Looking for deeper insight into South Africa? Here are snap reviews of classic South African reads, covering a wide range of books from non-fiction, to fiction and poetry, featuring a range of the country’s greatest novelists, poets, journalists and historians.
Brand South Africa reporter
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Bringing history and geography together, this is a large coffee-table-sized book filled with archival and contemporary images, telling the story of Nelson Mandela and his struggle for South Africa’s freedom through the many places associated with his life. From his birthplace in Qunu to the Old Fort in Johannesburg, where he was held prisoner (and which is now the site of the Constitutional Court), from Soweto to Mpumalanga, the images provide a wonderful historical context for South Africa today, combining to form a unique “heritage trail”.
The towering figure of South Africa’s liberation struggle began his autobiography in prison, his pages in tiny writing smuggled out by comrades. When he came out of jail in 1990, and went on to become South Africa’s first black president in 1994, he continued the work, and it is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Mandela, the times he lived through and the war he waged for freedom. He also authorised a biography by Anthony Sampson (see box right), which provides much useful extra information and differing perspectives.
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Sparks, a veteran South African journalist and author, also wrote The Mind of South Africa. His account of the transition from apartheid to democracy is one of several, but undoubtedly the best. It describes, from behind the scenes, the process that began with tentative contact between the sworn enemies, moving through the unbanning of the liberation movements and the complex negotiations that led to South Africa’s first fully democratic election in 1994.
This comprehensive one-volume history of South Africa goes beyond the achievement of democracy to look at the problems facing the new society in the period since Nelson Mandela ended his term as South Africa’s first black president. The book also goes back into South Africa history, and explains the country’s ethnic mix – though it has also been criticised for pro-Afrikaner attitudes. Judge for yourself.
By the end of the 19th century, South Africa was partly a British colony and partly a pair of independent Afrikaner republics. British imperialism and capitalist expansionism meant that the independence of the republic (particularly the gold-rich Transvaal) would come under threat. In 1899, the second Anglo-Boer War, which made the earlier conflict seem negligible, broke out. In some ways, it was the first modern war, one that saw the invention of trench warfare, concentration camps and guerrilla fighting, as the highly organised British army squared up against the motley band of farmer-hunter-soldiers that made up the loose-knit Boer army. It was also a conflict that defined the political future of a united South Africa. Pretorius gives the best outline of the war, focusing on aspects (such as the participation of large numbers of black people) that were hitherto ignored.
This is a personal and compelling account of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated the horrors of apartheid repression, written by the acclaimed Afrikaans poet. Here she writes in English, from the perspective of a radical Afrikaner, of the searing process of confessing apartheid’s sins. A bestseller in South Africa and successful abroad, the book has been reissued with additional material.
Subtitled “Blood and Bad Dreams: A South African Explores the Madness in His Country, His Tribe and Himself”, this book was a bestseller in South Africa and elsewhere when it came out in 1990. By a member of one of Afrikanerdom’s leading apartheid families, it goes into the heart of darkness of a country in turmoil. It’s not a pretty picture, but it makes for compelling, sobering reading.
A collection of Gevisser’s acclaimed columns for the Mail & Guardian, in which he wrote detailed, elegant and psychologically acute profiles of all the key players in the new South Africa, from controversial academic Malegapuru Makgoba to musician-director Mbongeni Ngema, from Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris to filmmaker Anant Singh, from politicians such as Sam (Mbhazima) Shilowa and Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi to soccer star Mark Fish.
Subtitled “Everyday Life on the Witwatersrand 1886-1914”, this essential pair of historical studies are now republished in one volume. They examine the era of Johannesburg’s establishment and early growth through social, political and economic lenses to provide a picture of how this great city developed, and what that story has to tell us about South Africa today.
Cape Town was South Africa’s first city – some still regard it so. It’s had extraordinary ethnic diversity from the start. Now one of the world’s favourite tourist destinations, the city has a complex history, which is told in this beautiful and engrossing book. It looks at Cape Town in colonial times, under Dutch and then British rule, from the earliest small settlement founded to grow vegetables for passing ships to the brink of the 20th century. A plethora of paintings, maps, drawings and photographs illustrate the book and make it very accessible. (A companion volume, by the same authors, looking at the city today in the same format, is Cape Town in the Twentieth Century: An Illustrated Social History.)
