Cover to Cover: 5 favourite African reads

I found this blog by thefynbosguy in South Africa at mySafari (one of our recommended blog links) while surfing the web.  We’ve recommended books on southern Africa in the past, but never commented on these five.  Of the group, the only one I have personaly read is Michener’s “The Covenant”.  It was a great read and an excellent way for me to better understand the history of the region.  None of the books are ‘new’ and many have a heavy culture/political tone, but I feel education is always healthy to the open mind and these are being recommended by someone of the region. The trip to the bush is long and mid-day while on safari can provide quality reading time, so we wish to pass these on to you.

I know there’s nothing quite as irritating as someone telling you what to read but have you been down to your local bookshop and seen the sardine-can packed shelves of African literature recently? Where do you start?

Right here as it happens. Here are my 5 favourite African reads – see if I’ve got it right, tell me if I haven’t.

Playing the Enemy

Playing the Enemy (John Carlin)

Here’s a book every South African should read. Why? Because if there’s one thing we need to remember it’s the astonishing vision of Nelson Mandela, astutely realising that the way to reconciliation with the Afrikaaner was through their beloved rugby. The book charts Mandela’s progress through jail, his release and the political turmoil of the early 1990s, and culminates in the extraordinary events of June 1995 and the Rugby World Cup final.

It’s lump-in-the-throat stuff and if your only impression of Mandela is that of a genial grandfather-type figure, read this and discover a ferociously political animal and a man to whom South Africa is fundamentally indebted.

The Scramble for Africa

The Scramble for Africa (Thomas Pakenham)

History might not be everyone’s cup of tea but it’s certainly Pakenham’s, and the beauty of this book is that he describes the grisly colonial era with such flair that the 700 or so pages fly by with the speed of a booty-laden East Indiaman sailing back to Europe.

Taking you from an unsuspecting pre-colonial Africa to the carnage of the 19th century and the chaos of de- colonization less than a hundred years later – “scrambling out” is how he neatly puts it – Pakenham provides a vital insight into a defining era for Africa – and clues as to its current condition.

The Bang Bang Club

The Bang Bang Club (Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva)

You’ll need a strong stomach to read this: 4 photographers – friends as well as colleagues – gamble with their lives to record the nightmares inside the cauldron of Johannesburg’s townships during the early 90s, the limbo period between apartheid and democracy in South Africa. It was an exceptionally violent time – ‘bang bang’ refers to the constant gunfire between rival factions of the ANC and IFP – and the book is a fierce reminder of how close this country came to a complete melt-down.

The prose is compelling, the can’t-look-away photographs shocking and there’s no happy ending but if you want a book that leaves you panting for breath then the Bang Bang Club is it.

Disgrace

Disgrace (J M Coetzee)

He might be a bit of a weirdo recluse but boy can J M write (2 Bookers and a Nobel), and if you want his best novel, Disgrace provides a read that’ll leave you as emotionally drained as its protagonist. David Lurie is a character so flawed that you’ll find yourself yelling out aloud at him and yet you feverishly hope it’ll all turn out ok in the end. It doesn’t.

Set in post-apartheid South Africa, Disgrace is an allegory of – according to Coetzee – a deeply troubled society and throws around ideas of ruin, salvation, violence and above all, life and death. Read it, don’t get lured by the movie.

The Covenant

The Covenant (James Michener)

I’m happy to admit that I’m no fan of these holiday-read blockbusters but I simply couldn’t put this historical novel down. Based around the one-sided agreement – the covenant – that Afrikaaners believed they had with God (and thus enabling them to justify apartheid), this book is the perfect introduction to the labyrinthine history of South Africa – black, white, coloured, Chinese and Indian characters are intertwined in story that throws in historical figures to lend an air of authenticity.

It’s easy to read, saves you from having to plough through endless po-faced books on South African history and offers a convincing explanation of just what the hell apartheid was about.

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