff – not much mention of context, institutions, events or agents (other than Madiba himself), but he’s a great interviewer (and had regular access to Mandela). Read this if you want to restore your faith in visionary leadership.

P.S. In the interests of fairness, our kiwi press officer Matt Grainger thinks I should point out that the book omits a less fairy-tale side of the story – the All Blacks were mysteriously ravaged by food poisoning on the day of the final. Sour grapes? You decide – click here.

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2 Responses to “Two great new books on Africa”
  1. It should be noted too that the area that Mandela comes from, the Eastern Cape, has a large number of Xhosa rugby players. There is greater support and play of rugby as a game in that region, than say in Gauteng, where soccer is supposedly held in greater esteem. That Madiba came from the EC and liked rugby is not so unsurprising. But what was surprising is that he put on the jersey, as you say. That man has the most immense ability to forgive and act on that forgiveness. Incredible.

  2. What is with the overuse of the term “Africa”?

    “Two new books on Asia” leaves me confused. Would that be a book about communism in China or slums in India? So why don’t people get confused with “two new books on Africa”? Why don’t people see that as patronising? or Belittling of the different cultures, histories etc of different countries?

    I am intrigued why Uganda could be compared to South Africa for example. Historically that is like comparing the United States with Haiti. It makes no sense.

    Perhaps on my next trip to Europe I can meet some Asians and we can discuss African Politics in an Australiasian bar drinking American Beer. (In England I will meet up with my friend from the Phillipines to discuss the Zambian election and go to a New Zealand bar and drink Argentinian beer).