Books Set In South Africa: South African Novels
I was lucky to visit South Africa a few years ago; exploring bustling Cape Town, the areas of rugged coast surrounding it, the farmland of the Overburg and the wilderness of safari in Kruger National Park. 🐯 I found it tricky to choose which books set in South Africa to read; authors have dealt with apartheid and contemporary issues in a multitude of ways; with everything from historical fiction through to non-fiction.
For my journey, I decided to read both fictional and non-fictional accounts. I started with the three books set in South Africa that make up Scenes from Provincial Life by J. M. Coetzee. Titled Boyhood, Youth and Summertime, these novels serve as a fictionalized memoir based on the life of the author himself. I followed these with Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela, the autobiography of one of history’s greatest figures.
South Africa has 11 national languages and the following selection of literature covers just some of those available in English. Next on my list to read are the works of Nadine Gordimer, who won the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature. Her novels include July’s People and The Conservationist, along with a collection of short stories titled Jump and Other Stories. Short stories are ideal when traveling, easy to sneak in here and there while in transit. Fingers crossed that one will accompany me on another trip there someday. 🙏
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Books Set In South Africa
The Story of an African Farm
by Olive Schreiner, 1883
A classic story of rural life in 19th Century South Africa, it is a searing indictment of the rigid Boer social conventions. The first of the great South African novels chronicles the adventures of three childhood friends who defy societal repression. The novel’s unorthodox views on religion and marriage aroused widespread controversy upon its 1883 publication, and the work retains in power more than a century later.
Cry, the Beloved Country
by Alan Paton, 1948
Cry, the Beloved Country is the deeply moving story of the Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo and his son, Absalom, set against the background of a land and a people riven by racial injustice. Remarkable for its lyricism, unforgettable for character and incident, Cry, the Beloved Country is a classic work of love and hope, courage and endurance, born of the dignity of man.
The Grass is Singing
by Doris Lessing, 1950
Set in South Africa under white rule, Doris Lessing’s first novel is both a riveting chronicle of human disintegration and a beautifully understated social critique.
Mary Turner is a self-confident, independent young woman who becomes the depressed, frustrated wife of an ineffectual, unsuccessful farmer. Little by little the ennui of years on the farm work their slow poison, and Mary’s despair progresses until the fateful arrival of an enigmatic and virile black servant, Moses. Locked in anguish, Mary and Moses – master and slave – are trapped in a web of mounting attraction and repulsion. Their psychic tension explodes in an electrifying scene that ends this disturbing tale of racial strife in colonial South Africa. Note: this is technically set in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), which is part of southern Africa.
When the Lion Feeds (Courtney Series 1/15)
by Wilbur Smith, 1964
‘Something always dies when the lion feeds and yet there is meat for those that follow him.’ The lion is Sean, hero of this tremendous drama of the men who took possession of South Africa in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Sean and his twin-brother Garrick grew up on their father’s farm in Natal. The first part of the book deals with his childhood and youth and his longing to become a successful farmer and hard-hitting fighter like his father.
by Nadine Gordimer, 1974
Mehring is rich. He has all the privileges and possessions that South Africa has to offer, but his possessions refuse to remain objects. His wife, son, and mistress leave him; his foreman and workers become increasingly indifferent to his stewarsship; even the land rises up, as drought, then flood, destroy his farm.
A Dry White Season
by André Brink, 1978
Ben Du Toit is a white schoolteacher in suburban Johannesburg in a dark time of intolerance and state-sanctioned apartheid. A simple, apolitical man, he believes in the essential fairness of the South African government and its policies—until the sudden arrest and subsequent “suicide” of a black janitor from Du Toit’s school. Haunted by new questions and desperate to believe that the man’s death was a tragic accident, Du Toit undertakes an investigation into the terrible affair—a quest for the truth that will have devastating consequences for the teacher and his family, as it draws him into a lethal morass of lies, corruption, and murder.
by James A. Michener, 1980
Set in South Africa, beginning 15,000 years ago and ending with the Boer War, this is a novel about people caught up in the march of world history. It is a story of adventure and heroism, love and loyalty, and cruelty and betrayal.
by Nadine Gordimer, 1981
For years, it had been what is called a “deteriorating situation.” Now all over South Africa the cities are battlegrounds. The members of the Smales family—liberal whites—are rescued from the terror by their servant, July, who leads them to refuge in his village. What happens to the Smaleses and to July—the shifts in character and relationships—gives us an unforgettable look into the terrifying, tacit understandings and misunderstandings between blacks and whites.
by Dalene Matthee, 1985
In Africa a child wanders too far into the Knysna Forest. He never returns. Nine years later, two government officials, working on a census, find a white child living with a Coloured family in the mountains on the other side of the forest. They take him away from the stricken Fiela, who has brought him up, and give him back to his ‘original’ family. Whipped into using a new name and calling strangers ‘ma’ and ‘pa’, Benjamin is so stunned that he cannot cry and waits for Fiela to reclaim him. But Fiela, powerless before authority, never comes. So Benjamin has to grow up before he can go in search of the truth.
