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.

Johannesburg 8

picture by flickr user lemoncat1

There’s a lot of talk in the run-up to the World Cup about branding Johannesburg as a “world class city.” One way to understand what that really means is to look at what cities are generally perceived as being worthy of the term. I came across the New York Times’ Globespotters blog today. It’s a group blog with posts written about Amsterdam, Berlin, Hong Kong, Istanbul, London, Madrid, Mumbai, Paris, and Rome. Perhaps it is not so suprising that no city from what us PC liberals call the Global South made the list (I don’t know, does Mumbai count?).

It’s worth debating the merits of Johannesburg as a world-class city. It’s definitely got the concentration of cultural and intellectual happenings to meet the threshold in that area. Tawana Kupe at the School of Humanities at Wits is doing a great job of bringing together local and international experts to debate in public many of the key political and economic issues facing South Africa today. Arts and music at local universities, small clubs, large concert halls, and exhibition spaces are abundant. Great food is easy to find. Perhaps most importantly, Johannesburg is a truly international city. It’s the business hub of the continent, one of its artistic hubs, and definitely a sporting center of the world (top-rated cricket and rugby teams … soccer is in the mid-seventies).

So why does it never make lists like that in the Times‘ “Globespotters” blog (which I’ve arbitrarily designated the be all and all of the designation “world class”)? I think some of this might relate to the immense poverty that is both in the actual city and close by in surrounding townships. Then again, Mumbai is not so different from here in that regard.

One answer, and this is definitely not a silver bullet, is that Johannesburg’s presence on the international scale of the lettered (read: internet-savvy) classes is much diminished. Last year I moved to Philadelphia (probably less of a “world-class city” than Johannesburg in my book) and quickly began working as a journalist there. Though I hadn’t followed politics and urban life there that closely while I was at college just minutes away, it only took me a few days to find a number of websites and blogs that brought me up to speed. I knew what the network of information about Philadelphia was, and the information was in-depth and accessible. Johannesburg is not like this at all. Much of the online commentary that I’ve found about life in Johannesburg is not presented in an accessible way, and is not always that interesting. Then again, maybe there’s something I’ve missed — if so someone please point that out to me.

I think the media strategy on the internet in South Africa is quite complicated given the relative lack of internet penetration (and particularly broadband penetration). But those issues are related to a domestic audience. Being a world-class city means having a presence that is accessible from both outside and in. No top-down marketing campaign can help Johannesburg in this regard. I’ll be curious to see how the cultural life of the city can become more internet-friendly as the World Cup approaches. Will the election set off a non-stop wave of attention on South Africa through next June? Will all that attention be good? How will private citizen journalists, established news media, and the government work to look outwards as the world turns its eyes this way?