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.

Allow me to get back to something I let fly before I got caught up in the final dash of the campaign. The Daily Sun might be the most relevant newspaper in South Africa.

I’ve made this claim to academics, journalist colleagues, and — perhaps misguidedly — to editors of other South African newspapers. The first uniform response is a hearty chuckle followed by a “you can’t be serious” rejoinder. Oh, but I am.

To most upper/middle-class literate, educated South Africans, the Daily Sun is known for its fantastic tales of schoolgirls overtaken by evil spirits, tokoloshes, sensational revenge murders, and other sordid tales common to the tabloid newspaper genre. And when I say “tabloid” I’m not just talking about the size of the page on which these stories are printed.

So why do I find myself paying the two rand for a copy usually at least twice a week? Because the Daily Sun has stories about the real lived experience of the working-class and poor in this country that are often invisible to the rest of the country. I realized this first hand when the situation of refugees overflowing out of the Central Methodist Church hit the pages of the Sun a full day before it was picked up by any of the other newspapers. Page through the classifieds, and you can see that the sexual preoccupations of many blue collar South Africans — documented in Jonny Steinberg’s absolutely essential Three Letter Plague — are alive and well. The daily feature called “Home Affairs Horrors” documents how chronic mismanagement of home affairs offices has left many South Africans without the means to pursue basic employment and education. It also exposes a greater preoccupation with the bureaucratic machinery of delivery that dominates the lives of South Africa’s working-class. Mention allocation of RDP houses to a resident of Alexandra, for instance, and I near guarantee that this worry lies beneath whatever response you will receive.

Perhaps the greatest example of the Daily Sun‘s relevance as a voice for the poor is its coverage of the xenophobic riots last year. For those with any familiarity with the Sun’s coverage of that ugly episode, you might be apopleptic at this point. WHAT?! Isn’t the Sun the same newspaper that stoked xenophobic anger as the violence raged on?

To that I answer, “Yes, but.”

Wits journalism professor Anton Harber shows how the situation is much more complex than it may at first seem. In an essay eventually printed in a fantastic collection of essays about the riots, he compares the coverage of the affair in both the Sun and the Star. When I bring up this essay, most people tend to point to the fact that Harber notes that the Sun had rather inflammatory coverage while the violence was going on. I think this misses Harber’s greater point, which is that if you had been reading the Sun before the outbreak of violence, what eventually transpired would have been no surprise at all. Frustrations about immigrants taking jobs and houses away from South African citizens living in townships were clear for weeks leading up to the riots, as were the violent rumblings themselves.

The Sun is far and away the most popular newspaper in South Africa. It sells hundreds of thousands more papers than its nearest competitor. The vast majority of this consumer public is much poorer than readers of probably any other newspaper in the country (the Sowetan is probably the only other paper that can shake a stick at the Sun‘s demographics). It’s worth recognizing, then, that while perceived “low,” mass cultural productions may be flawed in terms of a given prescribed notion of social development, it is also important to cultivate those productions that give a voice to people who may otherwise be voiceless. The Sun contains a lot of sensationalist nonsense. At the same time, it expresses a viewpoint that has great currency among often hidden, and rather large swathes of the South African population. Put plainly, to dismiss a publication like the Sun is to do so at your own peril if you care at all to find out what is really going on in this highly complex country.