Annotated list of books on (South) Africa I read last year

I mentioned in the New Year’s post that I’ve been reading up on (South) Africa to obtain some more background information than provided in the online and printed newspapers and monthlies (such as The Africa Report, with, e.g., its article on Google in Africa). The remainder of this post is an annotated list of fiction and non-fiction books, collections, and pamphlets on Africa I read in 2011, which to quite an extent had to do with availability in the nearby bookshops. Yes, I’m talking about hardcopies. Looking them up online for this post, some are out of print, and less than half are available as eBook, Kindle edition, etc. The links are to the online bookstore, when available, but several are available also internationally through booksellers such as Amazon.

Suggestions for “must reads” that can help me to understand this complex country and continent are welcome!


Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela (1994, Abacus). Highly recommendable to anyone interested in the struggle and appalling situations and injustices under the Apartheid regime. It easily readable, and makes a man out of the myth. It is a personal account, and not so much an exposé of ideas (cf., e.g., Fidel’s “my life” or “la historia me absolverá”).

Terrific Majesty: the Powers of Shaka Zulu and the Limits of Historical Invention by Carolyn Hamilton (1998, Harvard University Press). After the first chapter of academese, the remaining chapters provide a highly readable and fascinating picture of the life of King Shaka as well as the agendas of the multiple narrators of those times, somewhat alike a two-layered ‘soap opera’. 

The Racist’s Guide to the People in South Africa by Simon Kilpatrick (2010, Two Dogs). Illustrates well the new term I learned here, “equal opportunity offender”, although he does it in a satirical, witty, way. For the record, I can confirm Kilpatrick’s description of the Dutch [described in the same paragraph as the Germans]: yes, I do commit the cardinal sin of wearing socks in sandals, eat liquorice and lots of cheese, don’t leave a tip if the service or food is crappy, and as a child I went many times on summer holidays in France bringing most of our food from the Netherlands (indeed, that was cheaper). But, to some extent, I still wonder how accurate and/or exaggerated some of the descriptions of the other groups are. 

The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for our Time by Jeffrey D. Sachs (2005, Penguin Books). Appeared to be written for people who politically lean to the right to convince them to move toward a centrist position, for Sachs’ ego as do-good-er within a capitalist framework, and serves as an appeal to the baby boomers to let go of the generational egoism so as to come off less bad (or a bit better) in history. 

Persons in Community: African Ethics in Global Culture, edited by Ronald Nicholson (2008, UKZN Press). Various essays of varying quality. Positive: Ubuntu from different perspectives and in different contexts. One can safely skip the annoying writings with Christian religious stuff, which has done more harm than good, notwithstanding the attempts at revisionary history writing.

African Renaissance (read in part), edited by Malegapuru William Makgoba (1999, Mafube Publishing). A collection of essays written in 1999 on problems and looking forward on what to do to realise a better future for South Africa and the continent. I think this will become a useful document for assessing if, and if yes how, the hopes and ideas have been realized over time. As an aside, it introduced me to the term “potted plants in green houses” that refers to certain academics in South Africa (note: they can be found in other countries as well, albeit due to different reasons).

Currently reading: Africa’s Peacemaker? Lessons from South African Conflict Mediation (currently reading), edited by Kurt Shillinger (2009, Fanele). The collection contains analyses of several conflicts in Africa, and lessons learnt of South African efforts in conflict mediation. From the parts I have read, this would have been useful to read for one of the courses of the MA in Peace & development I did a while ago.

Lined up to read: Chabal’s Africa: the Politics of Suffering and Smiling (2009, Zed Books).


The following three pamphlets are from New Frank Talk, and give plenty of food for thought—not just to me, but if you do a search on it, you’ll see various sources, including news articles, discussing the topics.

Black Colonialists: the root of the trouble with Africa by Chinweizu. On post-colonial time, loathing Blacks in government who behave like their former colonialist masters.

Blacks can’t be racist by Andile Mngxitama. The thesis is that if you are not in a position of power, you cannot be racist, as one cannot act upon one’s prejudices about certain identified groups of people (if one has them); hence: ‘race’-based prejudice + power + acting upon it = racist. (Most) Blacks are not in a position of power, hence, cannot be racist, or so goes the argument in a nutshell. 

The white revolutionary as a missionary? Contemporary travels and researches in Caffraria by Heinrich Böhmke. On the ‘well-meaning left’ going to Africa to ‘help the poor and do good’ as a modern-day version of the colonialist-missionary with its negative influences.


The Angina Monologues by Rosamund Kendal (2010, Jacana Media). One of those books you just have to finish reading quickly to see how events unfold with the characters. It describes the experiences of three South African interns in a remote hospital in South Africa and how they come to grips with that new situation and their heritage with the different situations and mores they each grew up with.

The Master’s Ruse by Patricia Schonstein (2008, African Sun Press). The author has been so friendly to me, but it was not easy finishing reading the book. Perhaps it is a good book, attested by the freedom of the reader to read in it what fits the reader (and that wasn’t pretty). 

Black Diamond by Zakes Mda (2009, Penguin Books). Criticism of recent developments in South Africa is woven into the storyline. It also claims to insert all sorts of clichés, which is harder for me to assess. Disappointing is the portrayal of most of the female story characters who all happen to have all sorts of negative character traits and behaviours, with the male lead—having fought in the struggle, but not getting his share of the money and fame to become a ‘Black Diamond’—the good guy. It reads as if it were a Bouquet-book but then for a male readership.

