Our pick of the 10 best non-fiction books on Africa in 2014 - good for 2015 too

Spruce up your knowledge of the continent, by putting your mind to the right literature.

The past year was hardly punctuated by prolificacy but what did come out more than made up for it. We sample ten of the most thought-provoking ones here, and if you missed them they are still good for 2015 and beyond:

1: Fortunes of Africa: A 5,000 Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavor—Martin Meredith

Martin Meredith’s mastery of Africa’s history is uncontested, captured in a series of books, and with Fortunes of Africa he hits the same heights as before, maybe too fast, so leading to an overview instead of analyses.

The renowned journalist, biographer and historian in the new account says Africa’s history is summed up as one of plunder, both ancient and current, with a myriad of examples chronologically drawn from all over the continent.

Some reviewers note that there is a dearth of African characters in the book, but few African enthusiasts will be disappointed. 

2: Ghandi before India—Ramachandra Guha

You would hardly lack literature on Mohandas Gandhi, but in this book Ramachandra Guha breaks new ground with this richly explored account of Gandhi’s time in South Africa, before his eventual departure in 1914.

He for example is able to both prop up and challenge Gandhi’s own historical accounts including by mining primary data not accessed before. In one revealing narration Guha shows how contact with Pakistan’s revered founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah took place a full ten years before previously documented. He also captures the conflicted role of Indians in African nationalist movements, among a dazzling array of other uncharted areas.

3: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History—Elizabeth Kolbert

This book may not strictly fall in the category of books on Africa, but we include it because it addresses a topic that disproportionately affects the continent: climate change.

Elizabeth Kolbert, a staffer at The New Yorker, is a renowned science writer, and in this book she examines at the role of man-made climate change in what biologists term the sixth mass extinction—the loss of animals and plants that could end up to 50% of all living species of earth within this century. 

Five mass extinction events have already occurred, since the origin of life on earth 3.8 billion years ago. We bet you didn’t know that—all the more reason for  you to delve into this book.   

4: Emerging Africa: How the Global Economy’s ‘Last Frontier’ Can Prosper and Matter—Kingsley Moghalu

This is one of the more outstanding books by an African author on how Africa can beat the hype and achieve a lasting economic take-off, and comes as the world debates “Africa Rising”. 

Kingsley Moghalu, a former Nigeria central bank deputy governor with extensive experience working for the United Nations, sets this book on a strong foundation, with a focus on how the region must first shift its entire paradigm by adopting a “world view”. 

He the details the role of policy, strong institutions and political will in crafting a sustainable growth, drawing in bits from the high performing Asian ‘miracle’ economies but adding a distinctly African flavour to it. If you overlook the obvious emphasis on Nigeria you will be enthralled by this book. 

5: Congo: The Epic History of A People—David Van Reybrouck

The Congo remains one of the most written about polities in Africa, with seemingly a book every other year. But David Van Reybrouk’s version is still refreshing, capturing the country’s journey through hundreds of years in its history through a mix of strong research and some 500 interviews. 

He even manages to weave in his own family’s history—his father was a railway engineer there before he was born, helping “intimise” the book. Crucially, he talks to the people who really matter: the Congolese, including a 126-year-old source, rendering the book both readable and academically rigorous.

6: What’s gone wrong?: South Africa on the Brink of a Failed Statehood—Alex Boraine

Looking at modern South Africa, it is hard to shake off the feeling of a greatly missed opportunity, just two decades after the African National Congress won the country’s first democratic elections in 1994.

Alex Boraine draws on his wide experience as a parliamentarian, church man and a deputy chair of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to track where the wagons fell of the track for the Rainbow Nation. He delves into both the political and social, discarding the velvet gloves, but importantly, also offers a way forward.

7. China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa—Howard French

Drawing from his deep and nuanced experiences on the continent, journalist Howard French chronicles how deep China’s tentacles spread into the Africa, as thousands of Chinese make their way in search of a fortune on the continent.

As expected tensions with locals have taken root, and French, a former New York Times bureau chief in both West Africa and China, in a very observant way captures the emerging social trends beyond the headline economic activities, leaving the reader with the gripping feeling that China’s bitter-sweet dalliance with Africa has a long way to run.

8: Why States Recover: Changing Walking Societies into Winning Nations—Greg Mills

Using a rich tapestry of deep case studies, South African political scientist Greg Mills shows why states’ prosperity ultimately depends on leadership, institutions and the nature of politics.

From Zimbabwe to Somaliland, Kenya to Sierra Leone, Mills does a convincing analysis of the individual country challenges, and shows how they can be turned round to transform struggling states into strong, viable ones.

9:  Africa is Open for Business: Ten Years of Game Changing Headlines—Victor Kgomoeswana

South African author, media personality and business speaker Victor Kgomoeswana puts out this collection of 50 strong individual essays on Africa’s socio-economic landscape, and like Moghalu, weaves into it strong Afro-optimism, talking of the continent’s renaissance being a reality.

He however does not shy away from highlighting the challenges and risks of trading within the continent, but captures the rich opportunities drawn from his work with multinationals, including through a review of business success stories, and inspiring business leaders.

10: Good Morning, Mr Mandela: A Memoir—Zelda la Grange

Simply one of the most debated books in Africa this year, many descriptions have been employed to describe the account by Nelson Mandela’s private secretary Zelda la Grange of life under the statesman.

Intriguing, funny, bitter, engaging, stuffy, humanising, revealing, heartbreaking, vindictive, remarkable… are just some of them. We urge you to form your own judgment.

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