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South Africa has a complicated history. Apartheid only ended 23 years ago, and although the country has undergone massive changes since then, the effects are still felt today.
Before you visit South Africa it’s important to learn about its turbulent past and vibrant culture and my favourite way to do this is through books. I didn’t read any history books but instead learnt through memoirs and novels by (mostly) South African writers sharing their experiences.
If you don’t have time to read them all, I’ve put an asterisk (*) next to the books I most recommend.
Non-Fiction Books About South Africa
If you only read one book before visiting South Africa, make it Long Walk to Freedom. Nelson Mandela’s autobiography tells his inspiring story from childhood to the fight against apartheid, his 27 years in prison, and how he negotiated with his oppressors for the first democratic elections in South Africa and became president. It’s a long book but very much worthwhile and a truly remarkable story.
Invictus (also known as Playing the Enemy) is the perfect follow up to Long Walk to Freedom. It’s a moving and heart-warming story of how Nelson Mandela used the national rugby team, the Springboks—long an embodiment of white-supremacist rule—to bring together South Africans as they prepared to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Mandela reached out to his old enemies rather than punishing them for the sins of the past, as he knew that trying to understand them was the only way to peace.
The Invictus film is also worth seeing but the book is much more detailed.
Born a Crime is a fascinating memoir by South African comedian Trevor Noah, who now hosts The Daily Show. It focuses on his childhood, both pre and post apartheid, as a mixed race child at a time when his parents relationship was against the law. His stories are both funny and tragic as he struggles to find his place in a world where he wasn't supposed to exist.
No Future Without Forgiveness is the disturbing but inspiring story of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which aimed to help heal the country and bring about a reconciliation of its people by uncovering the truth about human rights violations that occurred during apartheid. The horrors of apartheid are hard to hear but the ability of many of the victims to forgive is impressive.
Rian Malan is a white liberal who descended from some of the most racist Afrikaners in South Africa. My Traitors Heart is a brutally honest look at his struggle with being an anti-apartheid white with many black friends who was still afraid of blacks during the height of the conflict in the 80s. This isn’t an easy read, featuring horrific tales of apartheid, but it’s a powerful book.
Novels Set in South Africa
Cry, the Beloved Country is a classic South African novel from 1948. It’s a moving story of the Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo and his children set against the background of a land and a people riven by racial injustice. It’s beautifully written, poetic, powerful, tragic and somewhat hopeful. It took me a while to get into it but I ended up loving it.
The Power of One is a captivating novel about Peekay, a white boy of English descent growing up in South Africa in the 1930s and 40s. After being bullied by the Boers in his boarding school he meets a boxer on a train who changes his life and inspires his ambition to become the welterweight champion of the world. It’s a fantastic story with a rich cast of characters that’s about so much more than boxing.
I was sad to leave Peekay behind when I finished The Power of One, so I was excited to discover there’s a sequel. Tandia follows Peekay during his university and adult years and introduces another major character, a mixed race Black/Indian girl. As in the first book, there are many disturbing scenes, but it’s a compelling read and I didn’t even realise it was 900 pages long until I finished it—I didn’t want it to end.
The Housemaid’s Daughter is set in a small town in South Africa’s Karoo desert region and follows the life of two women and their forbidden friendship: Ada, a black girl growing up in a white household as a maid and Cathleen, the mistress of the house, who resists the pressures of apartheid society and loves Ada like a daughter.
Bitter Fruit is set post apartheid during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It’s a bleak but gripping tale about a country facing reality after a miracle and how one family deals with the changing times.
The Woman Next Door is the most contemporary of the South African novels I read set in the wealthy suburb of Constantia in Cape Town. Two cranky old ladies, one white, one black, both had successful careers and are now retired widows living next door to each other. The story follows their gradual journey from enemies to friendship. The novel raises issues about post-apartheid South Africa—land claims, the treatment of black staff, whites ignoring racism—and explores the themes of ageing and regrets.
I felt I had to include one book by J.M. Coetzee, South Africa’s most internationally acclaimed writer, but honestly I haven’t enjoyed the two books I’ve read by him, which are both very bleak with unlikeable male characters.
Set in post-apartheid South Africa, Disgrace tells the story of David Lurie, a twice divorced English professor who is disgraced after an affair with a student. He leaves Cape Town to visit his daughter’s farm in a rural community where racial tensions are running high. All the books I read about South Africa are depressing to some extent, but Disgrace was just too much. That said, it won the Man Booker Prize in 1999, so you might want to try it for yourself.
What’s your favourite book about South Africa?