History in your pocket

In an age of freely available information online, there’s something reassuring about these beautiful 160-page Jacana pocket books. They tell complete stories and provide insight and interpretation that’s worth paying for.

One simply engages more completely with the information when it’s in print like this.

The latest of these books offer brief looks at some of the most influential African leaders of the 20th century, perhaps the most poignant being Chris Hani. Much like two other titles in the recent releases – about Patrice Lumumba and Thomas Sankara – Hani’s life and work were cut short by those who despised socialism and the idea of Africans taking charge of their own destinies for the greater good.

Reading about Sankara and Lumumba, speculation can only increase: what would the continent have looked like had leaders such as these been allowed to introduce, develop and sustain the social and political changes they dreamt of? They believed in an Africa that could be self-sustaining, prosperous and egalitarian – in short, an Africa that would threaten postcolonial elite and foreign interests.

Sankara turned down foreign aid, planned to plant millions of trees to fight desertification, wanted to double Burkina Faso’s food output and had ambitious nationalisation plans. He was also far ahead of most of the world’s rulers (never mind Africa’s) when it came to the rights of women. Both he and Lumumba’s grand African visions were murderously cut short by foreign and elite interests who chose the prospect of self-centred dictators willing to maintain the status quo and the subjugation of the masses over anything that might see poor Africans “getting ahead of their station”.

The fourth book, about Emperor Haile Selassie, is about the extreme reverse: here was a man who had all the time in the world to try out any number of social plans and ideas – Selassie ruled Ethiopia in some form or the other from 1916 to 1974.

But for all his brilliance and the intermittent good he achieved, he became an object lesson in what inevitably seems to happen when any ruler stays in power too long – runaway corruption in his government eventually led to a military coup.

Fortunately, none of these books offers one-dimensional hagiographies of their subjects and their authors are carefully chosen. The writers know that these were good men who had their flaws.

In some ways they have become myths, idolised by other Africans who dream of what might have been. As a result, the lives and ideas of these revolutionaries are today more relevant than ever.

If you want to be part of the growing discourse here in South Africa on revolution – what it really is, and what it might still come to mean – then this series of books would not be a bad starting point.

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