As you might know, I’m a proud South African native, making me a little (or a lot) biased about what the country has to offer – some of the world’s best wines, most delicious cuisine, iconic landmarks like Table Mountain and world-class beaches. But even if you can’t visit my country in the flesh, you can already experience its magic through literature. With that in mind, we’ve put together a cracking list of 30 of the best South African books; from memoirs and non-fiction to stand-out novels, teen lit and more!
While it’s particularly difficult to categorize some of these books, we’ve tried to curate collections of non-fiction including historical and biographical books as well as a ‘who’s who’ of fiction novels covering everything from young adult to racy thrillers. That said, picking up (or downloading) any of the books on this list should give you a taste of what South Africa has to offer the avid bookworm…
Best South African books 2020 at a glance
Now just in case you don’t make it all the way down our bumper list of the best books about South Africa, or by South African authors, we thought we’d help you along by suggesting a few ideas based on your usual reading fodder:
- Best book for film buffs: Playing the Enemy – John Carlin
- Best South African book for teens: Spud – John van der Ruit
- Best book for South African history buffs: A History of South Africa – Leonard Thompson
- Best book to explore South Africa’s apartheid: Country of my Skull – Antjie Krog
- Best memoir: Long Walk to Freedom – Nelson Mandela
- Best book to make you laugh: Born a Crime – Trevor Noah
- Most thrilling South African novel: Thirteen Hours – Deon Meyer
- Best collection of short stories: Fools and Other Stories – Njabulo Ndebele
- Best tearjerker: Cry, the Beloved Country – Alan Paton
- Best contemporary South African novel: Coconut – Kopano Matlwa
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Non-fiction | Memoirs and biographies of South Africans
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
One of the more contemporary memoirs on this list, comedian Trevor Noah recounts his upbringing in South Africa, told with his customary wit. Now a pretty successful funny man on the international stage and host of The Daily Show, Noah grew up poor and marginalized, especially as a ‘mixed race’ child in what was essentially a ‘black or white’ South African during apartheid.
You’ll fall in love with Trevor’s ‘Gogo’ or grandmother, you’ll find yourself shaking your head at some of his antics and, by the end, you’ll definitely be laughing in wonder at how much this skinny South African kid achieved, as he tells his tale in Born a Crime.
My Traitor’s Heart by Rian Malan
The secondary title of this book really says it all: ‘A South African exile returns to face his country, his tribe and his conscience.’
Malan, a white Afrikaans speaking South African grew up in a pro-apartheid family where he was actually related to Daniel Francois Malan, one of the architects of apartheid itself. However, he didn’t identify with his family’s beliefs and, to avoid involvement (and mandatory army conscription), he moved to Los Angeles to work as a journalist. The book covers Malan’s return to South Africa in the 1980s, describing what he found in compelling, if slightly unsettling detail. A book not for the weak of stomach, but definitely captivating reading.
Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
One of the most beloved statesmen to have ever lived, Nelson Mandela is more than an icon; both in South Africa and across the world.
This book is not a novel but rather the memoir of Mandela and paints his life in broad multicoloured strokes; a life of extraordinary pain, adversity but also of triumph. Another one of the best South African books to read before you go.
Non-fiction | Historical South African books
Country of my Skull by Antjie Krog
Like many books set in South Africa, this one deals with issues around apartheid. In this instance, about the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, tasked with righting the wrongs of the past.
The book, like the TRC itself, is quite traumatic but a fascinating look inside the aftermath of politics.
A History of South Africa by Leonard Thompson
This non-fiction work is really what it says on the cover: a definitive history of South Africa. Tracing the country’s early origins from when the first known humans inhabited its borders to the leadership of Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki (it is often updated), this is a factual, sometimes dry, albeit interesting look at the country’s development.
While it does gloss over the Dutch and British colonial history, anyone looking to find out more about apartheid and the ‘Rainbow Nation’ of the New South Africa should give this one a look.
The Cape Town Book by Nechama Brodie
Anyone with even a passing interest in Cape Town, aka The Mother City, should get their hands on a copy of the Cape Town Book, a fascinating insights into the city. Brodie touches on everything from the beaches and the big attractions like Table Mountain to some of the untold stories from generations of local families, covering everything from the poorer families living in the slums to those in the richer suburbs.
Beautifully illustrated and beautifully written by one of my favourite South African authors, this is a portrait of my hometown that everyone should own.
Related: Heading to Cape Town? Check out our ultimate Cape Town itinerary here!
No Future Without Forgiveness by Desmond Tutu
If you enjoyed Krog’s book on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and wanted to delve a little deeper, this is the book for you.
Written by Nobel Peace Prize winner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, it covers his role as Chairman of this body, tasked with uncovering the atrocities of South Africa’s apartheid era.
It’s a dense read but is jam-packed with wisdom and Tutu’s very charming wit.
Commando: A Boer Journal of the Boer War by Deneys Reitz
It’s a war story not often told beyond South Africa’s borders: the Anglo Boer war that kicked off in 1899 between the occupying British and a ragtag bunch of South African farmers gussied up as soldiers.
