25 classic South African reads
Shaun de WaalLooking for deeper insight into South Africa? Here are snap reviews of 25 classic South African reads - and where you can get them - covering non-fiction, fiction and poetry and featuring a range of the country's greatest novelists, poets, journalists and historians.
Shaun de Waal, twice-winner of the Pringle Award for best movie critic in South Africa and former arts and books editor of the Mail & Guardian, is the author of several books and a graphic novel.
The World That Made Mandela
By Luli Callinicos
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 SA'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 SA today, combining to form a unique "heritage trail".
Long Walk to Freedom
By Nelson Mandela
The towering figure of South Africa's liberation struggle began this autobiography in prison, having pages in tiny writing smuggled out by comrades. When he came out of jail in 1990, and went on to become SA'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 has 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.
Tomorrow Is Another Country
By Allister Sparks
Sparks is a veteran South African journalist and author of 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 SA's first fully democratic election in 1994.
A History of South Africa
By Frank Welsh
The revised and updated edition of 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 SA's first black president. The book also goes back into SA history, and explains the country's ethnic mix - though it has also been criticised for pro-Afrikaner attitudes. Judge for yourself.
Orders, reviews, further information:
The Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902
By Fransjohan Pretorius
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 Ango-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.
Orders, reviews, further information:
Country of My Skull
By Antjie Krog
A personal and compelling account of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated the horrors of apartheid repression, written an 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.
My Traitor's Heart
By Rian Malan
Subtitled "Blood and Bad Dreams: A South African Explores the Madness in His Country, His Tribe and Himself", this book was a bestseller in SA 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.
Portraits of Power
By Mark Gevisser
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.
New Babylon / New Nineveh
By Charles van Onselen
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.
Orders, further information:
Cape Town: The Making of a City
By Nigel Worden, Elizabeth van Heyningen and Vivian Bickford-Smith
Cape Town was South Africa's first city - some still regard it so. It has certainly always been the great melting pot of the country, with an 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.)
By JM Coetzee
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 SA as well as abroad.
Cry, The Beloved Country
By Alan Paton
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.
By Nadine Gordimer
Winner of the 1991 Nobel Prize for Literature, Gordimer was for decades SA'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.
Orders, reviews, further
The Heart of Redness
By Zakes Mda
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.
Mafeking Road and Other Stories
By Herman Charles Bosman
In a new edition 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 remains undiminished.
Welcome to Our Hillbrow
By Phaswane Mpe
Phaswane Mpe's first novel (shortlisted for the 2002 Sunday Times Fiction Prize) is a new variation on what was known as the "Jim Comes to Jo'burg" theme in South African literature. A man leaves his rural home in the Northern Province 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 flatland 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.
Fools and Other Stories
By Njabulo Ndebele
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.
A Place Called Vatmaar
By AHM Scholtz
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.
By Etienne van Heerden
In its original Afrikaans, titled Toorberg, Van Heerden's novel won all the prizes going in South Africa that year. 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.
A Dry White Season
By Andre Brink
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.
The New Century of South African Poetry
Edited by Michael Chapman
This new 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.
Orders, reviews, further information:
Come and Hope with Me
By Mongane Wally Serote
Though the position does not officially exist, Wally Serote is perhaps SA's poet laureate, a veteran of the liberation struggle and now a member of Parliament. His work goes back to the 1970s, with his coruscating portraits of life as a black person in South Africa in those days. The newest 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.
Inside and Out
By Jeremy Cronin
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. Now a member of Parliament and an SA Communist Party leader, 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.
By Ingrid de Kok
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".
Orders, reviews, further information:
If I Could Sing: Selected Poems
By Keorapetse Kgositsile
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.
Would you like to use this article in your publication or on your website? See: Using SAinfo material