Africa · Books · China · South Africa · Travel

Reading wrapup

I finally read Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela’s autobigraphy. This is a monster of a book with 857 pages, but is well worth the time and effort. It starts from his childhood, continues through his student days to his freedom fighter/ “terrorist” days to his long incarceration, and ends just after he became the leader of South Africa as prime minister after winning the first post-apartheid election in 1994. It’s unfortunate it doesn’t include his time as prime minister, because that would have been quite interesting as well. There’s a lot of events and information to take in, but one remarkable thing that stands out is that there’s absolutely no bitterness or vitriol from him towards the white Afrikaans and especially his time in jail. It’s clear why he is loved and respected so much, because it is clear he has a lot of resilience and integrity which exceeds what most people are capable of. Again, Mandela spent 27 years in jail, from late 1962 to 1990. Among the more interesting parts are his family history where he explains his noble lineage (Thembu nobility, subset of Xhosa people), his militant activities in which he oversaw attacks and training as leader of the ANC’s militant arm, and his negotiations with the ruling Afrikaans. Mandela’s stance was always to be civil and open to the Afrikaans, whilst at the same time, remaining defiant on issues such as the right to conduct physical resistance, such as bombing civil targets (which might also be seen as terrorism). Some people might criticize Mandela as selling out the whites, but I see it as being practical and realistic.

There are a few key issues which he doesn’t spend much time, such as the criminal acts involving associates of his then-wife Winnie, who he eventually divorced after he was freed, and the ANC-Inkatha black-on-black violence in which thousands lost their lives. Winnie Mandela is a famous and notorious figure, not just as the ex-wife of Nelson Mandela but because she was linked with killings and extortion in the townships, allegedly committed by her “bodyguards” and associates. Mandela defends her by saying he believes she wasn’t aware or involved in these murders, but further evidence and news have hinted at the opposite. The bulk of the book is set in Robben Island, a bleak prison islet off of Cape Town that was virtually impossible to escape from. Over time, Mandela learned to moderate his thoughts while standing up for his fellow black prisoners  and balancing this with gradually winning the trust of the Afrikaner regime and prison guards.

My most recent book review was on Scattered Sand- The Story of China’s Rural Migrants. China’s rural migrants make up a significant bulk of its labor force which powers its economy and cities. That’s because the majority of factory workers and urban menial laborers come from rural towns and villages, often moving to different provinces and even halfway across the country to find work. There’s a lot of hardships and obstacles these people face, including poverty at home, and exploitative employers and discrimination from authorities at where they wind up. The book is full of facts and details, and you will definitely learn a lot about China, much different than the usual China being a superpower. I need to make one major suggestion for reading this book though- view China through the lens of a developing country, one whose GDP per capita is still less than US$5,500 and 10 years ago, was less than US$1,500. China should be urged to do more for its poor and rural folk, especially on issues like rising social inequality and corruption, but it should also be compared to developing giants like India and Brazil, in which case, China seems to be more better off in many aspects. Also, many of the people who the author interviewed used to work hard jobs like mining or factory assembly-line work, but were then able to leave and do other work that were higher paying or better than their previous work, illustrating that life is not as bleak for some migrant workers. Finally, I think if you asked most people, they would prefer to be working tough jobs rather than doing nothing. I’m not saying that things are great in China, but that using a different perspective, the socioeconomic state of affairs for rural people and migrant workers is not that hopeless either.

China collage

I’ve been to 9 of China’s regions. Tom Carter has been to all 33 of them and his book is packed with photos of each of these regions (23 provinces, 4 autonomous regions, 4 municipalities, 4 special administrative regions).

In December, I bought China- Portrait of a People, an amazing photo book about China that showcases people and scenes from all of China’s 33 provinces, autonomous regions (eg. Guanxi, Xinjiang), municipalities (such as Shanghai, Beijing), and special administrative regions (Hong Kong, Macau). The geographic scope is matched by the amount of photos (over 800) and size of the book (over 600 pages). The book is a visual delight, but it’s about more than just pretty pictures. There are many shots of regular people and sights that highlight the grittiness, industry, and the charms of China. There’s one shocking photo of a maimed guy in Guangzhou, which after I got past the initial surprise, became one of my favorite photos. Each chapter features a nice description or personal story that helps you get a feel for the place, whether it be bustling Hong Kong, stylish Shanghai, wild Yunnan, or little-known Ningxia Hui.

I’m currently reading Planet of Slums, a nonfiction book about slums worldwide. This book was quite well-known a few years back and I’d meant to read it before, but just couldn’t get around to it. It presents a bleak scenario, full of blunt commentary and gloomy facts about the prevalence and problems with slums all over the world. Basically all major slums in big cities in developing countries get mentioned, including Mumbai (India), Manila (Philippines), Caracas (Venezuela), Nairobi (Kenya), Johannesburg (South Africa) and even Shanghai. The book received a lot of acclaim, but I find it to be basically a never-ending list of facts about cities all over the world crammed together that seems rather superficial. The book is informative enough and a lot of the information is mindboggling. The main point is simple enough. As cities become larger in the developing world, slums grow, and poverty, disease, and state neglect worsen. For instance, slums in Mumbai number in the millions, being entire cities in themselves!

DSC01086  Squatter settlement in a Cape Flats township, near Cape Town, South Africa.

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