Can he be the one? By Lauri Kubuitsile (2010, Sapphire press). Now this is a real Bouquet-book (called Sapphire here), but then with a cast of successful Black South Africans.


Regarding possible suggestions, I have read several fiction and non-fiction books over the years, so possible glaring omissions from the aforementioned list may have been covered already—or: if you consider reading something about (South) Africa and none of the above piqued your interest, then maybe one or more of these ones do. Some of those books are, in alphabetical order by surname of author:

I write what I like by Steve Biko (1987, Heinemann). A must read. Writings from the ‘70s, on the Black Consciousness Movement. Introduced me to the term “Whitey” and (problems with) the “White liberal left”.

Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee (2004, Vintage).

Lettera ad un consumatore del nord by centro nuovo modello di svilluppo.

Concerning violence by Frantz Fanon (part of Wretched of the earth, which, when you search a bit, is available in whole as a free pdf download). Highly recommendable.

Hacia el reino del silencio by Miguel Díaz Nápoles (2008, Pablo de la Torriente, Editorial). On Cuban doctors in Ghana.

The challenge for Africa by Wangari Maathai (2010, Arrow Books). Highly recommendable. Interesting analyses of problems, ideas and successes for self-empowerment. If you have any difficulty choosing between this and Sachs’ book, take this one.

I am an African by Ngila Michael Muendane (2006, Soultalk CC). About decolonization of the mind. A must read.

How man can die better: the life of Robert Sobukwe by Benjamin Pogrund (version of 2006, Jonathan Ball Publishers). Highly recommendable to anyone interested in the struggle and appalling situations and injustices under the Apartheid regime; Sobukwe was with the PAC.

Inside rebellion: the politics of insurgent violence by Jeremy M. Weinstein (2007, Cambridge University Press). Highly recommendable, if you’re into this topic.

As mentioned, if you have any good suggestions, please leave them in the comments or email me off-line, lest I keep on picking books fairly randomly and hoping it is worthwhile the price and reading time.  But maybe I should venture more often into the real world, instead of ‘reading this one more book to be better prepared for it’.

First release of the foundational ONtology SElection Tool ONSET

It is well-known that there are theoretical and practical reasons why using a foundational ontology—such as DOLCE, BFO, GFO, SUMO—improve the quality and interoperability of the domain ontology, which recently also has been shown experimentally. However, it is also known that when one desires to use one, it is difficult to choose which one should be used, and why. Reading all the documentation, becoming familiar with the philosophical underpinnings, looking up what other ontology developers did in similar situation and so on, is a time-consuming task. This bottleneck has now been solved with ONSET.

ONSET, the foundational ONtology SElection Tool, does the hard work for you (download jar file). You answer one or more questions, and it will compute a suggestion based on the answers and your priorities, and it explains why the particular foundational ontology was selected. As usability is important, several “explain” buttons were added, in particular in the “ontology commitments” category. To increase a user’s confidence, ONSET not only simply selects a foundational ontology for you, but also explains why by relating it back to the answers the user chose, and it displays all (if any) request that was not met by the selected ontology. The rather basic main page of ONSET contains an example and links to the various versions of the three ontologies.

Zubeida Khan, a recently graduated (cum laude) BSc honours student I supervised, did most of the work to realise ONSET. She went painstakingly through some 50 publications to extract the features of the ontologies, by considering the ‘selling points’ from the side of the foundational ontology developers, assessing what motivates domain ontology developers of ongoing and completed ontology development projects to choose one over the other, and examined independent characteristics (such as the language in which it is available, modularity). A list was compiled consisting of foundational ontology parameters, and the values were filled in for each ontology (in the current version, they are BFO, DOLCE, and GFO). These values were subsequently verified by the respective foundational ontology developers. Zubeida then implemented it in ONSET (download jar file), following good software design practices and taking into account extensibility of the tool.

While ONSET makes it a lot easier for a domain ontology developer to select a foundational ontology, from the Ontology (philosophy) side of things, it, perhaps, raises more questions than it answers (which deserve attention, but not in this blog post).

Feedback is welcome!

Thanks and Best Wishes for 2012

Many thanks to all of you dear readers for reading my blog and especially those who took the effort to leave comments, comments on comments, and provided off-line feedback. I hope you have found it was time well spent, or else enjoyable procrastination. According to the WordPress summary of 2011, the most visited new post was the one on the Essay on the non-violent personality, and there have been some 14000 visitors in 2011.

Given that it is that time of the year again for a little public reflection, my 2011 was, on the whole, very positive, with the move to South Africa and having commenced as Senior Lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. In addition to the usual productive research and teaching and community services, I’ve been catching up on (South) African politics, history, and socioeconomics, started learning isiZulu, and trying to get to understand this complex society here in SA.

As for the blog, the amount of posts is lower compared to previous years (though with the topics just as varied), which is due to all those other activities and because I am writing lecture notes for this year’s ontologies and knowledge bases course, which otherwise would have made it piecemeal onto the blog (like these ones on ontology engineering). The deadline for those lecture notes is mid January, so stay tuned for upcoming updates.

I wish you all a happy, productive, and prosperous New Year!