Best books about or set in South Africa, with what they are about and my personal rating and review.
Cry, the Beloved Country
Author: Alan Paton
What: A very famous book that really takes you into the mindset of a rural farmer faced with the daunting task of Johannesburg, now also a movie.
Where best to read: In Johannesburg, Kwa-ZuluNatal, or South Africa in general
Review Score: I found this book slow going at times though it was also interesting. I would recommend it to anyone visiting South Africa to get a deeper understanding of what life was like here seventy years ago, but it’s not exactly a page-turner.
Description: Published at the very beginning of official apartheid, but when race was already very divided into rich white people with land and poorer others, with the concomitant problems.
Too Late The Phalarope
Author: Alan Paton
What: is a phalarope?
Where best to read: In a small town in Kwa-ZuluNatal, or South Africa in general
Review Score: I preferred this book to the author’s more famous work – Cry, the Beloved Country. It is more introspective and I got really into it, though I can imagine not everyone would find it interesting.
Description: I kept being distracted when reading this book by thinking about the title, and wondering why there was such a strange word in it. Phalarope is a type of shorebird – I looked it up before I began reading. But I still pondered why the author chose a word that hardly anyone knows to be in the title. I guess it’s a bit similar to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. What are Hallows? But there were so many articles explaining what they were after the title became known. Probably the great rush to explain the meaning of phalarope was more subdued. Why didn’t he chose the name of a normal bird? Like sandpipers which are closely related, a much more normal name, but still not totally obvious. Or just seagull. That wouldn’t quite work though, as incorrect identification of the bird is a part of the story. But even Google doesn’t recognize the spelling of phalarope.
Anyway, even though I can’t describe this book as a page-turner, it was a page-turner. Even though it was slightly boring, I couldn’t stop reading it. It was pretty intense. The author really gets you into the head of the main guy, including the secret chat that we all have in our heads where we get paranoid or obsessed or weird about something, but don’t tell anyone and act normal on the outside.
Author: Nadine Gordimer
What: An important, dense South African book about the white radical left and their role in the fight against apartheid
Where best to read: In Johannesburg, or South Africa in general
Review Score: It was hard going getting through this book, however I felt somehow cleverer and quite intellectual after reading it, although I still don’t really know what happened.
Description: This book was partly inspired by Bram Fischer, a famous white lawyer and anti-apartheid activist. On release, it was banned for a few months in South Africa before the authorities decided it was not, after all, a threat to National Security. I found the style of writing was difficult to follow and it was hard to know what was going on. If you do want to read this book (Nadine Gordimer won a Nobel Prize and Nelson Mandela enjoyed this book so some people like it), I would recommend reading up a bit on the history of radical white activism in South Africa in apartheid times. Then the book would be easier to follow.
Author: Victoria Stevens
What: The story of a road trip in a Land Rover Defender around South Africa, camping and visiting most of the National Parks and Nature Reserves.
Where best to read: Planning or on an African adventure!
Review Score: I didn’t give a score to my own book, I don’t think I can be very impartial!
Description: Ever since I learnt that people drive around Africa in 4x4s, sleeping in rooftop tents for months at a time, I dreamed of joining them. My obsession became reality in January 2020, when together with my boyfriend I bought a 20-year-old dark blue Land Rover Defender. She’s called Nyala. After a few test weekends to check out the car, we were ready to go.
Coronavirus struck. Borders closed, hard lockdown began. Our plans to spend six months overlanding through southern Africa were put on hold. Fast-forward six months, and we were ready to go again.
Chasing Ostriches chronicles this journey of exploration through South Africa. We roamed the backroads and national parks in our trusty (and not so trusty at times) Defender. We climbed misty mountains, camped in empty deserts, sunbathed on tropical beaches, and saw wildlife galore under the hot African sky.
I came back with dirty clothes, an even dirtier car, and memories to last a lifetime. I hope my book will help you do the same.
Check out more details and reviews on Amazon* now.
Author: Kopano Matlwa
What: Perspectives on what it feels like to grow up as a young black girl in post-apartheid South Africa where still white is held up as the ideal.
Where best to read: Anywhere in South Africa
Review Score: It was very readable and interesting but sometimes I didn’t quite know what was happening.
Description: Two stories, both about growing up as a black girl in South Africa, both with different aspirations and thoughts in relation to white people. The author described the points of view of the characters very well and I think this book helps you to empathise with people who grew up in different circumstances to yourself.
Born a Crime
Author: Trevor Noah
What: Trevor Noah, the famous comedian, describes his life growing up in South Africa.
Where best to read: Anywhere
Review Score: Not only was this book funny but also super interesting.
