Milk the Beloved Country is a provocative historical exploration of South Africa’s past and present.

“I am not just reflecting on certain key episodes in our country’s story, I am at the same time questioning things that, to an extent, have not received the contemplation and deliberation they deserved.”

It has been just over a month since South African author and Wits business school graduate Sihle Khumalo’s book, Milk the Beloved Country hit the shelves in bookstores and e-commerce sites.

The subject of Khumalo’s newest book is a hybrid of travel and history, which begins by exploring the landmarks and names of South Africa through a historical lens. The book reflects on South Africa’s history and asks, “how did we get here?”

Ntokozo Ndlovu, South African Facebook book reviewer said the “interesting part of this book is about the naming of towns and cities” which makes for “thought provoking history”. An impressed Ndlovu said, “[Khumalo] is incapable of writing a boring sentence.”

The author’s approach to non-fiction utilises irony and humour as Khumalo mixes historical fact with myth, anecdote and controversial opinion. With discussions such as the failure of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), filling in gaps in South Africa’s colonial history and a name-and-shame approach to dealing with powerful groups such as the Broederbond, Khumalo confronts the reader with an uncomfortable deep dive into some of the issues which have been skimmed over in modern texts.

The image of the past which comes to life on the pages of this book is a multicultural, multifaceted history which describes our complex nation in a way that a chronological, fact-based timeline could not do, although the author’s interrupting and digressive style can at times be difficult to follow. As Khumalo writes, “History, like life, is complicated.”

In the context of South African history, Khumalo’s book is a refreshing antithesis to previous historical analyses of South Africa which tended to fall either on the side of Afrikaner nationalism (pre-1994) or African nationalism (post-1994) which discredited counter-ideologies and portrayed the historical as natural and inevitable. Khumalo examines the ifs, buts and maybes and the various available perspectives on the past.

The book also discusses the “power brokers” of our nation, including the heavy influence of the Broederbond during apartheid South Africa, the influence of communism in the formation of a new South Africa and the legacy of freemasonry in South Africa. Each of the topics are explored with nuance and a colloquial, conversational style.

Khumalo clearly is not afraid to hold up a mirror to our, as he calls it, “perfect-from-a-distance-but-very-structurally-shaky-rainbow nation” and explains in detail who is responsible for the situation we find ourselves in today.

In reflection on the text, Khumalo asks vital questions such as, “When did the feeding frenzy on state resources begin?” to which he answers that South Africa’s corruption and nepotism problems extend so far back in its history, one might believe “we have always been led by rogues”.

In an interview with Polity, Khumalo said that his reason for writing this book is that he believes it is time, “to have open, frank conversations about the state of the nation…It is time that we hold our leaders responsible.”

Throughout the book, the danger of leaving out certain histories in favour of upholding the image of a rainbow nation is criticized by Khumalo, who writes, “Due to our obsession with the ‘rainbow nation’…and all those fluffy terms, we lose endless opportunities for having genuine national conversations and instead end up putting lipstick on a pig.” Khumalo’s retrospective on South Africa examines the whole pig in a witty and daring way.

Copies of the book are available online for R300 in its paperback form on Loot, and Takealot.

Vuvu rating: 7.5/10

FEATURED IMAGE: Sihle Khumalo’s Milk the Beloved Country soft cover. Photo: Kimberley Kersten