I don’t know why I felt the need exactly to separate the following books from the previous two categories. I think I try to use a book once in a while to pull back from some of the more particularized reading that I do. So here are what I call “books about ideas” that I read this year.

South Africa

It can get pretty troublesome, though tempting, to discuss a  place as an idea. I don’t want to get into the pros and cons necessarily, but a new anthology of academic and personal essays about Johannesburg, entitled Johannesburg: Elusive Metropolis, shows why it is important to consider Johannesburg as a unique kind of space. Totally dehumanizing and afraid in one sense, it is also a staging ground for all kinds of 21st century African realities: immigration, inner city and peri-urban urbanization of poverty, etc. And don’t let me forget the incredible art, culture, and life that comes out of all this craziness. Missing from either section in the book (academic or personal essays) was a real discussion of the structural issues of urban poverty that are so central to Johannesburg as both a unique city, and was, what many of the writers describe as a quintessentially African city. I was happily surprised to see a favorite former professor of mine, Tim Burke, — described by Sarah Nuttal as “one of the few theorists of African consumer culture” — cited in this book. You can find his internet writings here.


Mike Davis’ Planet Of Slums was a good review of recent literature on the subject of urban poverty. Get through some of the rhetoric — the book is way too “grounded” in the literature and not much reporting on the actual ground — but it is a helpful intro to some of the basic issues and facts.

Hernando de Soto’s Mystery Of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs In The West And Fails Everywhere Else was similarly useful as a starting point. In my work these days, I see policy makers twist his analyses into the simple silver bullets that they are not. Still, the book is a good introduction to some of the ways that land tenure is a fundamental aspect of urban poverty.

The really big picture

I would like to say that “poverty” as a heading is synonymous with “the big picture.” And I do fundamentally believe that poverty is the biggest issue we face as humanity working towards some kind of transcendental enlightenment. But I read two books this year that aim for the biggest macro lens possible, so it is worth somehow putting them into a separate category for the sake of convenience.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue in Empire that the subjects of 21st century “Empire” with a capital E are not the same as previous forms of lower case “i” imperialism. Sovereign boundaries and state structures are not the ultimate determinants of power, but merely tools for global institutions and structures. And the question to ask, they say, is not when to resist, but when not to resist these structures. Since reading this book, I can’t even count how many times I see contradictions of the current order as articulated by Hardt and Negri.

Amartya Sen takes on John Rawls and seemingly all other modern philosophers of justice in The Idea Of Justice. We should not be so concerned with the theoretical perfect system of justice, and focus on principles geared towards increasing justice in the real world, he argues. A compelling plea for both engaged theorizing and action.

Non-fiction for reading for me in the past year generally fell into two main categories: straight-up history and more journalistic narrative. I’ll reserve a third post in my “reading 2009” series for books that I read that fall more into the category of what I call “books about ideas.” Ideas and ideologies are in all kinds of writing, but in that third category this is more explicitly the case.

In any event, it was unsurprising to me that much of my non-fiction reading focused on straight-up history and journalism in South Africa. South Africa is a particularly vibrant place in terms of commentary and other kinds of political and historical writing. New books are coming out all the time on a variety of relevant subjects. It’s the kind of country that is small enough that there are always gaps waiting to be filled. At the same time there is so much energy in this young democracy that keeps writers and readers pushing to fill these holes.

South African politics and current events

By no stretch of the imagination did my reading in South African politics and long-form journalism run the true gamut of what has come out in the last few years. Before I left, I devoured Jonny Steinberg’s Three Letter Plague (published in the USA as Sizwe’s Test). The story follows a young man in a particularly poor, AIDS-riven area of the Eastern Cape who is deciding whether to take an AIDS test. At around the same time, a Medecins Sans Frontier doctor is trying to set up testing and care programs throughout the province. It’s an all-too-rare example of examining a problem equally from three different angles: intellectual / scientific, interpersonal, and political. And Steinberg is just a damn good writer.

Also, on HIV/AIDS was The Virus, Vitamins And Vegetables: The South African HIV/AIDS Mystery edited by Kerry Cullinan and Anso Thom of the Health-E News Service. A series of essays by journalists, doctors, and activists about the ideological and bureaucratic pathologies of the Mbeki government in developing and implementing — perhaps it would be better to say not developing and not implementing — its HIV/AIDS policy.

Another book of essays on recent South African events was the University of Witwatersrand’s collection on the xenophobic attacks in 2008. A lot of good stuff, including Anton Harber’s essay on media complicity and oblivion on this issue (see my earlier discussion of this essay here). This is an issue that too often gets reduced to self-righteous preening and demagoguery when it really demands careful nuance like in Go Home Or Die Here: Violence, Xenophobia And The Reinvention Of Difference In South Africa. It also has a lot of impressive photos by Alon Skuy, a former colleague at The Times.

