In the year 2013, I (Tessa) read 40 books. A number of them had to do with South Africa and the surrounding area. For those of you who would like to learn more about our context, I’d like to share with you the best of what I read in 2013.
South Africa History/Context:
Notes From a Fractured Country: Selected Journalism by Jonny Steinberg, After Mandela: The Battle for the Soul of South Africa by Alec Russell, and The Mirror at Midnight: A South Africa Journey by Adam Hochschild.
These three books were hands-down the best ones I read in 2013 for helping me understand better the South African context. Steinberg is a journalist. Notes From a Fractured Country is a collection of essays he wrote for his Business Day (newspaper) column. They are short and incredibly helpful in understanding a variety of issues in contemporary South African life. In a similar vein, After Mandela looks at various issues in South Africa post-1994. I felt like it filled in the story for me where Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom left off. Hochschild’s book, The Mirror at Midnight, is a combination of memoir and history. He examines contemporary South Africa through the lens of the historic 1838 Battle of Blood River (Boers vs. Zulu) as well as the commemoration at the 150th anniversary of the battle. He helped me see some of the layers underneath the context in which we live.
If you want to read a bit about the Apartheid-era, I recommend from my 2013 reading The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay, The Unlikely Secret Agent by Ronnie Kasrils, and Miriam’s Song: A Memoir by Mark Mathabane.
The Power of One is the fictional story of a white boy growing up during the Apartheid-era. Much of the book ends up focusing on boxing, of which I have no interest. But the book is very well written. And for me, the portion where the main character goes to work in the mines was incredibly insightful. The Unlikely Secret Agent is about the white freedom fighter, Eleanor Kasrils. She is no longer living and it is her husband telling her story. The telling is rather simple and over-invested by his perspective. And yet, it is a quick read of another view of the Apartheid-era. Miriam’s Song is a memoir as written by the brother of Miriam. Mark Mathabane has his own memoir, Kafir Boy, which I find to be a much stronger book. But, I was very thankful for his sister’s perspective on growing up in a township during Apartheid.
No Time Like the Present by Nadine Gordimer and The Madonna of Excelsior by Zakes Mda.
Gordimer is a Nobel Prize-winning author who continues to have her finger on the pulse of South Africa. Her latest novel, No Time Like the Present is no exception. The style of writing is makes it difficult to get into at first. But it is worth it. Two South Africans – one Zulu and one white – met during their Apartheid resistance work as young South Africans. In this novel set in the present day, they are married and trying to navigate a mixed-race, mixed-background marriage in the midst of post-Apartheid South Africa. Zakes Mda is equally prolific as an author. This novel, The Madonna of Excelsior, is also set in South Africa as it examines the Immorality Act of the Apartheid-era. We meet Niki and her mixed race daughter and the difficulties they navigate. A good look into the complexities of Apartheid.
Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony. My mom picked this book up while visiting us and read it on her way home. It seemed like a good airport book and I wasn’t impressed with the title. But boy was I wrong. This book chronicles the building of a nature reserve in rural South Africa (in KwaZulu-Natal, the province where we live) and the incorporation of a herd of elephants that no one wanted. The story is delightfully narrated. We read this one as a family while we were on a road-trip. It was the perfect companion. Think of it as a mixture between nature/conservancy, rural Zulu politics, and the surprisingly delightful nature of elephants and you’ll be set to read it.
I love a good mystery and I started two different series that I greatly enjoy. Malla Nunn sets her books in rural KwaZulu Natal during the Apartheid era. A Beautiful Place to Die and Let the Dead Lie are the first two books in the series. I really enjoyed them. I also enjoyed the beginning of a different series by Michael Stanley. His first book, A Carrion Death is set in Botswana and makes wonderful use of the physical setting.
For a very satirical look at contemporary life in Zimbabwe, take a look at the novel, Unlikely Genius of Doctor Cuthbert Kambazuma by Chris Wadman. It is incredibly well-done and is very humorous. I think you will find it funnier if you have some knowledge of Zimbabwe’s recent years.
And if you want to travel to Botswana and read a young reader book, take a look at The Great Cake Mystery: Precious Ramotswe’s Very First Case by Alexander McCall Smith. If you have read books from the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, you will enjoy all the more this book for kids that tells a mystery from the point of view of young Precious (the main character in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series). The illustrations alone are worth it.