The Power of One
by Bryce Courtenay, 1989
No stranger to the injustice of racial hatred, five-year-old Peekay learns the hard way the first secret of survival and self-preservation – the power of one. An encounter with amateur boxer Hoppie Groenewald inspires in Peekay a fiery ambition – to be welterweight champion of the world.
Jump and Other Stories
by Nadine Gordimer, 1991
In sixteen stories ranging from the dynamics of family life to the worldwide confusion of human values, Nadine Gordimer gives us access to many lives in places as far apart as suburban London, Mozambique, a mythical island, and South Africa. In “Some Are Born to Sweet Delight, a girl’s innocent love for an enigmatic foreign lodger in her parents’ home leads her to involve others in a tragedy of international terrorism. “The Moment Before the Gun Went Off” reveals the strange mystery behind an accident in which a white farmer has killed a black boy. “Once Upon a Time” is a horrifying fairy tale about a child raised in a society founded on fear.
Long Walk to Freedom
by Nelson Mandela, 1994
Nelson Mandela was one of the great moral and political leaders of our time: an international hero whose lifelong dedication to the fight against racial oppression in South Africa won him the Nobel Peace Prize and the presidency of his country. Since his triumphant release in 1990 from more than a quarter-century of imprisonment, Mandela was at the center of the most compelling and inspiring political drama in the world. As president of the African National Congress and head of South Africa’s antiapartheid movement, he was instrumental in moving the nation toward multiracial government and majority rule. He is revered everywhere as a vital force in the fight for human rights and racial equality.
Marabou Stork Nightmares
by Irvine Welsh, 1995
The acclaimed author of the cult classics Trainspotting and The Acid House, Irvine Welsh has been hailed as “the best thing that has happened to British writing in a decade”. This audacious novel is a brilliant (and literal) head trip of a book that brings us into the wildly active, albeit coma-beset, mind of Roy Strang, whose hallucinatory quest to eradicate the evil predator/scavenger marabou stork keeps being interrupted by grisly memories of the social and family dysfunction that brought him to this state. It is the sort of lethally funny cocktail of pathos, violence, and outrageous hilarity that only Irvine Welsh can pull off.
Boyhood (Scenes from Provincial Life 1/3)
by J.M. Coetzee, 1997
Coetzee grew up in a new development north of Cape Town, tormented by guilt and fear. With a father he despised, and a mother he both adored and resented, he led a double life—the brilliant and well-behaved student at school, the princely despot at home, always terrified of losing his mother’s love. His first encounters with literature, the awakenings of sexual desire, and a growing awareness of apartheid left him with baffling questions; and only in his love of the high veld (“farms are places of freedom, of life”) could he find a sense of belonging. Bold and telling, this masterly evocation of a young boy’s life is the book Coetzee’s many admirers have been waiting for, but never could have expected.
No Future Without Forgiveness
by Desmond Tutu, 1999
The establishment of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a pioneering international event. Never had any country sought to move forward from despotism to democracy both by exposing the atrocities committed in the past and achieving reconciliation with its former oppressors. At the center of this unprecedented attempt at healing a nation has been Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whom President Nelson Mandela named as Chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. With the final report of the Commission just published, Archbishop Tutu offers his reflections on the profound wisdom he has gained by helping usher South Africa through this painful experience.
by J.M. Coetzee, 1999
Set in post-apartheid South Africa, J. M. Coetzee’s searing novel tells the story of David Lurie, a twice divorced, 52-year-old professor of communications and Romantic Poetry at Cape Technical University. Lurie believes he has created a comfortable, if somewhat passionless, life for himself. He lives within his financial and emotional means. Though his position at the university has been reduced, he teaches his classes dutifully; and while age has diminished his attractiveness, weekly visits to a prostitute satisfy his sexual needs. He considers himself happy. But when Lurie seduces one of his students, he sets in motion a chain of events that will shatter his complacency and leave him utterly disgraced.
by Sheila Kohler, 1999
A beautiful schoolgirl mysteriously disappears into the South African veld. Forty years later, thirteen members of the missing girl’s swimming team gather at their old boarding school for a reunion, and look back to the long, dry weeks leading to Fiamma’s disappearance. As teenage memories and emotions resurface, the women relive the horror of a long-buried secret. A stunning and singular tale of the passion and tribalism of adolescence, Cracks lays bare the violence that lurks in the heart of even the most innocent.