Jeremy Gordin’s biography of Jacob Zuma did not have particular insight, but it worked well for me as an open-minded “just the facts” approach to a compelling personality. It was especially useful to read prior to the election in April. Mainstream media in this country was a bit of a disgrace in that, only after he was elected, did many who were perfectly willing to pontificate on their fears about a Zuma presidency learn even basic facts of his rather impressive life.

South African history

Philip Bonner and Noor Nieftagodien’s new history of Alexandra township in Johannesburg was inspiring to me as a documenter and historian. Their reliance on hard-nosed field work combined with substantive archival research is a great example for most any kind of history. They could not have written this book without involving people in the community in their field research. Their integration of such a community-based approach to history should serve as a model for further work in modern South African, as well as in other places.

I grew up with a lot of South African jazz that my father used to have in his music collection. Now that I live in South Africa, I’ve been able to explore this a lot more deeply for myself. Gwen Ansell’s Soweto Blues: Jazz, Popular Music & Politics In South Africa connects a lot of the dots in SA jazz history — the early Sophiatown days, exile, rural-urban migration, democracy — and does it in her usual, welcome, no-nonsense style readers of her regular Business Day column know well.

A random assortment

I finally got around to Michela Wrong’s account of the Mobutu Sese-Seko’s fall from power in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), In The Footsteps Of Mr. Kurtz. Shows what happens when a talented journalist gets the opportunity to examine the historical big picture, pull away from the mere day-to-day, while still incorporating her own first-hand reportage.

I am somewhat embarassed that I spent any amount of time reading Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent Of Money. This is mainly because he has been such an incorrigible deficit hawk in his recent newspaper commentary. Still, the book is a pretty accessible financial history, with some interesting anecdotes along the way.

I finally got around to Peter Hessler’s first memoir, River Town: Two Years On The Yangtze. I have been a big fan of Hessler since reading his Oracle Bones a few years ago, and subsequently catching a lot of his articles in the New Yorker magazine. His writing is always compelling and insightful, and he sticks out among American observers of China for two reasons: (1) he is a real student of the country’s history and (2) he integrates the history into his contemporary stories with particular elegance. I’m looking forward to his new book, Country Driving, which is supposed to come out early next year.

Quick quiz question: 2006, 2008, 2009 — What do these three years have in common in South Africa?

These were years when the public at-large, the middle classes, the bourgeoisie, the media, the establishment, or whatever else you might call it, started paying attention, if momentarily to poor people. In those three years major instances of often violent protests erupted in townships and slums throughout the country.

Unfortunately for poor people, and for the greater understanding of everyone involved, the reasons for these demonstrations have often gotten lost in a fiery haze. In 2008, the protests took the form of xenophobic attacks on foreign-born store owners and other migrants living in South Africa.

Such violence was clearly reprehensible. It also gave middle classes an excuse to ignore the valid frustrations of poor people whose frustrations boiled over in a particularly disgusting way. Instead of being ashamed in its complicity with a system that deprives the poor, toiling in sewage-ridden, shack-filled, unsafe and unfit slums, the middle class could rest on its outraged high horse. How dare South Africans attack others simply for not being South African?

Such sentiments are all well and good, but they also smack of willful ignorance. The violence in places like Alexandra last year was not fundamentally about hatred of foreigners. The acts of hatred were symptomatic of a greater frustration with the lack of progress in many townships. Based on my interviews with a number of shack-dwelling residents of Alex over the past four months (and I will grant the limits of this kind of anecdotal evidence), a discussion of foreigners is always accompanied by the larger issue of the general state of living in the township. “How can all these foreigners come here when things are already so out of control?” “We can’t get any jobs. Why can they get jobs?”

The frustration is not so much with foreigners, as the overall state of living. So witness the protests in Thokoza and Balfour this past week as the latest example of protests that appear to have hit closer to the mark in terms of public perception. This, despite worrying instances of xenophobic attacks attached to the demonstrations. “Service delivery” is once again the name of the game.

I interviewed Udesh Pillay, an expert on “service delivery” at the Human Sciences Research Council. He points out that the ongoing protests have their roots not in xenophobia, but in the more fundamental struggle for human dignity in the 1980s against apartheid. Many of the protests of this time focused on specific issues like rent prices and utility services, while aiming to “render ungovernable” townships throughout the country.

In the case of apartheid, the government could not respond because it was born of a system that was inherently illegitimate. Now, the government has been elected through legitimate means, but does not have the structures that will allow for constructive engagement with communities. Democracy does not end with elections. Community engagement with elected officials is the real nuts and bolts of democracy, a way for the will of the people to be heard and developed in the public sphere.

