The best books for thinking about social justice in Africa

The Books I Picked & Why

How Europe Underdeveloped Africa

By Walter Rodney

Book cover of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa

Why this book?

The canon of anti-colonial, anti-racism writing from and about Africa includes many authors whose passion and insights are sometimes muddied by turgid or masculinist prose. For me, Rodney stands out – and stands the test of time – by the way he so masterfully weaves history into a compelling narrative that utterly demolishes the lies and conceits about supposed Western benevolence toward the continent. Scales fell from my eyes the first time (of many) I read this book. And yes, Rodney is almost as androcentric in his language, sources, and arguments as was the norm in those days. But his acknowledgment of the dignity of African women is implicit, and his discussion of the regressive elements of the colonial economy and education for African women and girls presaged a field of scholarly enquiry and activism that still intrigues me.

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Black Bull, Ancestors and Me: My Life as a Lesbian Sangoma

By Nkunzi Zandile Nkabinde

Book cover of Black Bull, Ancestors and Me: My Life as a Lesbian Sangoma

Why this book?

For those who study or teach about Africa, it is essential to know the pioneers of struggles for justice on the continent. African intellectuals eloquent in European languages began calling out injustices as early as the 18th century. To my mind, however, Nkabinde is a particularly impressive pioneer from the early 21st. It’s not just that African women have been routinely overlooked by historians. The very existence of African lesbians and transwomen was until very recently completely denied. Here, then, for the very first time, an African woman tells of her coming to sexual self-awareness, first as a spirit medium for a powerful male ancestor and then through modern sexual identity discourses. It is a poignant appeal to the humanistic potential of African traditional cultures when married to a universal human rights framework.

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Mistreated: The Political Consequences of the Fight Against AIDS in Lesotho

By Nora Kenworthy

Book cover of Mistreated: The Political Consequences of the Fight Against AIDS in Lesotho

Why this book?

A big mistake in much radical analysis is to characterize problems in dualistic terms that externalize responsibility from Africa (Rodney, of course, is wide open to that critique). Thus, colonialism is not just irredeemably bad but simple to identify and directly related to white skin. The end of formal colonialism provided new targets in sometimes caricature form: black-skin-white-mask neocolonialism and neoliberalism, notably. Such things undoubtedly exist. However, Kenworthy’s brilliant, gob-smacking analysis of the unintended consequences of life-saving technologies reveals levels of complexity and complicity that belie easy dualisms. How does something that promises liberation from mass suffering and death (anti-retroviral drugs) become a machine to entrench corrupt elites and opportunistic NGOs, to sell cheap textiles in America, and to exploit poor women’s unremunerated care work? Read, weep, and lose your illusions about corporate social responsibility.

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Catching Tadpoles: Shaping of a Young Rebel

By Ronnie Kasrils

Book cover of Catching Tadpoles: Shaping of a Young Rebel

Why this book?

This is no less than Kasril’s fourth memoir, and the one that resonates most with my own existential worries as a privileged white man. Why did a nice, working-class, Jewish boy from Johannesburg take up armed struggle against institutionalized racism? Become a cabinet minister in the country’s first democratic government devoted to expanding social welfare for Africans? Become a trenchant critic of the rot that subsequently set into the party he helped bring to power?

With profound humility and wit, Kasrils takes us through his boyhood years to reflect upon the often-humiliating process of acquiring political consciousness. He speaks to anyone with a leg up in a rigged system: it’s good to have existential doubts about your privileges. But you should still, and more importantly, you can still do the right thing.

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We Need New Names

By NoViolet Bulawayo

Book cover of We Need New Names

Why this book?

Social justice activism wherever you are requires a sense of humour. So meet Darling (the narrator), GodKnows, Bastard, Forgiveness, Chipo, and the rest of the nearly-feral gang of pre-teens in Paradise. Their banter, misadventures, and naïve but hard-headed observations of life in an informal settlement in Zimbabwe as the country implodes into cruelty and desperation comprise the first half of this wry, often disturbing but wrily witty novel. In the second half, Darling joins her aunt in “DestroyedMichygan” and learns to navigate the perils of mindless consumerism, African-American teenhood, and the mysteries of the American so-called dream.

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