The Heart of Redness
by Zakes Mda, 2000
In The Heart of Redness Zakes Mda sets a story of South African village life against a notorious episode from the country’s past. The result is a novel of great scope and deep human feeling, of passion and reconciliation. As the novel opens, Camagu, who had left for America during apartheid, has returned to Johannesburg. Disillusioned by the problems of the new democracy, he follows his “famous lust” to Qolorha on the remote Eastern Cape. There in the nineteenth century a teenage prophetess named Nongqawuse commanded the Xhosa people to kill their cattle and burn their crops, promising that once they did so the spirits of their ancestors would rise and drive the occupying English into the ocean. The failed prophecy split the Xhosa into Believers and Unbelievers, dividing brother from brother, wife from husband, with devastating consequences. One hundred fifty years later, the two groups’ descendants are at odds over plans to build a vast casino and tourist resort in the village, and Camagu is soon drawn into their heritage and their future – and into a bizarre love triangle as well.
Youth (Scenes from Provincial Life 2/3)
by J.M. Coetzee, 2002
The second installment of J. M. Coetzee’s fictionalized “memoir” explores a young man’s struggle to experience life to its full intensity and transform it into art. The narrator of Youth has long been plotting an escape-from the stifling love of his overbearing mother, a father whose failures haunt him, and what he is sure is impending revolution in his native country of South Africa. Arriving at last in London in the 1960s, however, he finds neither poetry nor romance and instead begins a dark pilgrimage into adulthood. Youth is a remarkable portrait of a consciousness, isolated and adrift, turning in on itself, of a young man struggling to find his way in the world, written with tenderness and a fierce clarity.
Frankie and Stankie
by Barbara Trapido, 2003
Dinah and her sister Lisa are growing up in 1950s South Africa, where racial laws are tightening. They are two little girls from a dissenting liberal family. Big sister Lisa is strong and sensible, while Dinah is weedy and arty. At school, the sadistic Mrs Vaughan-Jones is providing instruction in mental arithmetic and racial prejudice. And then there’s the puzzle of lunch break. ‘Would you rather have a native girl or a koelie to make your sandwiches?’ a first-year classmate asks. But Dinah doesn’t know the answer, because it’s her dad who makes her sandwiches. As the apparatus of repression rolls on, Dinah finds her own way. As we follow her journey through childhood and adolescence, we enter into one of the darker passages of twentieth-century history.
by John van de Ruit, 2005
It’s 1990. Apartheid is crumbling. Nelson Mandela has just been released from prison. And Spud Milton—thirteen-year-old, prepubescent choirboy extraordinaire—is about to start his first year at an elite boys-only boarding school in South Africa. Cursed with embarrassingly dysfunctional parents, a senile granny named Wombat, and a wild obsession for Julia Roberts, Spud has his hands full trying to adapt to his new home.
The Year the Gypsies Came
by Linzi Glass, 2006
As twelve-year-old Emily Iris explains it, her mother and father have always been eager to take in travelers and vagabonds, relying on the presence of outsiders to ease the tension between them. Emily has her gentle older sister, Sarah, and Buza, the old Zulu nightwatchman, for company and comfort. But her parents’ continuing discontent leads them to welcome some peculiar strangers.
by Marlene Van Niekerk, 2006
Set in apartheid South Africa, Agaat portrays the unique relationship between Milla, a 67-year-old white woman, and her black maidservant turned caretaker, Agaat. Through flashbacks and diary entries, the reader learns about Milla’s past. Life for white farmers in 1950s South Africa was full of promise — young and newly married, Milla raised a son and created her own farm out of a swathe of Cape mountainside. Forty years later her family has fallen apart, the country she knew is on the brink of huge change, and all she has left are memories and her proud, contrary, yet affectionate guardian. With haunting, lyrical prose, Marlene Van Niekerk creates a story of love and family loyalty.
by Kopano Matlwa, 2007
Debut novel about growing up black in white suburbs, where the cost of fitting in can be your very identity. Redefining what it means to be young, black and beautiful in the the New South Africa. Winner of the European Union Literary Award.
by Amanda Eyre Ward, 2007
Nadine Morgan travels the world as a journalist, covering important events, following dangerous leads, and running from anything that might tie her down. Since an assignment in Cape Town ended in tragedy and regret, Nadine has not returned to South Africa, or opened her heart–until she hears the story of Jason Irving.
