Before you visit, it’s worthwhile to read up about South Africa’s diverse heritage to prepare you for the vibrant, multicultural experience that awaits you. South African literature consists of many widely acclaimed, international bestsellers and many lesser known, but equally laudable gems. That being said, here are ten essential fiction and non-fiction books to read.
A History of South Africa (1998) By Frank Welsh
Frank Welsh’s A History of South Africa is a vividly written, definitive guide to South Africa’s turbulent past. The narrative is structured around several pivotal events, such as the Dutch settlers’ decision to rely on imported slaves and the Union of South Africa in 1910, which paved the way for apartheid. The book also debunks many of the most common myths about South Africa.
Burger’s Daughter (1979) by Nadine Gordimer
Burger’s Daughter is one of many great novels written by literary treasure, Nadine Gordimer (1923—2014), who won South Africa’s first Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. Set in the mid 1970s, the political and historical novel follows the life of Rosa Burger, as she comes to terms with her father Lionel Burger’s legacy as an anti-apartheid activist in the South African Communist Party. Gordimer was herself a political activist and attributed her moving story to the family of Bram Fischer, Nelson Mandela’s treason trial lawyer. The New York Times described Burger’s Daughter as Gordimer’s ‘most political and most moving novel’.
Cry, The Beloved Country (1948) by Alan Paton
Cry, The Beloved Country is one of South Africa’s most critically acclaimed novels, written by author and anti-apartheid activist, Alan Patton (1903—1988). The bestseller is a heart-wrenching story about Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo and his son, Absalom, set against the background of racial injustice before apartheid was legalized. It is a must-read for its multi-layered themes of loss, hope and faith. During Paton’s lifetime, the book was translated into 20 languages and sold over 15 million copies. Today it continues to hold readers’ interest worldwide.
Jock of the Bushveld (1907) by Sir James Percy Fitzpatrick
Jock of the Bushveld is a much-loved children’s classic based on the life of Percy Fitzpatrick and his faithful dog, Jock, who accompanied him on his travels as a transport rider during the South African Gold Rush. Rudyard Kipling, a friend of Fitzpatrick, encouraged him to write a book after hearing him recount his adventures as bedtime stories to his four children. Since 1907, this lively novel has been translated into many languages, with over 100 editions printed. If you’re visiting the Kruger National Park on your South African trip, look out for the Jock of the Bushveld commemorative plaques that have been erected along Percy and Jock’s original routes.
Long Walk to Freedom (1995), by Nelson Mandela
Long Walk to Freedom is the riveting autobiography of the iconic South African president, Nelson Mandela. The book profiles his early life, coming of age, education and 27 years in prison (where he wrote part of his autobiography in secret). A compelling read, it paints a vivid picture of the extraordinary life of hardship and fortitude lead by Mandela on his quest for freedom in South Africa. In 1995, A Long Walk to Freedom won the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award and has been published in numerous languages.
Ways of Dying (1995) by Zakes Mda
Ways of Dying is the debut novel by acclaimed South African poet, novelist and playwright, Zakes Mda. The novella tells the story of Toloki, a self-employed ‘professional mourner’ who attends township funerals in a city plagued by violence in the dying days of apartheid. Toloki meets Noria, a childhood friend and the two reconnect, finding comfort in each other as they reminisce over their lives of hardship. The book is narrated in the first person plural and reads like an African folklore tale filled with magical realism, despair and hope.
Country of My Skull (1998) by Antjie Krog
Country of My Skull is a nonfiction book about the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) assembled in South Africa after the abolition of apartheid in 1994. The book is a deeply emotional account of the testimonies of the victims and oppressors of apartheid, and a personal narrative from the author, a white Afrikaner, about her own position and experience relative to the TRC. Krog, a journalist and acclaimed poet, lures the reader in with her compelling prose while capturing the complexity of the TRC’s work.
Disgrace (1999) by J.M. Coetzee
Disgrace is an internationally acclaimed novel by South African Nobel Prize for Literature winner, J.M. Coetzee. Set in post-apartheid South Africa, the story follows a middle-aged white professor at a Cape Town university who is dismissed for having a relationship with a student. This sets off a chain of events that will shatter his pride and leave him utterly disgraced. In his book, Coetzee deals with various themes such as exploitation, personal shame, the subjugation of women and a country in transition. Disgrace was awarded the Booker Prize in 1999.
The Cape Town Book (2015) by Nechama Brodie
The Cape Town book is a compelling account of South Africa’s first city, its landscape and its multi-ethnic people. The 14-chapter book traces the origins and expansion of Cape Town, from the City Bowl and coastal suburbs to the vast expanse of the Cape Flats and the sprawling northern suburbs. Brodie offers a balanced perspective on familiar attractions like Table Mountain and the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden, yet also gives a voice to the marginalized communities of the Cape Flats. The book contains never-before-seen images drawn from the archives of museums, universities and public institutions. It is a must-read for tourists and locals alike.
Coconut (2007) by Kopano Matlwa
Kopano Matlwa’s provocative novel focuses on the black youth of South Africa, and their search for identity and culture in a Westernized society. The story follows the lives of two black girls from opposite backgrounds in modern-day South Africa, a country still marred by racism and social inequality. Matlwa intelligently confronts issues faced by black millennials today, such as colonized consciousness and the loss of culture and heritage. Matlwa is one of South Africa’s vibrant young writers who also happens to be a medical doctor. Coconut, her debut novel, won the European Union Literary Award in 2007 and the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa in 2010.