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

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.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Africans: The History of a Continent

Irina Filatova Why did I love 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. 

By John Iliffe,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Africans as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In a vast and all-embracing study of Africa, from the origins of mankind to the present day, John Iliffe refocuses its history on the peopling of an environmentally hostile continent. Africans have been pioneers struggling against disease and nature, but during the last century their inherited culture has interacted with medical progress to produce the most rapid population growth the world has ever seen. This new edition incorporates genetic and linguistic findings, throwing light on early African history and summarises research that has transformed the study of the Atlantic slave trade. It also examines the consequences of a rapidly growing…


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

Irina Filatova Why did I love 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 Jeffrey Herbst,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked States and Power in Africa as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Theories of international relations, assumed to be universally applicable, have failed to explain the creation of states in Africa. There, the interaction of power and space is dramatically different from what occurred in Europe. In States and Power in Africa, Jeffrey Herbst places the African state-building process in a truly comparative perspective. Herbst's bold contention--that the conditions now facing African state-builders existed long before European penetration of the continent--is sure to provoke controversy, for it runs counter to the prevailing assumption that colonialism changed everything. This revised edition includes a new preface in which the author links the enormous changes…


Book cover of Dictatorland: The Men Who Stole Africa

Irina Filatova Why did I love 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. 

By Paul Kenyon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Dictatorland as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Financial Times Book of the Year

'Jaw-dropping' Daily Express

'Grimly fascinating' Financial Times

'Humane, timely, accessible and well-researched' Irish Times

The dictator who grew so rich on his country's cocoa crop that he built a 35-storey-high basilica in the jungles of the Ivory Coast. The austere, incorruptible leader who has shut Eritrea off from the world in a permanent state of war and conscripted every adult into the armed forces. In Equatorial Guinea, the paranoid despot who thought Hitler was the saviour of Africa and waged a relentless campaign of terror against his own people. The Libyan army officer…


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

Irina Filatova Why did I love 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. 

By Michela Wrong,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked It's Our Turn to Eat as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A gripping account of both an individual caught on the horns of an excruciating moral dilemma and a continent at a turning point.

When Michela Wrong's Kenyan friend John Githongo appeared one cold February morning on the doorstep of her London flat, carrying a small mountain of luggage, it was clear something had gone very wrong in a country regarded until then as one of Africa's few budding success stories.

Two years earlier, in the wave of euphoria that followed the election defeat of long-serving President Daniel arap Moi, John had been appointed Kenya's new anti-corruption czar. In choosing this…


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

Irina Filatova Why did I love 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. 

By Charles Van Onselen,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Seed Is Mine as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A bold and innovative social history, The Seed is Mine concerns disenfranchised black people who did so much to shape the destiny of South Africa. After years of interviews with Kas Maine and his neighbours, employers, friends, and family - a rare triumph of collaborative courage and dedication - Charles van Onselen has recreated the entire life of a man who struggled to maintain his family in a world dedicated to enriching whites and impoverishing blacks, while South Africa was tearing them apart.


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Bessie

By Linda Kass,

Book cover of Bessie

Linda Kass Author Of Bessie

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Bookstore owner Learner Reader Historical novelist Long distance cyclist

Linda's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

In the bigoted milieu of 1945, six days after the official end of World War II, Bess Myerson, the daughter of poor Russian immigrants living in the Bronx, remarkably rises to become Miss America, the first —and to date only— Jewish woman to do so. At stake is a $5,000 scholarship for the winner.

An intimate fictional portrait of Bess Myerson’s early life, Bessie reveals the transformation of the nearly six-foot-tall, self-deprecating yet talented preteen into an exemplar of beauty, a peripheral quality in her world. It is the unfamiliar secular society of pageantry she must choose to escape her roots as she searches for love and acceptance, eager to make her mark on the world.

Bessie

By Linda Kass,

What is this book about?

Just days after the close of World War II, Bess Myerson, the college-educated daughter of poor Russian Jewish immigrants living in the Bronx, is competing in the Miss America pageant. At stake: a $5,000 scholarship. The tension and excitement in Atlantic City's Warner Theatre is palpable, especially for traumatized Jews rooting for one of their own. So begins Bessie.


Drawing on biographical and historical sources, Bessie reimagines the early life of Bess Myerson, who, in 1945 at age twenty-one, remarkably rises to become one of the most famous women in America. This intimate fictional portrait reveals the transformation of the…


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