Jason, an American student, was beaten to death by angry local youths at the height of the apartheid era. Years later, his mother is told that Jason’s killers have applied for amnesty. Jason’s parents pack their bags and fly from Nantucket to Cape Town. Filled with rage, Jason’s mother resolves to fight the murderers’ pleas for forgiveness.
A Single Swallow: Following An Epic Journey From South Africa To South Wales
by Horatio Clare, 2009
From the slums of Cape Town to the palaces of Algiers, through Pygmy villages where pineapples grow wild, to the Gulf of Guinea where the sea blazes with oil flares, across two continents and fourteen countries – this epic journey is nothing to swallows, they do it twice a year. But for Horatio Clare, writer and birdwatcher, it is the expedition of a lifetime.
Summertime (Scenes from Provincial Life 3/3)
by J.M. Coetzee, 2009
Summertime is an inventive and inspired work of fiction that allows J.M. Coetzee to imagine his own life with a critical and unsparing eye, revealing painful moral struggles and attempts to come to grips with what it means to care for another human being.
A young English biographer is researching a book about the late South African writer John Coetzee, focusing on Coetzee in his thirties, at a time when he was living in a rundown cottage in the Cape Town suburbs with his widowed father – a time, the biographer is convinced, when Coetzee was finding himself as a writer. Never having met the man himself, the biographer interviews five people who knew Coetzee well, including a married woman with whom he had an affair, his cousin Margot, and a Brazilian dancer whose daughter took English lessons with him. These accounts add up to an image of an awkward, reserved, and bookish young man who finds it hard to make meaningful connections with the people around him.
Wake Up Dead
by Roger Smith, 2009
A split-second decision with no second chance: get it wrong and you wake up dead. On a blowtorch-hot night in Cape Town, American ex-model Roxy Palmer and her gunrunner husband, Joe, are carjacked, leaving Joe lying in a pool of blood. As the carjackers make their getaway, Roxy makes a fateful choice that changes her life forever.
The October Killings
by Wessel Ebersohn, 2009
Abigail Bukula was fifteen years old when her parents were killed in a massacre of antiapartheid activists by white apartheid security forces. Because a young soldier spoke up in her defense, she was spared. Now she’s a lawyer with a promising career in the new government, and while she has done her best to put the tragedy behind her, she’s never forgotten Leon Lourens, the soldier who saved her life. So when he walks into her office almost twenty years later, needing her help, she vows to do whatever she can. Someone is slowly killing off members of the team who raided the house where her parents were murdered, and now Leon and an imprisoned colonel are the only targets left.
The Housemaid’s Daughter
by Barbara Mutch, 2010
When Cathleen Harrington leaves her home in Ireland in 1919 to travel to South Africa, she knows that she does not love the man she is to marry there —her fiance Edward, whom she has not seen for five years. Isolated and estranged in a small town in the harsh Karoo desert, her only real companions are her diary and her housemaid, and later the housemaid’s daughter, Ada. When Ada is born, Cathleen recognizes in her someone she can love and respond to in a way that she cannot with her own family.
The Fever Tree
by Jennifer McVeigh, 2012
Frances Irvine, left destitute in the wake of her father’s sudden death, has been forced to abandon her life of wealth and privilege in London and emigrate to the Southern Cape of Africa. 1880 South Africa is a country torn apart by greed. In this remote and inhospitable land she becomes entangled with two very different men—one driven by ambition, the other by his ideals. Only when the rumor of a smallpox epidemic takes her into the dark heart of the diamond mines does she see her path to happiness.
by Patrick Flanery, 2012
Told in shifting perspectives, Absolution is centred on the mysterious character of Clare Wald, a controversial writer of great fame, haunted by the memories of a sister she fears she betrayed to her death and a daughter she fears she abandoned. Clare comes to learn that in this conflict the dead do not stay buried, and the missing return in other forms–such as the small child present in her daughter’s last days who has reappeared, posing as Clare’s official biographer. Sam Leroux, a South African expatriate returning to Cape Town after many years in New York, gradually earns Clare’s trust, his own ghosts emerging from the histories that he and Clare begin to unravel, leading them both along a path in search of reconciliation and forgiveness.