“Service delivery,” Pillay told me, is then a stand-in phrase for the greater lack of accountability that currently exists in slum governance. I would argue that it is this lack of accountability that is totally anathema to the middle-class-driven public debate on this issue. The assumption is much more cynical, and anti-democratic. They elected Zuma and the ANC. This is what they get. Why are they so violent and xenophobic? Why are their leaders so incompetent?

In order to move forward, such questions need to be replaced by those informed by a more democratic point of view. How can communities engage consistently and constructively with local government? This is an issue that has never been practiced well in South Africa. The apartheid government enacted policies concerning the overwhelmingly black poor without consultation, and in the democratic era little has changed in many townships.

Currently up for debate is why the government is not implementing their policies properly. Instead the questions need to be about how the policies are developed in the first place. The likelihood of proper implementation would then be much closer behind.


In a city known for flashy displays of wealth, I found such opulence in what many might consider the least likely of spots. Kin-Malebo, a cafe on Raleigh Street in Yeoville, an inner city neighborhood in Johannesburg known for its large immigrant population.

A sapeur competition of contestants from Congo-Brazzaville (Republic of Congo) and Congo-Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of Congo) was the order of the day. The shoes were worth over US$1000, the designers mostly Italian, the poses striking, and the color coordination either absurdly outlandish, or purposely understated.

“La Sape” is “Central Africa’s equivalent of the Mod movement,” writes Michela Wrong in In The Footsteps Of Mr. Kurtz (2000). “An abbreviation of Society of Ambiencers and Persons of Elegance, La Sape as a movement was actually born across the river in Congo-Brazzaville in the 1970s. But it was in Zaire that it really made its mark, moving hand-in-hand with the explosion of the Lingala music phenomenon onto the international scene and fuelled by the birth of a monied urban elite who had travelled, shopped abroad, and knew their Yamamoto from their Montana, their unstructured jacket from their deconstructed suit.”

… “Asserting oneself (“affirmer”) is one of the key concepts in La Sape’s vocabulary, ranking in importance alongside understanding how to “débarquer” — make an entrance (never, but never, to go unnoticed) — and knowing how to walk. A sapeur’s walk is an art form in itself, a mixture of swagger and stroll as individualistic as a graffiti artist’s tag.”

This week is the anniversary of xenophobic attacks that roiled townships around Johannesburg and in many other parts of the country. Much of the public discourse on the attacks is centered around a notion that South Africans are “ashamed” that other South Africans could be so hateful. I have to admit that, at some level, this strikes me as a bit of cognitive dissonance.

In some ways even more than race (though never divorced from it entirely), the gulf between rich and poor here is the greatest divide this country faces. Those involved in the attacks were the poor of this country. I understand how it is shaming for people abroad to know that such attacks happened in South Africa. It was, of course, embarrassing to travel as an American abroad when W. was in office. Still, it rings a little hollow to suddenly state a common identity with the country’s poor, when so much of South African daily life flaunts that lack of identity.

I commented to a colleague today on the vast proliferation of BMWs on the roads in Johannesburg, easily the highest concentration of the car brand that I have seen anywhere in the world. He laughed knowingly and said, “You know what they say, Black Man’s Wife.”

The wave of xenophobic attacks was a horrific display of the lack of compassion for fellow humans for which anyone is capable. It was also a terrible outcry about the desperate situation in which this country’s poor find themselves. A year later, both the poverty and the anti-foreign sentiments are still rampant. As long as people are without basic housing, water, food, electricity, jobs, etc, such desperation will easily turn to anger. And that anger to violence. It makes sense to stand up to the sentiment that someone from another country has a somehow less worthless life. But then, I imagine, it would be equally important to stand up when the situation of unequal worth of life is pervasive among those already within a given country.

I covered Times photographer Alon Skuy’s exhibit opening of his fantastic photographs from last year’s attacks earlier this week. A real photojournalistic achievement. The video is here.

Though absurd displays of opulence and wealth exist the world over, it does strike me as particularly distasteful in many places in Africa, where the depths of poverty are often so great. So it’s hard do anything but shake one’s head at the hubris of wealth demonstrated by the likely future president of Malawi, John Tembo:

Asked to confirm that he is fabulously rich, the veteran politician laughs off, chuckling: “I cannot say I am rich but I thank God that at least I can afford a glass of wine every day and at least a glass of whisky every week.”

Two (related) ways that township life reflects the day’s headlines = two of my recent video reports for The Times:

Expectations for a Zuma presidency in Alex

Continuing horror of last year’s xenophobic attacks

The announcement a couple of weeks ago that the Home Affairs department was issuing a moratorium on deportation of Zimbabwean refugees was a positive sign to those Zimbabweans languishing in the limbo of undetermined status here. The moratorium was supposed to be in place while Home Affairs figured out how to implement the distribution of temporary six month residence permits to Zimbabweans who did not have another kind of permit.

