South Africa has a great tradition of fictional works. The country has an indelible scar resulting from its colonial and racial history, vitally important to everyone connected with the country and an obsession among writers. Setting any story at all in South Africa does not require a conscious exploration of the issues: just telling a story about South Africa’s inhabitants, any story, even if very narrow, ensures the raising of those issues and how the protagonists deal with them, even if the stories are not ostensibly about those issues. This pick of the 10 best South African novels are all remarkable fictions and their writers are very fine novelists. If one were to read all ten one would have a special insight into what modern South Africa is all about and into the historical issues that still haunt the country.
The Story of an African Farm
Olive Schreiner, 1883
The Story of an African Farm is an exceptional novel in many ways. That such a novel could come out of the South Africa of the 1880s is in itself impressive. It has been praised by feminists for its revolutionary feminist politics while at the same time, condemned as racist and exclusionist by contemporary social and literary commentators. The former is something ahead of Schreiner’s time while the latter is something very much part of the context of her era. The protagonist, a young woman, Lyndall, engages with the issues and forces that arise for her – love, marriage, motherhood – all in the context of race, which is always an issue in South African literature, and colonialism, which has since – and currently – become an issue almost as important as that of race.
Cry The Beloved Country
Alan Paton, 1948
Cry The Beloved Country is probably the most famous South African novel, addressing the elephant in every South African room, in the most dramatic and ironic way. The highly contrived plot involves a simple black pastor in rural Natal going to Johannesburg because his son, a very young man, having gone to Johannesburg to seek his fortune, has been arrested for murder. He and some other youths have broken into a house to steal and, confronted by the owner, have shot him dead. It turns out that the victim was not only the son of the pastor’s neighbour, a wealthy White farmer, but also a strong campaigner for racial injustice. Such a plot naturally generates a great number of South African issues.
Cold Stone Jug
Herman Charles Bosman, 1949
Cold Stone Jug is not, strictly speaking a novel, although it might as well be, given the story and the prose style of its author, but it simply cannot be excluded from this list. Moreover, there is a sense in which Bosman was South Africa’s best writer. He wrote almost exclusively short stories – hundreds of them – but not famous beyond South Africa because, although they deal with universal themes, their reference is very narrow indeed, being set in a small rural area with characters that are more local than one could imagine, developed in their cocoon by Bosman, with language and concerns that would not be understood outside of South Africa. Bosman was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Cold Stone Jug is an account of his time on death row (his sentence was commuted to a period in prison). Like his stories, it is funny and embracing, full of comic situations and characters. Anyone who has not read this book should do so without delay.
A Dry White Season
Andre P Brink, 1979
A Dry White Season is a strongly anti-apartheid novel that not only illustrates the problems of black/white relationships but also the tensions among the white community. A schoolteacher’s black gardener is investigated for his political activities and is arrested and detained without being charged. The teacher sets out to find out where he is, which leads him on a journey into the injustices involved, which have never struck him before. His cosy white community closes in against him and, an erstwhile very popular teacher and husband in a happy family, he loses his job and his family. The novel was filmed with some of the biggest stars in Hollywood – Donald Sutherland, Marlon Brando and Susan Sarandon – who all gave their services free in favour of a South African charity.
Nadine Gordimer, 1981
July’s People is one of the many novels of Nobel Prize recipient, and one of South Africa’s most treasured writers, Nadine Gordimer. July is the former servant of a white family who hides his former employers, Bamford and Maureen Smales during Gordimer’s imagined bloody revolution in which white people are being murdered when blacks are revolting against apartheid. July is part of a family, a village and a friendship with the Smales. The novel is about his relationship with and tensions with all those groups and it delves into the murky waters of the choices people have to make that are forced on them in the context of race, violence and political forces.
Lewis Nkosi, 1986
Ndi Sibiya is an educated young black South African who relates his story from his cell in death row after his conviction for raping a white woman. He meets Veronica when he is on the black side of a fence on the segregated Durban beachfront and she is on the white side. They don’t talk but an electric attraction rises between them and they enter a silent relationship. After several such silent meetings he follows her one day to a bungalow where he finds her willing and receptive and they have sex. Neighbours discover them and Veronica accuses Ndi of rape. He is tried by white judges who find him guilty on Veronica’s testimony that she did not know him and that he burst in on her and raped her. Just setting this story in South Africa ensures an examination of the twisted racial morality and utter brutality of apartheid.
Ways of Dying
Zakes Mda, 1995
Ways of Dying’s protagonist, Toloki, a professional mourner moves around a fictional city during the transition from apartheid to democracy. He witnesses all kinds of violence in the shantytowns where he plies his trade. He reunites with a childhood female friend from his village at her son’s funeral. They start a relationships and move in together. They compete with each other in each teaching the other how to live the best life. The novel, using the technique of magical realism, explores the interplay of the tragedy and comedy of that national situation.
J.M. Coetzee, 1999
Disgrace won the Booker Prize and four years after its publication Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. It’s an insightful probe into contemporary South Africa. An oversexed Cape Town university lecturer, careless and ruthless regarding women, is forced to resign after an impulsive affair with one of his students. Having lost just about everything in his life he retreats to the countryside to stay with his daughter who lives on a small-holding in the Eastern Cape. They are violently attacked by some local youths and it changes both of their lives forever. The novel explores the contrast between the sumptuous life of a sophisticated white male of an older generation and the everyday life of rural blacks, with daily occurrences of brutality, death and deprivation. The novel is a summation of today’s South Africa.
Achmat Dangor, 2001
Bitter Fruit depicts the agonising of a family that is falling apart as a result of an incident that happened many years before. The subsequent years have been a torture of shame, denial and concealment, until the incident comes to the surface in hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the commission set up by the Nelson Mandela government. South Africa’s past and present turmoil is aired in this novel, with no dark corner of the effect of apartheid avoiding this searchlight probe. This is a quest to find some kind of resolution of the unresolved conflicts and inequalities that have troubled South Africa and continue to do so.
Damon Galgut, 2021
The Promise is a wonderful work of fiction, reminiscent of and as good as, the novels of William Faulkner. It explores the period around the final abolition of Apartheid and the strains and pressures in a white family descended from 17th-century Dutch settlers. It is centred around the three Swart children who are gathering, with the rest of the family, for their mother, the family matriarch’s funeral on their farm near Pretoria. The title comes from the promise made, decades before by a previous patriarch, to a black woman servant who has spent a lifetime devoted to the family, that she would be given a piece of land, with her own house, but which has never happened.
And that’s our pick of the best South African novels. You may also like our article on the best South African authors. What’s your take – any South African books missing from this list you think we should add? Let us know in the comments section below.