A Man of Good Hope
by Jonny Steinberg, 2014
This extraordinary book tells Asad’s story. Serially betrayed by the people who promised to care for him, Asad lived his childhood at a skeptical remove from the adult world, his relation to others wary and tactical. He lived in a bewildering number of places, from the cosmopolitan streets of inner-city Nairobi to the desert towns deep in the Ethiopian hinterland.
by Masande Ntshanga, 2014
In a city that has lost its shimmer, Lindanathi and his two friends Ruan and Cecelia sell illegal pharmaceuticals while chasing their next high.
Lindanathi, deeply troubled by his hand in his brother’s death, has turned his back on his family, until a message from home reminds him of a promise he made years before. When a puzzling masked man enters their lives, Lindanathi is faced with a decision: continue his life in Cape Town, or return to his family and to all he has left behind.
Black Dog Summer
by Miranda Sherry, 2014
Compulsively readable and stylistically stunning, Black Dog Summer begins with a murder, a farmstead massacre, in the South African bush. Thirty-eight-year-old Sally is but one of the victims. Her life brutally cut short, she narrates from her vantage point in the afterlife and watches as her sister, Adele, her brother-in-law and unrequited love Liam, her niece Bryony, and her teenage daughter, Gigi, begin to make sense of the tragedy.
Recipes for Love and Murder
by Sally Andrew, 2015
Meet Tannie Maria: A woman who likes to cook a lot and write a little. Tannie Maria writes recipes for a column in her local paper, the Klein Karoo Gazette.
One Sunday morning, as Maria savours the breeze through the kitchen window whilst making apricot jam, she hears the screech and bump that announces the arrival of her good friend and editor Harriet. What Maria doesn’t realise is that Harriet is about to deliver the first ingredient in two new recipes (recipes for love and murder) and a whole basketful of challenges.
The Woman Next Door
by Yewande Omotoso, 2016
Hortensia James and Marion Agostino are neighbours. One is black, one white. Both are successful women with impressive careers. Both have recently been widowed. And both are sworn enemies, sharing hedge and hostility which they prune with a zeal that belies the fact that they are both over eighty.
But one day an unforeseen event forces the women together. And gradually the bickering and sniping softens into lively debate, and from there into memories shared. But could these sparks of connection ever transform into friendship? Or is it too late to expect these two to change?
Hum If You Don’t Know the Words
by Bianca Marais, 2017
A perceptive and searing look at Apartheid-era South Africa, told through one unique family brought together by tragedy. Life under Apartheid has created a secure future for Robin Conrad, a nine-year-old white girl living with her parents in 1970s Johannesburg. In the same nation but worlds apart, Beauty Mbali, a Xhosa woman in a rural village in the Bantu homeland of the Transkei, struggles to raise her children alone after her husband’s death. Both lives have been built upon the division of race, and their meeting should never have occurred… until the Soweto Uprising, in which a protest by black students ignites racial conflict, alters the fault lines on which their society is built, and shatters their worlds when Robin’s parents are left dead and Beauty’s daughter goes missing.
What We Lose
by Zinzi Clemmons, 2017
Raised in Pennsylvania, Thandi views the world of her mother’s childhood in Johannesburg as both impossibly distant and ever present. She is an outsider wherever she goes, caught between being black and white, American and not. She tries to connect these dislocated pieces of her life, and as her mother succumbs to cancer, Thandi searches for an anchor—someone, or something, to love.
What do you think of these books set in South Africa?
Have a great book recommendation I’ve missed? Are you planning a trip to South Africa soon? I’d love to hear about more about your travels and tips for books set in South Africa in the comments below!
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This is a wonderful collection of South African books; I have read several.
I thought Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk was brilliant, but I’m biased towards South African books, having lived there in the boonies for four years. This book captures so well the daily life and attitudes. I found my head nodding at all the Afrikaans nuances I remembered, and realized those same bits would likely go unnoticed by someone unfamiliar with the country. Regardless, the author’s use of voice and wholly developed, complex characterization with the two main women is exceptional. The author’s devastatingly funny irony and word play is sprinkled throughout. I rarely read books twice; this one I did.
It’s a long book but so rich in themes: of communication, or lack there of; and the need for a sense of place to identify with; and inheriting the social structures and lessons of the masters. In a flip-flop of fate, African Agaat is “rescued” at age 4 by white Milla, nursed to health and indoctrinated in white cultural values. Years later she “treats a half dead relic (Milla) like a whole human being” as she nurses Milla paralyzed with ALS. There is something virtuoso in the roundness of the author’s storytelling – what goes around, comes around – in so many of the themes.
Hi Suze! Thanks so much for sharing such a detailed and glowing review, I really appreciate the time you’ve taken and hope this will encourage many other readers. I absolutely love finding titles I will read multiple times, as it’s a rarity for me also! 🙂