Things aren’t looking good on that front. In the border town of Musina, SAPA is reporting that police are continuing with deportations despite the Home Affairs order. One of the problems with immigration policy is that there’s too much of an incentive for border police to behave in an extortionary way, instead of focusing on enforcing actual border policy. I would not be surprised if demands for money and / or sex are going right along with the deportations that SAPA is reporting. A mere order from Home Affairs is not likely to do much without increased attention paid to the everyday practices and lives of those implementing the policy on the ground.

Closer to me in Johannesburg, UNHCR seems to have finally begun moving some of the migrants staying at the Central Methodist Church to the building in Rossetenville about which I reported two weeks ago. Still, these problems seem far from a resolution:

Godfrey Charamba, chairman of the Methodist Refugee Community, told The Zimbabwe Times Sunday that following uncertainty over their continued stay at the new places, most refugees especially economic immigrants who fled their country’s decade-long economic crisis, now had “second thoughts” about remaining in South Africa.

“This relocation issue has affected us badly,” said Charamba in an interview.

“We have not been told on what will happen to us at the expiry of the lease period in those shelters, meaning that our chances of remaining there after that three months period are very slim.”

Charamba said that most refugees had already made it known to both the church authorities, Gauteng Local Government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that they now wished to return to Zimbabwe.

“A team comprising UNHCR, the mayor’s office and local government officials came here last week and asked whether we wanted to be relocated locally or to be taken back to Zimbabwe,” said Charamba. “Most people said that they wanted to return home.

“In fact, more than 800 refugees have said they prefer to be repatriated and now we are waiting for that to happen, because our stay in the new shelters will be short-lived.”

Charamba, who also attended that meeting, added that besides the three-month lease at some of the shelters, rentals there were so expensive that it would be unsustainable for the refugees to remain there.

A common historical thread of South African urban life is conflict related to public transportation. In the 1940s Alexandra residents boycotted buses because they raised fares to an untenable level. Today, taxi and bus drivers strike because of low wages, or, in the case of taxi drivers, fears of replacement by new, more centralized public transportation schemes, BRT or bus rapid transit. Something strikes me as wrong here. When taxi and bus drivers strike, it’s the people who use these modes of transportation who are left scrambling for ways to get to work. I want to be on the side of the workers, but it seems to me like the masses just trying to get a day’s wage are the ones getting screwed the most. And it’s not just strikes. Unsafe drivers are an all-too-common complaint about taxi drivers in particular.

The New York Times’ “Freakonomics” blog links to a study by James Habyarimana and William Jack of the Center for Global Development on how safety is improving on bus advertisement at a time in Kenya:

Habyarimana and Jack report the results of a fascinating field experiment they carried out, putting posters in over 1,000 randomly chosen Kenyan mini-buses. The posters told passengers to speak up if the driver drove dangerously.

And it really seems to have worked. Using data on insurance claims, the authors find that the buses that got these posters saw large declines in crashes relative to the control group, and the accident reduction appears to persist, as long as the signs remain posted.

People who use public transport in South Africa will need to find effective mechanisms to express their voice as these conflicts continue and likely heighten as transportation infrastructure developments continue in the lead-up to the World Cup. As the title of Steven Levitt’s post suggests,”Bus-riders of the world unite!”

From an article of mine published today by The Times:

Confusion reigns at the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg CBD, as there has been little progress in arrangements to move the estimated 2,840 primarily Zimbabwean migrants staying at the church.

Frustrated residents said that they were told that the move would begin last week. Once that passed without any action, they had expected to move this week.

Local government, in collaboration with the UN High Commission on Refugees, decided this week to postpone any planned move until better communication could be established with those staying at the church, said local government spokesperson Lebo Tladinyane.

Read the rest here (and watch a related video here).

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees claims that keeping Zimbabwean refugees in camps in Musina, a border town in the Limpopo province, will expose the migrants to xenophobic attacks. Many of those who already left Musina after the South African government closed down the last temporary camps there ended up seeking shelter at the Central Methodist Church in the Central Business District of Johannesburg. Last week, the church faced a suit alleging that the refugees roaming the streets around the church were driving away customers from local businesses. Gauteng province MEC Dorothy Mahlangu stated immediately that she opposed sheltering the new arrivals in the church.

So where are these people going to go? For all the electioneering going on right now, immigration is nowhere to be found on any party’s agenda.

Newspapers here have a mixed record covering the ongoing immigration crisis, which led to a surprised reaction to last year’s xenophobic riots in some South African cities. One small newspaper that has done a lot in the wake of those riots to bring more attention to the issue of immigrants and the hardship they face in many communities is the Daily Dispatch from East London. International readers may recognize the name as the former home of journalist Donald Woods who wrote a memoir about his relationship with Steve Biko. The paper is doing some of the most relevant work today on immigration, and its latest in-depth feature on the relationship between locals and new migrants from Somalia in nearby New Brighton township is definitely worth a read.