Two great new books on Africa

December 2, 2008

     By Duncan Green     

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.

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.


December 2, 2008
Duncan Green