Review: The Founders by Andre Odendaal

Patrick Kayongo | 30 Aug , 2014  

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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Patrick Kayongo is a Ugandan born, Mthatha raised and Johannesburg based software developer. He enjoys reading about history, listening to music he considers good and watching useless videos on Youtube.

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