This personal account of Reitz brings the Boer War to life, as seen from the saddle as he goes into battle. He not only sees a lot of action during his time but somehow encounters some of the most legendary figures – Smuts and Churchill to name just two.
If you like war novels, this is a must-read South African book for you.
Non-fiction | Other books about South Africa
Jock of the Bushveld by J. Percy FitzPatrick
While Lee vividly remembers the film from her childhood, it’s the book that really packs a punch. Jock of the Bushveld tells the tale of Jock, a Staffordshire bull terrier who belonged to FitzPatrick. The author was a transporter who essentially moves goods across the country via oxen, in the early 1900’s during the country’s gold rush.
Jock, a bit of a mongrel dog, is his hunting companion as they eke out an existence on the plans of the then Transvaal region (now known as Gauteng). It’s one of the most iconic animal stories of all time, and undoubtedly one of the ultimate South African books
Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation (also known as ‘Invictus’) by John Carlin
From the pen of acclaimed South African journalist, John Carlin, this book is an ode to Nelson Mandela, the statesman, which fuses politics with the global game of rugby, with the 1995 Rugby World Cup as its apex.
Chronicling South Africa’s difficulty in embracing its new identity after apartheid was abolished, this compelling book tells the story of reunification and the courage of Mandela as he uses sport to unify a nation. Once you’ve read this book, make sure you watch the film, Invictus, starring Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman but – be warned: it’s a tearjerker!
Fiction | Short Stories and Poetry about South Africa
Selected Stories by Nadine Gordimer
For lovers of short stories, this one is a doozy. Gordimer, one of the country’s literary greats, handpicks some of her favourite short stories she’s ever penned in this wonderful collection of tales. Gordimer is one of my most beloved South African writers, and this compendium is jam-packed with lovely little stories that pack a punch.
It’s arranged in chronological order – from the ‘Is there nowhere else where we can meet’ to ‘Africa Emergent’ – and almost shows how Gordimer’s writing and influences changed over time. My pick? Probably ‘Not for Publication’ stands head and shoulders above the rest.
If you enjoy this writing, check out some of Gordimer’s more famous works including July’s People, a World of Strangers and Burger’s Daughter.
Fools and Other Stories by Njabulo S. Ndebele
This is a collection of five short stories, all with slightly different flavours and offering up South African culture in its many shades. All of them are set in the impoverished townships of South Africa and paint a vivid picture of life on the edges of society. My favourite short? ‘Uncle’.
Mafeking Road and Other Stories – Herman Charles Bosman
Definitely one of my favourite South African authors, Herman Charles Bosman’s collection of short stories is a great read. Narrated by ‘Oom Schalk’, an impoverished farmer living in the small town of Groot Marico, the book covers a glut of simply told but stunning stories about Afrikaans life in the late 19th century.
Covering everything from leopards and snakes to love stories and music, this book captures the spirit of South Africa in it’s telling, almost as if ‘Oom’ is continuing the oral tradition of storytelling, somehow translated into print.
Fiction | Teen and young adult books set in South Africa
Spud by John van der Ruit
If you’ve ever read The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ by Sue Townsend, you’ll absolutely adore Spud. A South African take on Adrian Mole, Spud focusses on teenage boy, Spud Milton, a young kid about to start at a fancy boarding school. This is a great book for teens (male and female alike), as it navigates the growing pains of growing up with two hilariously dysfunctional parents amid a high-stakes, slightly snobby high school atmosphere. With a lot of talk of hormones and holidays at the sea, Spud is a real page-turner, and full of laughs!
The first book was so successful that Spud is now a series of four novels.
The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay
Set in rural South Africa in the 1930’s, Courtenay’s acclaimed novel features Peekay, a young boy sent to boarding school. With British roots, he struggles against the local Boer (Afrikaans speaking) children before being packed off on a train where he meets the unique ‘Hoppie’, who helps ignite his love of boxing. Sent to live with his grandfather in a quieter rural town, Peekay undergoes an amazing journey where he then uses his love of boxing and botany to connect with people across the fraught colour and race boundaries of South Africa.
While Courtenay is an Australian writer, he really captures the essence of South Africa during the historic times of World War II and of a young English boy, trying to navigate the difficult political situation in the country.
If you like this debut novel, do check our Courtenay’s other highly regarded book, Tandia, considered the sequel to The Power of One.
Pops and the Nearly Dead by Edyth Bulbring
This book aimed at teenagers is a charming read for older adults too, as it showcases both the story of Randolph, a young boy and his grandfather, Pops. When Randolph’s folks swan off to Singapore, he goes to stay with Pops in his retirement village.
What Randolph believes will be a few months with a bunch of ‘nearly dead’ elderly people at the retirement home turns into a thrilling journey where you can absolutely relate to both characters – Randolph as he comes of age and Pops as he struggles to make peace with aging. It’s a book best enjoyed with a strong cup of tea and a slice of South African melk tert; a real joy to read!
