Review: The Founders by Andre Odendaal

For the past four years, I have really enjoyed reading history books,  especially South African and East African history books. About a year  and a half ago, I walked into a new bookshop in Rondebosch, Cape Town to  see if they had any other books of interest. I came across this book  about the origins of the ANC.

For some reason, I had never seen this book in the major bookshops such as Exclusive Books, or even my favourite bookshop The Book Lounge on  Roeland Street in Cape Town. Despite its relative unpopularity (which  is sometimes an indicator of quality), I decided to take the risk and  buy it. It has taken about a year and a half of on-and-off reading to  finally finish the book, and I’d definitely recommend it on the  bookshelf of everyone who wants to know more about the history of the  country.

The book talks about the various movements that happened, at regional  levels, and at national levels to form the South African Native  National Congress in 1912, which later became the African National  Congress, the ruling party in South Africa today. It introduces the  various vigilance organizations that were in the different regions such  as the Cape Colony, the Transvaal, the Free State and Natal. All these  organizations were responding to the changing contexts they found  themselves in, such as the end of the Frontier Wars in what is now the  Eastern Cape, the discovery of gold in what is now Gauteng, the diamond  mining in Kimberly, the Anglo-Boer wars, and lastly the union of the  different colonies and states into the Union of South Africa in 1910.

Beyond the understanding of the facts that occurred, there are various insights from the book that I thought I’d share:

  1. The historical foundation of the ANC makes it very difficult to compete with politically.  At its formation, the various smaller organizations and finally the  final umbrella body, the ANC were the voice of black South Africa. It  was connected to the chiefs that had authority over regions, to the  people within communities, and to the larger state. It was their  credible representative. It also proposed ways and started initiatives  to improve the lives of those it represented. Because of this history,  the trust it has earned among the majority of the black population in  South Africa is very difficult to compete with.
  2. The ANC is a fruit of the early work of the missionaries.  This is a controversial point, especially where the public narrative  is that missionaries were collaborators with imperialists who sought to  destroy African life. Yet, all the founders of the ANC were educated at  mission schools. All the founders learnt the tactics of those they  fought against, so that they could better fight against the ever  encroaching discriminatory laws. In addition to this, it was those  mission-educated ‘kholwa’ who were first able to see dangers coming  ahead, and fight against them knowing the value and identity that their  Maker had given.
  3. The paternal attitudes of the missionaries resulted in breakdown of relationships.   During the mid to late 1800s, much of the communication with the new  inhabitants who had arrived and sought to take over were done under the  guidance of the missionaries. An issue that arose was that many thought  that the ‘natives’ which they were in contact with weren’t ready for  such a leadership role in combined society, and therefore always had to  have a white superior over them. In the churches, there was a glass  ceiling for black members. It was the same thing in the schools and  other linked organizations. This led to frustrations and separatist  movements, but also to breakdowns of relationships between the  missionaries and the people they served. The reason for this may have  been attitudes of white supremacy or pride on the side of the  missionaries, or may have just been a messianic complex thinking that  nothing could happen without their ‘saving grace’. As a Christian leader  in my context, I too have had to guard against such attitudes of my  heart.
  4. The leaders gained trust because they were connected to the people.  These leaders developed relationships with chiefs, and held community  meetings in their respective regions to explain the changes that were  happening around them and look for ways to respond. They started  newspapers so that many ordinary men could be informed. They had a  genuine care for the ordinary men, despite their high status. Leadership  with such connection builds credibility and trust.

There are many more insights and many more thoughts, but I’d leave  them to you to discover if you get a chance to read this book. Overall,  the book is a long read (over 500 pages), and goes over multiple names  which are hard to remember during subsequent readings. Yet, the author’s  knowledge and wider understanding of the context, as well as his  thrilling and engaging writing style make this book difficult to put  down, especially during the later chapters. My overall rating: 4.5 / 5

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