Life writing — biography, autobiography, memoir and testimony — has long been a rich genre for South African writers. This past year saw more notable additions to the shelf of important autobiographies and memoirs, among them works by the retired deputy chief justice,  Digkang Moseneke (My Own Liberator), opposition leader Helen Zille , talk show host Trevor Noah, historian Hermann Giliomee, psychologist N Chabani Manganyi (Apartheid and the Making of a Black Psychologist) and journalist Marianne Thamm.

Far and away the most enjoyable, for me, was Bridget Hilton-Barber’s memoir, Student Comrade Prisoner Spy).
Perhaps it’s because I am her near-coeval in terms of arriving at varsity (Rhodes for her, Wits for me), just as the United Democratic Front was launched and South Africa went into a new phase of the struggle against apartheid, and because I’ve known Hilton-Barber for years, but I found the book both moving and entertaining. Writing about the years of student activism and then her detention by the security police (93 days in jail under the emergency regulations), Hilton-Barber has also to explore the betrayal of the Rhodes student left by Olivia Forsyth, who was an undercover spy implanted in the movement by the security police. No wonder she kept such detailed notes at meetings.

When Forsyth reappeared after decades of silence, publishing an autobiography a few years ago, Hilton-Barber was driven back to her past experiences — in particular, her time in prison. The book is about the discoveries and rediscoveries that entailed, and of course the emotional journey involved.

It’s a wonder that Hilton-Barber can make this tale so compelling and easy to read. It triumphantly escapes any possible categorisation as a “misery memoir”, however many black dogs followed Hilton-Barber, as she acknowledges, in her attempts to run away from her memories of these years. She is a writer of great fluidity and charm, and the sheer exuberance of the prose, even when it’s describing miserable moments and heart-breaking times, keeps one reading. And, amid it all, she can make you laugh, for which one can only be thankful.

From 1976 to today
Being the 40th anniversary of the Soweto uprising, 2016 saw some commemorative volumes, but fewer than might have been expected. Perhaps writers and publishers are working towards the 50th anniversary.

Still, we had Wits University Press’s collection, Students Must Rise: Youth Struggle in South Africa Before and Beyond ’76, which explicitly links the 1976 revolt with today’s student movement (Lee-Ann Naidoo’s closing essay is a key text here). The book is co-edited by Noor Nietafgodien, who wrote the excellent potted history of Soweto 1976 published by Jacana in 2013, and Anne Herfernan, and revisits the rising through a range of voices, which tell a host of vivid stories.

There was also the reissue of Baruch Hirson’s account, which was written pretty much in the heat of the moment and first published in 1979, Year of Fire, Year of Ash: The Soweto Revolt — Roots of a Revolution? ( The book holds up extremely well; one is impressed by the amount of information Hirson could compile from his position in exile in the late 1970s. It is also largely correct in its analyses, and is very readable to boot.

Julian Brown provides analysis as well as history in The Road to Soweto: Resistance and the Uprising of 16 June 1976 (Jacana). He traces the movement towards that moment, from the politicisation of the white student groups such as the National Union of South African in the 1960s, through the early-1970s rise of the South African Students Organisation, the rebirth of the unions and the pro-Frelimo rally that prefigured 1976.

From this excellent account you could read straight on into Brown’s other book of this past year, South Africa’s Insurgent Citizens: On Dissent and the Possibility of Politics (Jacana). Starting with the “country of protest” that was South Africa in apartheid’s last decade and into the post-apartheid polity, this book is somewhat more theoretical than The Road to Soweto, but that makes it a more detailed and thoughtful examination of the present moment — and how we got here. By “politics” in “the possibility of politics”, Brown means full democratic popular participation and/or truly “grassroots” movements such as those of shackdwellers: the pressure from below.

That’s the pressure the ANC has to face, having come into power with a promise not only of political liberation from apartheid but also some kind of upliftment of those impoverished by apartheid and/or capitalism — what Julius Malema calls, in a transposition of a classic (neo)liberal phrase, “economic freedom”. That promise was part of what Thiven Reddy, in South Africa, Settler Colonialism and the Failures of Liberal Democracy (Wits University Press) sees, accurately I think, as a pact between elites in the negotiations phase of 1990-1994, but one which also required a pact between the (new) elite and the masses. The ANC made that elite-mass pact, but has not been able fully to deliver on it — hence what Jane Duncan calls, in the title of her book for 2016, Protest Nation (UKZN Press).

Social change?
A similar deep-historical analysis pervades what is a much shorter work, A Manifesto for Social Change: How to Save South Africa (Picador Africa), by Moeletsi Mbeki and Nobantu Mbeki. This is going as the third in a “trilogy” of works by the older Mbeki, Architects of Poverty and Advocates for Change, the latter being an edited collection of essays by others. The Mbekis provide a sterling summary of the causes of South Africa’s rather dire political, economic and social situation today, but as for the “social change” part, one feels a bit, well, shortchanged. Out of a book that barely reaches 130 pages, with notes and graphs, the actual “manifesto” is not even 10 pages long. Certainly, it’s no more than a manifesto; it’s not a coherent plan of action.

Perhaps part of the problem is the way such works are directed. As the Mbekis’ book’s blurb has it, in its description of Advocates for Change, this work “showed there were short-term to medium-term solutions to many of Africa’s and South Africa’s problems, if only the powers that be would take note”. If only the powers that be would take note! It may not have dawned, in the course of the Mbekis’ research, that the present power elite is not listening to the “underclass” that, the Mbekis advise blandly, “must” do this or that — it “must merge with the sizeable contingent of blue-collar workers who are being spat out of formal work” and “must also incorporate a segment of independent professions … which can also be part of the coalition”.

It’s not unlike all those opinion pieces, by undoubted experts in their fields and activists of impeccable programmes, published in reputable papers such as the Mail & Guardian, arguing that “the government should do X” or “the state should do Y”. They may be entirely right, but “should”, “must” … ?

If only the powers that be were listening.