A nonfiction guide to South Africa’s 20 years

The books team at the Sunday Times has put together a list of the top South African books that they believe give readers insight into the country’s transition into a free and democratic nation.

Here we highlight the past 20 years of winners of the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award, South Africa’s premier literary award. Named for Alan Paton, author of Cry, The Beloved Country, the prize is given to books deemed to be outstanding works of non-fiction.

Highlights from 20 years of nonfiction

1994

Return to Paradise by Breyten Breytenbach (Human & Rousseau)

South Africa heads toward majority rule, yet Breytenbach is far from optimistic about its future. He sees a civil war raging and the land awash in blood. A New York Times notable book of the year. Awarded the SundayTimes/Alan Paton Prize.

1995

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela (Little, Brown)

The riveting memoirs of South Africa’s first democratically elected president, Long Walk to Freedom recreates the drama of the experiences that helped shape Nelson Mandela’s destiny.

1996

The Calling of Katie Makanya by Margaret McCord (New Africa Books)

A moving, illuminating memoir that chronicles the life of an extraordinary woman who was born in 1873 in colonial South Africa and lived through the early years of apartheid to her death in 1955.

1997

The Seed is Mine by Charles van Onselen (Jonathan Ball)

After years of interviews with Kas Maine and his neighbors, employers, friends, and family – a triumph of collaborative courage and dedication – Charles van Onselen has re-created the life of a man who struggled to maintain his family in a world dedicated to enriching whites and impoverishing blacks.

1998

Africa: A Biography of Continent by John Reader (Penguin)

A one-volume history of Africa that starts in geological pre-history and the formation of the continent, spanning centuries, and ending with decolonisation and African nationalism. This massive book is the result of four years research, most of it in Africa.

1999

Bram Fischer: Afrikaner Revolutionary by Stephen Clingman (Jacana)

In 1964 Bram Fischer led the defence of Nelson Mandela in the Rivonia Trial. Two years later, Fischer was himself sentenced to life imprisonment in South Africa for his political activities against the policies of apartheid. This meticulous and finely crafted biography follows a fascinating journey of conscience and personal transformation.

2000

Mandela: the Authorised Biography by Anthony Sampson (HarperCollins)

Anthony Sampson first met Nelson Mandela in the 1950s – and was given complete access to all his personal papers, to the man himself, as well as to his friends and political associates, to write the full story of one of the world’s greatest leaders.

2001

A Mouthful of Glass by Henk van Woerden (Jonathan Ball)

A short, tough story of the man who killed Hendrick Verwoed, the racist prime minister of South Africa, in 1966. Born in Mozambique of a Greek father and African mother, Demitrios Tsafendas was a man lost between the races, maddened by not knowing who or what he was.

2002

The Dressing Station by Jonathan Kaplan (Pan Macmillan)

Surgeon Jonathan Kaplan has flown around the world on medical assignments, but as this debut book suggests, he never feels more engaged with life than when among the dying.

2003

Midlands by Johnny Steinberg (Jonathan Ball)

In the spring of 1999, in the beautiful hills of the Kwa-Zulu-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 like spent cartridges or fingerprints left at the scene. Journalist Jonny Steinberg travels to the midlands to investigate.

2004

A Human Being Died that Night by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela (New Africa Books)

Eugene de Kock, commanding officer of apartheid death squads, is currently serving 212 years in prison for crimes against humanity. He was denied amnesty, while many of his former comrades walk free. Gobodo-Madikizela visited Pretoria’s maximum security prison to meet the man many know as Prime Evil. What followed was a journey into what it means to be human.

2005

The Number by Johnny Steinberg (Jonathan Ball)

On 9 June 2003, a 43-year-old coloured man named Magadien Wentzel walked out of Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town. Behind him lay a lifelong career in the 28s, South Africa’s oldest and most reviled prison gang. In front of him lay the prospect of a law- abiding future – and life in a household of eight adults and six children, none of whom had a job. Jonny Steinberg met Wentzel in prison at the end of 2002. By the time Wentzel was released, he and Steinberg had spent more than 50 hours talking. The Number is an account of their conversations and of Steinberg’s journeys to the places and people of Wentzel’s past.

2006

Aids Safari by Adam Levin (Jonathan Ball)

With searing honesty, tender prose and outrageous humour, Adam Levin takes us through the daily trials of living with AIDS, travelling from promiscuity and denial, through the terrors of imminent mortality to face the realities of his disease. Joint winner in 2006 of the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award with Witness to Aids by Edwin Cameron (Tafelberg).

2007

Portrait with Keys by Ivan Vladislavic (Umuzi)

Through precisely crafted snapshots, Ivan Vladislavic observes the unpredictable, day- to-day transformation of his embattled city, Johannesburg. A dazzling portrait of a city – and an utterly true picture of the new South Africa.

2008

Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred by Mark Gevisser (HarperCollins)

Mark Gevisser’s profound psycho-political examination of Thabo Mbeki, South Africa’s second president. A brilliant but deeply flawed leader, Mbeki attempted to forge an identity for himself as the symbol of modern Africa in the long shadow of Nelson Mandela.

2009

In A Different Time by Peter Harris (Umuzi)

Set in a South Africa gripped by unrest and political tension, when the ANC was in exile and repression at its height. It tells the story of four young South Africans – assassins who reported directly to Chris Hani – who embark on a mission that lands them on Death Row. This true account reveals the lengths people are prepared to go to to fight for what they believe, and the acts people will commit to preserve the status quo.

2010

The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law by Albie Sachs (Oxford University Press)

From a young age, Albie Sachs played a prominent part in the struggle for justice in South Africa. As a result, he was detained in solitary confinement, tortured by sleep deprivation, and eventually blown up by a car bomb that cost him his right arm and the sight of an eye. His experiences provoked an outpouring of creative thought on the role of law as a protector of human dignity in the modern world, and a lifelong commitment to seeing a new era of justice established in South Africa.

2011

The Unlikely Secret Agent by Ronnie Kasrils (Jacana)

This remarkable story of a young woman’s courage and daring at a time of increasing repression in apartheid South Africa is told here for the first time with great verve and elan by Eleanor Kasrils’s husband, “Red” Ronnie, who eventually became South Africa’s Minister of Intelligence Services in 2004.

2012

Stones Against the Mirror by Hugh Lewin (Umuzi)

A brave and moving memoir which is both a family history and a story of friendship and betrayal between people caught up in the wrenching forces of South Africa’s struggle for freedom.

2013

Endings and Beginnings by Redi Tlhabi (Jacana)

Redi Tlhabi makes the painful journey back to her death-marred childhood in Orlando, Soweto in the 1980s. A township under siege, Redi’s father is murdered – and the perpetrators never found. And then Redi meets Mabegzo: handsome, charming and smooth – and a rumoured gangster, murderer and rapist.

  • Originally published by BooksLive. A selection republished here with kind permission.
  • For the full list of both fiction and non-fiction titles – with short descriptions – visit the BooksLive blog at bookslive.co.za/blog
  • To download BooksLive‘s colourful infographic made up of the covers of the selected “notable reads” and prize winners as a high-res PDF, click here. To download a high-res image in jpg format, click here.