Description: A great insight into the ‘other side’ of South Africa life and what it’s like to grow up in a very poor family. Even if you don’t like reading that much you can enjoy this book and get a flavour of South Africa. This book is filled with amusing anecdotes and hard facts, at times sad and at times hilarious. Trevor has really fulfilled the American dream – from poverty to a multi-millionaire living in Hollywood.
Author: James Michener
What: An epic novel following families through the history of South Africa
Where best to read: South Africa, especially Mapungubwe and Western Cape. Maybe start before you leave as it takes a while to read…
Review Score: Very, very long book yet still a page-turner.
Description: A great book to learn about the evolution of South Africa from prehistoric times until the mid-20th century. The novel contains a mix of fictional and real items, fictional and real people. When I visited the ancient ruins of a town in Mapungubwe National Park, I remember episodes from this book. When I see Cape Dutch farmsteads near Cape Town, I again remember episodes from this book. Since it’s so long it covers a very long period in time and also the many different landscapes of South Africa. It helped me see how the strands of history in this beautiful country fit together and I would recommend it highly to anyone visiting, or just interested in, South Africa.
The Burning Land
Author: George Alagiah
What: A political thriller set in contemporary South Africa with a terrible vision of the near future.
Where best to read: Mpumalanga Province, South Africa
Review Score: A fast-paced book that’s easy to read but not everything about the plot makes sense
Description: I quite enjoyed this book. It wasn’t written amazingly, but the subject was interesting, and even though fictional, it could very well happen here in South Africa. It’s a mystery and I wanted to know what happened so it kept me reading quickly to the end. There were interesting characters and interesting things to think about along the way. Good to read if you want to understand some of the xenophobic riots that have happened in the past few years in South Africa.
Enemy of the People
Author: Adriaan Basson, Pieter du Toit
What: A non-fiction book analysing the Zuma Presidency and capture of the state by the Gupta brothers
Where best to read: South Africa or the world
Review Score: Interesting but too complicated for someone who hasn’t been following South African politics.
Description: Designed to be read by South Africans who know quite a lot of the history and the politicians involved in the story already. If you’re unfamiliar with South African recent history and politics then it would be a little difficult to follow. I read up on Wikipedia some details of Zuma and the Gupta brothers, along with various other people the book mentions.
Gang (Cape) Town
Author: Don Pinnock
What: About gangs and the world of crime in the Cape Flats / townships.
Where best to read: Cape Town or anywhere in South Africa because you will see townships everywhere
Review Score: Very readable and a super interesting look into the world of crime in South Africa
Description: This book describes the problems and some solutions to crime and gangs in the Cape Flats area. Some problems are specific to South Africa and some recur across the globe. I lived in the posh part of Cape Town and always wondered about life in the Cape Flats and if things were getting better or worse. I would recommend this book to anyone who lives in Cape Town and any visitor who wants to understand part of South Africa that you probably won’t visit.
No Future without Forgiveness
Author: Desmond Tutu
What: An insightful description of the authors role in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and other parts of his own life both before and after becoming Archbishop of Cape Town.
Where best to read: South Africa
Review Score: I thought this might be a bit dry but it was not the case at all, it held my interest the entire way through and I learnt a lot.
Description: I didn’t know so much about the truth and reconciliation commission before reading this. It is also kind of an autobiography of Desmond Tutu’s life. It’s philosophical and religious in places which made me think a lot. I had to keep reminding myself that Desmond Tutu was a archbishop, so he deeply believed in the goodness of God and in fact every individual person.
This book relates some of the awful things that happened in Apartheid but is mainly about love and the human capacity for forgiveness. A great book.
Plague, Pox and Pandemics
Author: Howard Phillips
What: About how 5 pandemics have shaped the course of South African history.
Where best to read: Anywhere
Review Score: This book was written before the Coronavirus Pandemic but shows that it is nothing new. It isn’t just about health, but how the political responses to these crises have been fundamental in shaping South Africa today. Whether it’s moving ‘disease-ridden undesirables’ out of city centers or establishing a Ministry of Health, the five pandemics described in the book have had long-lasting changes. I found it fascinating and a unique take on the history of this country.
The Rocks and Mountains of Cape Town
Author: John Compton
What: A readable guide to the landscape of Cape Town and its surroundings
Where best to read: Cape Town
Review Score: Accessible to both the average reader and geologist visiting Cape Town.
Description: Ever wondered why Table Mountain is so flat? Or why Cape Point is so pointy? This book allows you to understand what you’re looking at and how it was made, whether you’re hiking on the rocky mountain, driving through the sandy Cape Flats or even drinking wine in the fertile land of Constantia.
