Books Set in South Africa
South Africa, officially the Republic of South Africa, is the southernmost country in Africa. South Africa has three capital cities: Pretoria is the Executive Capital, Cape Town the Legislative Capital, and Bloemfontein the judicial Capital. However, the largest city in South Africa is Johannesburg. There are 11 official languages, including English, Afrikaans, Sesotho, Setswana, Xhosa, and Zulu. The literature selected for this booklist covers some of the books that are available in English.
To visit South Africa without reading and learning about its tumultuous history would be to miss a crucial part of the country’s identity. Writers have dealt with apartheid and contemporary issues in so many different forms and they are both discussed in fiction and non-fiction. Though not lighthearted, it will help you to understand the fabric of South African society and appreciate how far the country has come. But despite the heart-wrenching past, there is great pride in South Africa and an immense sense of promise for the country’s future.
From city life to adventure, wildlife to culture, breathtaking scenery to sun-soaked coasts – travelers to South Africa will experience a unique blend of African and Colonial cultures. If you’ve never visited or you’re simply longing to go back, these books set in South Africa are sure to transport you there and inspire a future adventure!
The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner (1883)
This pioneering work was a cause celebre when it appeared in London, transforming the shape and course of the late Victorian novel. Lynall, Schreiner’s articulate young feminist, marks the entry of the controversial New Woman into nineteenth-century fiction. From the haunting plains of South Africa’s high Karoo, Schreiner boldly addresses her society’s greatest fears: the loss of faith, the dissolution of marriage, and women’s social and political independence.
What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons (2017)
From an author of rare, haunting power, a stunning novel about a young African-American woman coming of age–a deeply felt meditation on race, sex, family, and country.
Jock of the Bushveld by Sir James Percy Fitzpatrick (1907)
Jock of the Bushveld is a story set in the rough Bushveld of South Africa’s gold mining era. Jock is the faithful dog and companion of a transport rider. Through their adventures we catch a glimpse of those heady gold rush days. Jock, the runt of the litter turns out to be a faithful companion to the end.
Hum If You Don’t Know the Words by Bianca Marais (2017)
A perceptive and searing debut about Apartheid South Africa, as told through the story of one unique family brought together by tragedy.
Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton (1948)
“Cry, the Beloved Country” is a beautifully told and profoundly compassionate story of the Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo and his son Absalom, set in the troubled and changing South Africa of the 1940s.
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (2016)
Born a Crime is the story of a mischievous young boy who grows into a restless young man as he struggles to find himself in a world where he was never supposed to exist. It is also the story of that young man’s relationship with his fearless, rebellious, and fervently religious mother–his teammate, a woman determined to save her son from the cycle of poverty, violence, and abuse that would ultimately threaten her own life.
The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing (1950)
Set in Southern Rhodesia under white rule, Doris Lessing’s first novel is at once a riveting chronicle of human disintegration, a beautifully understated social critique, and a brilliant depiction of the quiet horror of one woman’s struggle against a ruthless fate.
The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso (2016)
Hortensia James and Marion Agostino are neighbors. One is black, the other white. Both are successful women with impressive careers. Both have recently been widowed, and are living with questions, disappointments, and secrets that have brought them shame. And each has something that the woman next door deeply desires.
The Conservationist 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 stewardship; even the land rises up, as drought, then flood, destroy his farm.
A Dry White Season by André Brink (1978)
As startling and powerful as when first published more than two decades ago, André Brink’s classic novel, A Dry White Season, is an unflinching and unforgettable look at racial intolerance, the human condition, and the heavy price of morality.
Recipes for Love and Murder by Sally Andrew (2015)
A bright new talent makes her fiction debut with this first entry in a delicious crime set in rural South Africa–a flavorful blend of The #1 Ladies Detective Agency and Goldie Schulz series, full of humor, romance, and recipes and featuring a charming cast of characters.
Burger’s Daughter by Nadine Gordimer (1979)
South African writer Nadine Gordimer won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991. Her seventh novel, Burger’s Daughter, focuses upon the daughter of a white, communist Afrikaner hero. Based partly on fact, successively banned and unbanned by the South African authorities, the novel has also become something of a test case for feminist critics of Gordimer’s writing.
Black Dog Summer by Miranda Sherry (2014)
A suspenseful drama focusing on marriage and fidelity, sisterhood, and the fractious bond between mothers and daughters–and set in a contemporary, urban world that belies a simmering wildness–Black Dog Summer is a gorgeously written debut, with a pace that will leave you breathless.
July’s People 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.
A Man of Good Hope by Jonny Steinberg (2014)
When civil war came to Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, in January 1991, two-thirds of the city’s population fled. Among them was eight-year-old Asad Abdullahi. His mother murdered by a militia, his father somewhere in hiding, he has swept alone into the great wartime migration that scattered the Somali people throughout sub-Saharan Africa and the world.