In the spring of 1999, in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, a young white farmer is shot dead on the dirt road running from his father’s farmhouse to his irrigation fields. The murder is the work of assassins rather than robbers; a single shot behind the ear, nothing but his gun stolen, no forensic evidence is left at the scene. Journalist Jonny Steinberg travels to the midlands to investigate. Steinberg finds that much of the story lies in the immediate future. He has stumbled upon a festering frontier battle. Right from the beginning, it is clear that the young white man is not the only one who will die on that frontier, and that the story of his and other deaths will illuminate a great deal about the early days of post-apartheid South Africa.
Jonny Steinberg’s groundbreaking work of reportage about pride and shame, sex and death, and the Aids pandemic in Africa is a masterpiece of social observation. In the poor village of Ithanga, in the old Transkei, Steinberg explores the lives of a community caught up in a battle to survive the ravages of HIV/Aids. He befriends Sizwe Magadla, a young local man who refuses to be tested for HIV despite the existence of a well-run testing and anti-retroviral programme. It is this apparent illogic that becomes the key to understanding the dynamics that thread their way through a complex and traditional rural community.
Breyten Breytenbach was that most reviled of men, an Afrikaner who betrayed his people to fight apartheid. For this, he was arrested in 1975, tried and sentenced to prison for high treason. This, his memoir of his seven years in jail – two of them in solitary confinement – captures the full horror of life in one of the worst penal systems in the world. It was originally published in 1983. In an afterword to the text, he states that the work “took shape from the obsessive urge I experienced during the first weeks and months of my release to talk, talk, talk, to tell my story and all the other stories”.
The crowning achievement of a distinguished literary career, Disgrace won Coetzee the Booker Prize for the second time, making him the first writer to achieve that distinction – and occasioned much debate within South Africa. It is a bleak but always compelling story of the new South Africa struggling to come to terms with itself, addressing issues of guilt, responsibility, meaning and survival, written in prose of crystalline sharpness. A surprise bestseller in South Africa as well as abroad.
Perhaps the most famous novel to come out of South Africa, Paton’s 1948 work brought to the notice of the world the dilemmas of ordinary South Africans living under an oppressive system, one which threatened to destroy their very humanity. Informed by Paton’s Christian and liberal beliefs, the novel tells of a rural Zulu parson’s heart-breaking search for his son, who has been drawn into the criminal underworld of the city. Cry, The Beloved Country has sold millions of copies around the world.
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Winner of the 1991 Nobel Prize for Literature, Gordimer was for decades South Africa’s literary conscience. Her stories are perhaps the best introduction to her work: they span the 1950s to the 1990s in this volume (British edition), moving from the city to the countryside and from the highest ranks of society to the lowest. With delicacy and power, they cast a bright light on the extraordinary lives led by South Africans of all races, and the nature of their interactions across colour lines and within them.
Mda came to prominence as a dramatist in the 1970s; now he has flourished as a novelist. This, his second novel, won the 2001 Sunday Times Fiction Prize, and has become a school setwork. Weaving together two strands of storytelling, the novel moves between the past and the present. In the past is the narrative of Nongqawuse, the 19th century prophetess whose visions brought a message from the ancestors and took her people to the brink of extermination. In the present time, 150 years later, a feud that dates back to the days of Nongqawuse still simmers in the village of Qolorha as it faces the demands of modernity.
In an edition published to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its first publication, this collection is a South African classic. In the voice of the sly old bushveld storyteller Oom Schalk Laurens, Bosman tells tales of a rural Afrikaner South Africa that has long since vanished – yet the unique flavour and wry humour of the stories remain undiminished.
Phaswane Mpe’s first novel (shortlisted for the 2002 Sunday Times Fiction Prize) is a variation on what was known as the “Jim Comes to Joburg” theme in South African literature. A man leaves his rural home in the north and comes to the big city to find a new life. What he finds is a dangerous but vital inner city, epitomised by Hillbrow, the flat-land in the centre of Johannesburg where the well-heeled no longer set foot – the “city of gold, milk, honey and bile”. This is the land of drug deals, xenophobia, violence, sex and Aids, and this novel is an uncompromising look at the reality of the new South Africa as it affects the poorest of the urban population. It is also a story of love, survival and hope.
Ndebele is a noted academic and critic as well as a writer of fiction. In this work, he carries out the brief argued in his essay “Rediscovery of the Ordinary”, returning the gaze of the reader to the very human lives of township people and forgoing the rhetoric of political struggle, though that background is not ignored. His characters deal with the generation gap and the formative experiences of childhood in these warmly perceptive stories.
