The best books to understand “what is wrong” with Africa – and what is right

Irina Filatova Author Of The Hidden Thread. Russia and South Africa in the Soviet Era
By Irina Filatova

Who am I?

I am a South African historian of Russian origin, who has studied and taught African history since the late 1960s. For us, the Russians, Africa was then an alluring terra incognita of wild nature, adventure, human suffering, struggles, and tenacity. I have studied how Africa became what it is for 50 years and lived in it for 30. I have learnt a lot about it, but for me it is still a land of human suffering, struggles and tenacity, wild nature, and adventure, and it is still alluring. 

I wrote...

The Hidden Thread. Russia and South Africa in the Soviet Era

By Irina Filatova,

Book cover of The Hidden Thread. Russia and South Africa in the Soviet Era

What is my book about?

For most of the 20th century Russia and South Africa seemed two worlds completely and entirely apart, and yet relations between them were surprisingly intense and diverse. During the Anglo–Boer War Russian volunteers, doctors and nurses came to South Africa to fight for the Boers. After the Bolshevik revolution South African Communists joined the Communist International, an international organisation, which was centred in Moscow and defined the policy of its member parties.

During the Second World War South Africans went to great lengths to assist the Soviet struggle against Nazi Germany, sending money, food, clothes, and medicines to Russia. But it was the Soviet Union’s multifaceted and partially hidden support for the struggle against apartheid, that left an indelible imprint not only on the relations between the two countries, but on what South Africa’s ruling party and the country itself are today.

The Books I Picked & Why

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By John Iliffe,

Book cover of Africans: The History of a Continent

Why this book?

There are thousands of histories of Africa, but only this one ties together environment, economy, demography, and society. In just 300 pages Iliffe presents Africa’s history from the birth of humankind to the mid-1990s. His history of Africa is the story of hardship and social adjustment in which population numbers are not just the result of variable, though mostly unfavourable, environmental situations, but a tool of survival and progress. This social adjustability, different as it may be from European patterns, allowed the continent’s people to build one of the greatest civilisations on earth. It carried them through natural disasters, invasions, the slave trade, and colonial brutalities, but it struggles with the present pace of demographic expansion – the result of modern medicine and globalisation. 

States and Power in Africa

By Jeffrey Herbst,

Book cover of States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control

Why this book?

Jeffrey Herbst also looks at the past and present of the African continent, and ecology and demography also come into his story. But his main subject is the specific nature of power and state in Sub–Saharan Africa and the inter-relations between the two. He traces this defining aspect of Africa’s reality through several centuries and presents it within the global context by drawing in experiences of self-organisation of power and state in other continents and regions. Continuity is for him the key to understanding the precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial past and even the future of the continent.


By Paul Kenyon,

Book cover of Dictatorland: The Men Who Stole Africa

Why this book?

Rich in interesting and juicy detail, this account of governance in Africa presents a chronicle, rather than an analysis, of what was, and still is, wrong with the continent. Kenyon tells the story of state and power differently, basing it on personalities and circumstances, rather than ages-long continuities. His personalities are the corrupt leaders of seven unhappy countries, who managed to amass enormous power and keep it for decades. With such personalities come passions, greed, and immeasurable cruelty to their compatriots, all presented in intimate detail, as the author saw it all – he was there. But the global context does not go away. None of his “heroes” could have turned into the monsters they became without the interaction with and support, even if indirect, of global actors who needed the resources which their countries possess, natural or human. 

It's Our Turn to Eat

By Michela Wrong,

Book cover of It's Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower

Why this book?

Michela Wrong’s story centres on one country, Kenya, and one person, but it resonates throughout the continent and far beyond it – everywhere, where corruption is as systemic, as it is in Kenya. John Githongo, a journalist who fought corruption, was appointed to head an anti–corruption unit by a new president. As in every decent detective novel, involving corruption, the hero discovers that the roots lead to the very top, finds the proof and, after many adventures, publicizes it. Only this is not a novel, though it certainly reads like one. Wrong’s hero is a real person, who did what he did and who suffered for it. This is a story of personal honesty, decency, and courage. But this is also an inside story of how many African societies work. 

The Seed Is Mine

By Charles Van Onselen,

Book cover of The Seed Is Mine: The Life of Kas Maine, A South African Sharecropper

Why this book?

Kas Maine was also a real person: a barely literate South African peasant who lived through the Anglo–Boer war and the creation of the Union, through two world wars and almost four decades of the apartheid era. Van Onselen has managed to reconstruct not only this peasant’s chores, but his world, his thinking, and modus operandi in a fast-changing surrounding. This was the professional feat that elevated the author to the highest rank among those who have ever written about South Africa. Negotiating hostile circumstances far beyond his knowledge and understanding Kas Maine archives success – only to be crushed by the vicissitudes of apartheid. Yet, he goes on. And on. This is not just a story of the cruelty of apartheid. This is a story of tenacity, perseverance, and survival.  Kas Maine’s was a sad life of defeat – and yet of a human triumph. 

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