Marisha Pessl advises her readers to always live their lives with their biographies in mind. It seems a number of eminent South Africans have heeded this counsel by the American writer and author of Special Topics in Calamity Physics, a darkly hilarious coming-of-age novel.
Twenty-four years after the birth of democracy in South Africa, the remarkable story and rich history of our beloved country continues to unravel. It can be seen that if newspapers are the draft of history, then biographies are the personal chronicles of our times. Some are more revealing of their subject matter’s intimate details – the so-called tell-it-all narratives – while others are more circumspect and prefer to deal more with matters of national significance.
Most political biographies tend to fall in the latter category, but they are not necessarily bland for a history fundi. Last year, a number of strong political biographies and memoirs hit the bookshelves and enriched our understanding of South African history and some of its influential players – past and present, deceased and living.
● Nelson Mandela, Dare Not Linger: The Presidential Years (MacMillan), by Mandela and Mandla Langa, is a sequel to Mandela’s celebrated autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom (MacDonald Purnell, 1994). It is both long overdue and timely.
It is a welcome addition to the literary landscape, as South Africa and the world reflect on the late statesman’s legacy in the year of his centenary. However, unlike its predecessor, it is presented in the second person narrative and it’s therefore more of a biography than an autobiography.
It is based on a memoir that Mandela began during his presidency, but couldn’t complete due to political commitments. It was left to Langa to complete the unfinished manuscript, by using a wealth of archival material kept at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Houghton, Johannesburg. This included Mandela’s speeches, interviews and handwritten comments on a variety of matters.
Langa is essentially a fiction writer, but in this instance he has demonstrated a remarkable grasp of non-fiction prose. The result is a moving account that evokes nostalgia through the way that it relives those exciting years. However, the book glosses over some matters that – with the benefit of hindsight – warrant comprehensive treatment. One of these incidents involved a prominent member of the ANC who was expelled by Madiba.
● Bantu Holomisa: The Game Changer, a biography by journalist Eric Naki, provides content and context to the episode that led to the former Transkei leader forming his own opposition party, the United Democratic Movement (UDM).
Bantustan politics were an essential element of South African history during apartheid and Bantu Holomisa occupied a unique place in this regard. The Holomisa biography looks at his rural and royal upbringing in a traditional setting in the old Transkei.
Two interesting episodes concern his overthrow of the kleptocratic Matanzima brothers – Kaizer and George, president and prime minister respectively – in a coup, and how he allowed free military activity in the territory for the then banned ANC/PAC-aligned MK/Apla cadres, only to be given his marching orders when he criticised corruption within the ANC-led government.
One of President Jacob Zuma’s sharpest critics, Holomisa’s UDM hasn’t made significant strides in terms of attracting massive support to unseat the ANC at the polls, but undoubtedly he would prefer a Cyril Ramaphosa presidency to take the country forwards and hopefully rid it of corruption.
● Ramaphosa: The Man Who Would Be King (Jonathan Ball Publishers), by Ray Hartley, is also a timely title about the man who is heading to the highest seat in the Union Buildings.
The book traces his humble township beginnings, rise to union politics as a champion of the mineworkers, his role as key negotiator during the transition period, his forays into big business and how he became president-in-waiting.
The author relies heavily on Anthony Butler’s seminal work, Cyril Ramaphosa (Jacana, 2007), and prefaces each chapter with quotations from the said book. However, Hartley offers a fresh and engrossing perspective of South African politics over the past 10 years.
In the process, he writes essentially about current affairs, rather than the man himself.
● My Own Liberator: A Memoir, by Dikgang Moseneke (Picador). Like the new ANC president, Dikgang Moseneke has the reputation of being an enigma, but the Life Esidimeni arbitration hearings have offered the public a rare glimpse into the country’s former deputy chief justice – his good sense of humour, dignified bearing and no-nonsense demeanour.
His memoir reflects upon his early politicisation growing up in Atteridgeville, Pretoria, his arrest and imprisonment on Robben Island as a member of the PAC at age 15, and rise within the legal fraternity as a human rights lawyer and judge.
● The Man Who Founded the ANC: A Biography of Pixley ka Isaka Seme (Penguin), by Bongani Ngqulunga, is the most important biography to have been released in 2017. Detailed, well researched, balanced and exquisitely written, it is a vista of black politics of the early 20th century.
US- and British-educated Seme was regarded as the moving spirit of the ANC and, indeed, one of the significant pioneers of protest politics in South Africa.
● The Backroom Boy: Andrew Mlangeni’s Story (Wits University Press), by Mandla Mathebula, recounts the Rivonia Trialist’s years on Robben Island, where his cell was adjacent to that of Mandela.
The book opens in 1962, when he met, while undergoing military training, China’s supreme communist leader Mao Zedong. In the final analysis, while 2017 was a productive year for political biographies, it is regrettable that there are no discernible ones about women, except Thuli Madonsela’s No Longer Whispering to Power (Jonathan Ball Publishers), by journalist Thandeka Gqubule.
It is a searing account of how the former public protector spoke truth to power. Hopefully an Albertina Sisulu biography is in the pipeline to mark her centenary. She was born in 1918. To paraphrase Marisha Pessl, it is important for biographers to bear in mind the lives of struggle heroines, including Albertina Sisulu and Lilian Ngoyi.