The author came to literature late in life, but was hailed as the “Steinbeck of the coloured South African platteland” – and produced a bestseller that has now been translated all over the world. His novel, which is very close to actual history, tells the story of a village inhabited mostly by “coloureds”, the mixed-race people of the Cape, from its earliest beginnings. The various characters of the village’s history speak, telling their stories from their own perspectives to create a portrait of a whole community.
In its original Afrikaans, titled Toorberg, Van Heerden’s novel won all the prizes going in South Africa in the year it was published. It draws on the tradition of the plaasroman (farm novel), and transforms it at the same time, to tell the riveting transgenerational story of a family entangled with its ghosts – both living and dead. An utterly compelling read.
This novel by one of South Africa’s most prolific authors, set in the 1970s, brought the issue of deaths in detention to the notice of many who would rather have not known about it. When a white South African investigates the death of a black friend in police custody, he uncovers the brutal truth about apartheid South Africa. An interesting companion volume would be Cry Freedom, Donald Woods’ non-fiction account of his friendship with Bantu Steve Biko, the Black Consciousness leader murdered in custody by police.
In 2010, Lauren Beukes won the Kitschies Red Tentacle Award for her phantasmagorical Zoo City; the following year, she won the Arthur C Clarke Award for the novel, a hardboiled thriller about crime, magic, the music industry, refugees and redemption, set in a re-imagined Johannesburg. People who have committed a crime are magically attached to an animal familiar; the chief protagonist, Zinzi December, is “animalled” to a sloth after getting her brother killed. Zinzi is attempting to repay the financial debt she owes her drug dealer. It’s a wild, fantastical ride.
Published in 2008, Moxyland is a cyberpunk novel set in a future Cape Town. It is a dystopian, corporate-apartheid political thriller in which cellphones are used for social control. Narrated by four different characters, each chapter focuses on one of the narrators and her or his own experience living under an oppressive and pervasive government and media. Through her characters, Beukes illustrates a society where technology rules with an iron fist and in doing so shows the limitations of freedom.
The Story of an African Farm, published in 1883 under the pseudonym Ralph Iron, has become recognised as one of the first feminist novels. It details the lives of three characters, first as children and then as adults – Waldo, Em and Lyndall – who live on a farm in the Karoo. The story is set in the middle- to late-nineteenth century. The book is semi-autobiographical: in particular, the two principal protagonists (Waldo and Lyndall) display strong similarities to Schreiner’s life and philosophy. Although it quickly became a best-seller when it was first published, it caused some controversy over its frank portrayal of freethought, feminism, premarital sex and pregnancy out of wedlock, as well as transvestitism.
This anthology is the ultimate overview of South African poetry, reaching from its earliest manifestations in the oral culture of the land’s indigenous inhabitants to the complexities of post-apartheid verse. It includes translations from the country’s many languages, discovering hitherto hidden voices as well as placing in context the best-known names of our rich poetic heritage.
Wally Serote’s work goes back to the 1970s, with his coruscating portraits of life as a black person in South Africa in those days. This volume from this winner of the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa is a single long poem, driven forward by incantatory rhythms, addressed to a people just emerging from the horrors of oppression and now awakening to a new dawn.
Bringing together the work from Cronin’s two collections, Inside and Even the Dead, this volume is a comprehensive view of one of South Africa’s most popular poets. As a South Africa Communist Party member, Cronin’s first poems were the result of his incarceration by the apartheid regime, and Inside became possibly South Africa’s best-selling work of poetry. With irony, compassion, honesty and a firm commitment to justice for all, Cronin’s accessible poems speak about a wide range of South African experience.
This second volume by the acclaimed Cape Town poet registers the sea-changes that have taken place in our society, but through the sensitive and exact lyric voice of one dealing with memory, grief, love and motherhood: “the ladder of light / sent down from land above / where hands write words / to work the winch / to plumb the shaft below”.
An African National Congress stalwart who spent many years in exile, Keorapetse Kgositsile is the author of the famous lines: “Need I remind /anyone again that /armed struggle /is an act of love”. His work over many years, collected in this volume from several books, brings together the historical imperatives of the struggle against apartheid with related personal concerns in free-flowing, imaginative verse.
Updated 3 February 2016
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