Fiction | Stories about South Africa’s culture
Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton
Chronicled in a film of the same name, this book is top of the must-read list of best South African novels. It’s a tearjerker – profiling pastor Stephen Kumalo and his son and showcasing apartheid (institutionalised racism) in all its gritty shades.
Cry, The Beloved Country must be one of the most famous books about the Rainbow Nation, definitely one of the most important books in 20th century South African literature and, if you’re ever thinking of going to South Africa, the first one you read before your trip.
Ways of Dying by Zakes Mda
Mda is now a well-known author on the South African scene, made famous by books like this – his first novel. It’s an interesting idea as the main character, Toloki, invents himself as a ‘professional mourner’, attending funerals to support those grieving after deaths caused by poverty or the rampant crime.
Through this he meets Noria, a girl from his home village, which takes over the remainder of the novel as they struggle to find dignity amidst all the pain around them. An incredibly sad and unputdownable book for this list of the best South African books.
Want more Mda on your bookshelf? Check out the Heart of Redness.
Disgrace by JM Coetzee
I remember the first time I read Disgrace; tucked into a sunny corner of my bedroom unable to put it down. Coetzee has won a Nobel Prize for Literature, making him one of the country’s most successful authors and this book, is undoubtedly his best work.
Its set in post-apartheid South Africa with the main character painted as a middle-aged white university professor who is left ‘disgraced’ after a relationship with a student.
A Dry White Season by Andre Brink
Another cracker of a South African novel that has been made into a feature film is A Dry White Season, the compelling novel from Andre Brink. It’s not an easy read, telling the story of Ben du Toit, a white teacher during South Africa’s apartheid era who is shocked by the arrest and ‘suicide’ of the school’s black janitor.
Du Toit decides to investigate himself which has some pretty disastrious outcomes for him and his family. This novel is a little difficult to get in to but, once you’re about 50 pages in, you’ll definitely be enthralled.
Fiction | Contemporary South African fiction
Welcome to Our Hillbrow by Phaswane Mpe
It’s not easy to explain Hillbrow to someone who hasn’t set foot in it but Mpe does a marvellous, if macabre job. The suburb, set in the middle of crime-ridden Johannesburg, shows the melting pot of South Africa in vivid terms.
The book is particularly short – only 124 pages so more a novella – but crams a lot into it’s brief account of the racism, xenophobia, poverty and disease that permeates this area. It’s a weighty book in subject although not size; undoubtedly punching above its class. Shortlisted for the Sunday Times fiction prize, this is definitely one for your list on the best books about South Africa.
Coconut by Kopano Matlwa
Like the term ‘oreo’ in places like the United States, the term ‘coconut’ is a slur used in South Africa for those born black but who consider themselves ‘white on the inside’, akin to white coconut flesh. The term is used with great flair here in this book about two young girls of colour – Ophilwe and Fikile – both of who are growing up in post-Apartheid South Africa and trying to adjust to become part of white suburbia.
Both women have dreams to fulfil but one has the support of her family and money to do so, while the other has neither. It’s a beautifully told book of racial bias and gets under the skin of South Africa’s Rainbow Nation mantra to show the painful journey of black women in South Africa trying to rise to the top.
Fiction | Best thriller books set in South Africa
Thirteen Hours by Deon Meyer
Meyer is another stalwart of South African fiction and this book is his finest.
It revolves around Benny, an alcoholic policeman investing two murders.
He’s a conflicted character but one that you can’t help liking, despite his faults.
It’s one of my unputdownable novel suggestions.
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
This list wouldn’t be complete without a novel from one of the newer voices in South African fiction, Lauren Beukes. The Shining Girls – about a serial killer and a survivor – is her most acclaimed work, shovelling up awards across the continent. Now this book is actually set in Chicago rather than her native Cape Town, but its still a compelling (if often bizarre read).
Following the protagonist, Harper, a time-travelling serial killer you’ll find the book covering his attempts to kill ‘shining girls’, while also juxtaposing that with narrative from one of his victims who survives her attempt, Kirby. It’s odd, it’s a little stilted but its still a fascinating book from a now famous contemporary South African author.
If you enjoy this book, you’ll also love Beukes’ “Zoo City” or “Moxyland.”
Long Lies the Shadow by Gerda Pearce
In the style of big international thrillers, Pearce’s first novel has a fast pace and a global reach.
Chronicling four characters – Gin, Vivienne, Michael and Nick – you see their intertwined lives hop between Cape Town and London in a story that has all the right ingredients: a funeral, an unplanned pregnancy and a suicide. It’s well-written, has heaps of rich descriptions and very relatable characters that you empathize with.
That’s it for our roundup of the best South African books – we hope you enjoyed it and it added a few captivating choices to your must-read bookshelf. Did we skip any that you’d absolutely recommend? Do let us know in the comments or drop us a line as we’d love to hear from you.
If you’re looking to travel even further than your armchair, we also have some more Best Travel Books pieces to check out, including the Best Books about Jordan, the ultimate novels from Brazil and wanderlust-inspiring novels about Turkey.
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