The Story of an African Farm
Author: Olive Schreiner
What: A famous novel, one of the first written by a South African and a feminist one at that.
Where best to read: The Karoo
Review Score: A mix of interesting and boring, sometimes the plot seems obscure.
Description: Following the lives of various characters who live on an out-of-the-way farm in the arid Karoo. I found it quite a random book – mainly interesting but with other sections that were boring and I didn’t really get why they were there. Unlike the title suggests, it’s not that much about an African farm but mainly a romance and some feminist thoughts, but not really a coherent story.
It does, however, capture a sense of life in the Karoo a century and a half ago and when driving through the Karoo I was pleased to have read the book.
Author: J.M. Coetzee
What: A grim, influential Booker and Nobel prize-winning book following a university professor who falls from grace.
Where best to read: After you get back from South Africa
Review Score: It was extremely well written yet not an easy read.
Description: In other descriptions of this book they state that the professor (the main character) was having an affair with one of his students, but on reading the book it’s more like he raped her. Subsequently, she keeps telling him to leave her alone but he won’t listen.
The professor is fired and goes to live with his daughter in the countryside where a terrible event befalls them but especially befalls his daughter.
After reading this book I couldn’t stop thinking about the terrible event and it influenced my daily life and made me very scared to live in South Africa. I would strongly recommend that you don’t read this book just before visiting, or while in South Africa. Read when you’re safely back home or if you never plan on visiting.
The Story of Earth & Life: A Southern African Perspective
Author: McCarthy & Rubidge
What: The geological and early hominid history of southern Africa
Where best to read: Southern Africa
Review Score: Readable and interesting.
Description: A good book that talks about both the geological and early hominid history of southern Africa. There is a lot about geology but from a southern African point of view – the different rock groups of southern Africa are described and more importantly their formation is put in context of the much bigger picture. I learnt a lot from this book; it was very readable yet structured like a textbook. It enhanced greatly my understanding of the rocks and landscapes of southern Africa.
When the Lion Feeds
Author: Wilbur Smith
What: The first of Wilbur Smiths many fast-paced action-adventure novels
Where best to read: KwaZulu-Natal Province, Johannesburg, Kruger, South Africa
Review Score: Good story, good characters, a page-turner though a little old-fashioned
Description: The double-dream of all Voortrekkers – to find gold, power and beautiful women, then to live in the wilderness hunting elephants and living the good life.
A look at the life of early Afrikaaners from rural KwaZulu-Natal to the nascent goldfields of Johannesburg to the game-filled bush of the Lowveld.
A History of South Africa
Author: Frank Welsh
What: The title says it all.
Where best to read: South Africa in general
Review Score: Good but a bit long and complicated in places
Description: I read this to learn more about South Africa just after I arrived to live in Cape Town. I didn’t know much beforehand but afterwards I felt much more knowledgeable and was very glad to have read it. At times I thought the author went into a bit too much detail and I had to struggle through a few pages.
Author: Justin Cartwright
What: Critically acclaimed book about a middle-aged British man who moves to South Africa.
Where best to read: Western Cape, South Africa, UK
Review Score: First third was boring, then it got better
Description: I struggled through the beginning of this book. Nothing seemed to happen and I didn’t find it interesting. My boyfriend gave up reading at this point. I laboured on and suddenly the book took on a new life. A plot became clear and I saw meaning. I ended up reading the last half very quickly as I couldn’t put it down. Quite an original book but very sad.
Jock of the Bushveld
Author: J. P. FitzPatrick
What: Classic ‘childrens’ book about a man and his dog
Where best to read: Graskop, Mpumalanga, South Africa
Review Score: The first bit, before the dog came into the story, was boring but then it got much better.
Description: This book is mainly about hunting in the bush with Jock the dog. I don’t think it’s a children’s book at all since the writing style is quite difficult and children would probably find it too descriptive and boring. It describes exciting hunts for animals but it’s pretty mean to shoot them, though they ate them so I guess it’s fine.
This book is racist, but that’s how they were at the time it was written. Previously I had just heard generally that people were racist but this book gives an insight into more specifics and I was shocked at how blatant it was. Some newer editions of this book are altered to remove the racism and prejudices of the time – check before you buy if you want a specific version.
Turning and turning: Exploring the complexities of South Africa’s Democracy
Author: Judith February
What: A complicated book about the recent politics and corruption of South Africa
Where best to read: South Africa
Review Score: Before reading this book I didn’t know much about South African politics and it was too involved for me to understand.
Description: If you already understand South African politics this book would probably be interesting, however it’s not a book to recommend to those who aren’t really familiar the subject.
Find out more about South Africa here!