Fiela’s Child by Dalene Matthee (1985)
Set in nineteenth-century rural Africa, Fiela’s Child tells the gripping story of Fiela Komoetie and a white, three-year old child, Benjamin, whom she finds crying on her doorstep. For nine years Fiela raises Benjamin as one of her own children. But when census takers discover Benjamin, they send him to an illiterate white family of woodcutters who claim him as their son. What follows is Benjamin’s search for his identity and the fundamental changes affecting the white and black families who claim him.
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 an epidemic takes her into the dark heart of the diamond mines does Frances see her road to happiness.
The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay (1989)
Set in a world torn apart, where man enslaves his fellow man and freedom remains elusive, THE POWER OF ONE is the moving story of one young man’s search for the love that binds friends, the passion that binds lovers, and the realization that it takes only one to change the world.
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.
Jump and Other Stories by Nadine Gordimer (1991)
In sixteen new 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.
Coconut 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.
Tandia by Bryce Courtenay (1991)
Tandia sat waiting anxiously for the fight to begin between the man she loved the most in the world and the man she hated the most in the world.
Tandia is a child of Africa: half Indian, half African, beautiful and intelligent, she is only sixteen when she is first brutalized by the police. Her fear of the white man leads her to join the black resistance movement, where she trains as a terrorist.
Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk, 2006
Set in apartheid South Africa, Agaat portrays the unique, forty-year relationship between Milla, a sixty-seven-year-old white woman, and her black maidservant turned caretaker, Agaat.
Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela (1994)
Long Walk to Freedom is Mandela’s moving and exhilarating autobiography, destined to take its place among the finest memoirs of history’s greatest figures. Here for the first time, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela told the extraordinary story of his life — an epic of struggle, setback, renewed hope, and ultimate triumph.
Marabou Stork Nightmares by Irvine Welsh (1995)
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.
Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor (2005)
A harrowing story of a brittle family on the crossroads of history and a fearless skewering of the pieties of revolutionary movements, Bitter Fruit is a cautionary tale of how we do, or do not, address the past’s deepest wounds.
Ways of Dying by Zakes Mda (1995)
In Ways of Dying, Zakes Mda’s acclaimed first novel, Toloki is a “professional mourner” in a vast and violent city of the new South Africa. Day after day he attends funerals in the townships, dressed with dignity in a threadbare suit, cape, and battered top hat, to comfort the grieving families of the victims of the city’s crime, racial hatred, and crippling poverty. At a Christmas day funeral for a young boy Toloki is reunited with Noria, a woman from his village. Together they help each other to heal the past, and as their story interweaves with those of their acquaintances this elegant short novel provides a magical and painful picture of South Africa today.
Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee (1999)
At fifty-two, Professor David Lurie is divorced, filled with desire, but lacking in passion. When an affair with a student leaves him jobless, shunned by friends, and ridiculed by his ex-wife, he retreats to his daughter Lucy’s smallholding. David’s visit becomes an extended stay as he attempts to find meaning in his one remaining relationship. Instead, an incident of unimaginable terror and violence forces father and daughter to confront their strained relationship and the equallity complicated racial complexities of the new South Africa.
Country of My Skull by Antjie Krog (1998)
Ever since Nelson Mandela dramatically walked out of prison in 1990 after twenty-seven years behind bars, South Africa has been undergoing a radical transformation. In one of the most miraculous events of the century, the oppressive system of apartheid was dismantled. Repressive laws mandating separation of the races were thrown out. The country, which had been carved into a crazy quilt that reserved the most prosperous areas for whites and the most desolate and backward for blacks, was reunited. The dreaded and dangerous security force, which for years had systematically tortured, spied upon, and harassed people of color and their white supporters, was dismantled. But how could this country–one of spectacular beauty and promise–come to terms with its ugly past? How could its people, whom the oppressive white government had pitted against one another, live side by side as friends and neighbors?
No Future Without Forgiveness by Desmond Tutu (1999)
In No Future Without Forgiveness, Tutu argues that true reconciliation cannot be achieved by denying the past. But nor is it easy to reconcile when a nation “looks the beast in the eye.” Rather than repeat platitudes about forgiveness, he presents a bold spirituality that recognizes the horrors people can inflict upon one another, and yet retains a sense of idealism about reconciliation. With a clarity of pitch born out of decades of experience, Tutu shows readers how to move forward with honesty and compassion to build a newer and more humane world.
What do you think of these books set in South Africa?
Have you been to South Africa before or is it on your bucket list? Have you read any of these books set in South Africa? Do you know any books set in South Africa that I may have missed? Let me know your thoughts, ideas, and suggestions about South Africa and books set there in the comments below!