12 Books to Read Before Visiting South Africa

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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 

1) Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela*

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.

2) Invictus by John Carlin*

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.

3) Born a Crime by Trevor Noah*

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.

4) No Future Without Forgiveness by Desmond Tutu

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.

5) My Traitor's Heart by Rian Malan

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

7) The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay*

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.

8) Tandia by Bryce Courtenay

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.

9) The Housemaid’s Daughter by Barbara Mutch

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.

10) Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor

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.

11) The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

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.

12) Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

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.

6) Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton*

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.

What’s your favourite book about South Africa?

If you’re looking for more travel reads, see my picks for the best coffee table travel books, travel memoirs, books about Iceland, and books about Japan


  1. I love your great list of books to read before visiting South Africa!
    Here’s one more 2023 nonfiction title to consider:
    “Soccer Grannies: The South African Women Who Inspire the World” tells the story of a team of 40 to 80-year-old women in rural South Africa who defy social convention to play soccer for the companionship and the health benefits it provides. Their strength and resiliency help them face life’s challenges with dignity, humor, and hope. They teach the rest of us that age, gender, and expectations cannot define an athlete.
    The book incorporates the historical, political, and societal pressures that impacted the lives of these women. With both that contextual background and the life stories of many of these women, a reader can learn much about these resourceful and resilient women. All book proceeds are being conated to the Beka Ntsanwisi Foundation to keep these South African women healthy and safe.
    Enjoy the book and your travels!

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  2. Loved Disgrace, My Son’s Story by Nadine Gordimer; The Imposter and The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut, Mine Boy by Peter Abrahams,
    Christopher Hope, Deon Mayer. Gillian Slovo (her detective books), People like Ourselves by Pamela Jooste. As you can see, I am totally into South African Lit. There is an honesty that comes out of the writing that I don’t always see in my own native country, England

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  3. My Traitor’s Heart is such a fantastic book. Using the premise of crime reporting to explore the cultural and political undercurrents of life in SA across the decades is genius. One of the best books I have ever read. I would also recommend Welcome to Hillbrow, which is a short and beautiful novel about post apartheid Hillbrow (suburb of inner city Joburg – largely regarded as one of the more dangerous suburbs). It’s by Phaswane Mpe and explores themes like the use of euphemism in SA culture and language and the use of the foreigner as the scape goat (breathes understanding into why waves of Xenophobic violence sometimes occur in this country). Love love love. As an outsider from the US, I communicate very directly and it took me a looooong time to understand the role of euphanism in South African culture. This book provides a beautiful and complex snapshot of Inner City Joburg.

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    • Thanks for the recommendation Ashley. There are so many fascinating books about South Africa and they really do help us understand the culture more. I imagine this is especially useful when you are living there as it’s such a complicated place.

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  4. Ooooh — I’m a memoir writer so I’d recommend Don’t Lets Go To the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller

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    • That one looks interesting although it’s about Zimbabwe, not South Africa. Thanks for the recommendation!

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  5. I found the Malan very compelling. Wished I hadn’t read Disgrace, especially as I did so in my first visit to S.A. just as we switched from a very secure boutique hotel in Stellenbosch to an airbnb with the bedrooms on the ground floor and locks a toddler could break through, in the middle of nowhere. I got very little sleep that night. All totally unnecessary as I 4 visits I’ve never otherwise felt unsafe!

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  6. Thank you for this list! As much as I would travel to South Africa, the stories from these books will have to do for now

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    • Even if you aren’t planning a visit soon these books are worth a read as South Africa has a fascinating (if traumatic) history.

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  7. You left out the First book tourists should read about south Africa before coming here.
    Jock of the Bushveld.

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    • Definitely! Also any book by Wilbur Smith. A great deal of his books are set in Southern Africa especially South Africa. His books have a balanced view about Black and White relations as well as the relations between the English and the Boer. His books are historical novels.

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