When South Africa is a country with a tumultuous history, and this list of of books about South Africa reflect that. So many of them deal with the trauma of apartheid and the political unrest the country has experienced.
But that doesn’t mean all of these books are heavy and difficult; some are still light-hearted and fun (I really want to read the supposedly laugh-out-loud story of Spud). But I think it’s almost impossible to have a book set in South Africa that doesn’t hold the shadow of apartheid in some way.
Despite it’s past, South Africa is such a lovely and beautiful country. There is so much to do in South Africa, including safaris, historical sites, and cultural experiences. I was lucky enough to get to travel there in high school, and I’d love to get back one day. In the meantime, we can always go to South Africa in books!
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Fiction Set in South Africa
Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
In this 1948 classic by Alan Paton, Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo searches for his son Absalom in Johannesburg, who we eventually find has been charged with murder. Paton examined the racial and economic divides of South Africa in moving prose. I read this years ago, but honestly it needs to go on my re-reading list. For lovers of thoughtful literary fiction and classics.
Hum If You Don’t Know the Words by Bianca Marais
Set in 1970s South Africa in the immediate aftermath of The Soweto Uprising, 9-year-old Robin is dealing with the murder of her parents while Beauty, a Xhosa woman from a rural village, is looking for her teenage daughter. I really loved this book, and while it deals with difficult subjects there is so much heart in this book that it never felt too heavy. For fans of general contemporary fiction.
If You Want to Make God Laugh by Bianca Marais
Another book from Bianca Marais, If You Want to Make God Laugh ties together the lives of three women from different races and different backgrounds. They are all suffering from their own secrets, heartbreak, and tragedy, and the discovery of an abandoned baby brings them together. For fans of contemporary fiction.
The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso
Hortensia and Marion, one Black and one white and both recently widowed, are neighbors who have a sworn hatred for each other. When they are brought together by an unexpected event, they begin to form an unexpected friendship. For fans of general contemporary fiction.
Burger’s Daughter by Nadine Gordimer
This South African classic tells the story of a young white woman who must determine whether or not to follow in her parents footsteps, who were martyred as anti-apartheid revolutionaries. This book is a bit different in style, so it’s for fans of classics and books that take a bit more brain work.
Ways of Dying by Zakes Mda
This somewhat unusual book tells the story of Toloki, a professional mourner who to goes from funeral to funeral giving us a picture of South African society difficulties during apartheid, from racial hatred to crime and poverty. For fans of literary fiction dealing with heavy subjects.
Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
This is perhaps the most well-known of J.M. Coetzee’s many books, and it follows the downfall of Professor David Lurie after he seduces one of his students in post-apartheid South Africa, after which he must live with his daughter. For fans of literary fiction (and trigger warnings for sexual violence and the death of animals).
Coconut by Kopano Matlwa
This book explores what it means to come of age in new South Africa. It follows two young Black women who have grown up in white suburbs and are looking to find their identities. For fans of coming-of-age stories that don’t shy away from difficulties.
A Dry White Season by Andre Brink
A classic novel that examines apartheid through the eyes of a white schoolteacher in suburban Johannesburg. He is apolitical until an event in his school forces him to confront the corruption around him. Names a notable book by the New York Times, this is for fans of literary fiction.
Recipes for Love and Murder: A Tannie Maria Mystery by Sally Andrew
Tannie Maria loves to cook and offer advice, but when she gets wrapped up in the investigation of a local murder she has to confront something darker than she expected. For fans of cozy mysteries with slightly rougher edges.
Fiela’s Child by Dalene Matthee
This heart-wrenching classic centers around a child who becomes lost in the forest. Years later, governments officials believe they have found the child and take him from the woman who raised him, Fiela. Later in life, he searches for his true identity. This sounds like a difficult books, but so many people seem to love it, so I have a feeling it has a hopeful resolution. For fans of moving classics.
The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh
In the late 1800s, Frances Irvine is left destitute in the wake of her father’s unexpected death. She marries a man named Edwin and moves with him to South Africa. It is a world that is different than she expected and where she witnesses the small pox epidemic and the way diamond mines exploit native South Africans. For fans of historical fiction.
Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk
This book examines the relationship between Milla, 67-year-old white woman and her Black servant turned caretaker, Agaat, in apartheid South Africa. Told in flashbacks and diary entries, it tells the story of Milla’s life and how she has ended up where she is, with the relationship between Milla and Agaat an allegory of race relations in South Africa. For fans of lyrical books.
Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor
A fictional account of a family telling their story of victimization under apartheid to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It tells the story of Silas, his wife Lydia, and their son Mikey, and the ways the atrocities they experienced impact them even while the country is trying to heal. For fans of contemporary literary fiction. Trigger warnings for sexual assault.
Non-Fiction Books About South Africa
You cannot have a list of books set in South Africa without having Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. Here is the story of South Africa’s great leader, who spent 27 in prison and later became South Africa’s president and won the Nobel Peace Prize. For fans of biography.
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
You might think this book by The Daily Show star Trevor Noah would be full of comedy, and while it does have some funny moments, it is really a reflection on his life growing up in South African as a Colored person, where his very existence was illegal. It talks a lot about growing up in Soweto and Alex, and this was a fun bonus for me having had the opportunity to visit both areas. But you won’t be missing out if you know nothing about South Africa — in fact this is a great and accessible place to start if you want to know more. For fans of compulsively readable memoirs.
Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa by Antjie Krog
In 1995, Nelson Mandela established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in order to help South Africa heal from apartheid. This committee gathered testimonies of both victims and oppressors, and this book recounts some of these findings and asks the difficult question of how the country can heal. An important read, but definitely for readers who can handle trauma.
No Future Without Forgiveness by Desmond Tutu
In 1995, Archbishop Desmon Tutu was named Chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to help the country heal from the atrocities of apartheid. Here he shares the wisdom he gained and explains how a country cannot move forward without looking at the past with honesty.
In this book that spans decades of both apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa, Fairbanks follows the lives of three woman and how they are impacted by the changes in their country. This book asks the question of what it means to move on from societal trauma. For fans of journalistic non-fiction.
Children’s Books Set in South Africa
At the Crossroads by Rachel Isadora
In a South African village, children wait for their fathers to come home from work in the mines. This book gives us a glimpse of South African village life and has beautiful watercolor illustrations. Recommended ages: 5-8 years.
Jamela’s Dress by Niki Daly
Jamela’s mother has bought nice material to make a new dress. But before it is used, Jamela can’t resist playing dress up with it. Recommended ages: 4-7 years.
The Gift of the Sun: A Tale from South Africa by Diane Stewart, Illustrated by Jude Daly
On a small farm, Thulani makes a series of trades trying to reduce his workload until he ends up with only a handful of sunflower seeds that give an unexpected gift. Recommended ages: 6-8 years.
The Herd Boy by Niki Daly
Malusi is a herd boy who looks after his grandfather’s sheep and dreams of becoming president. One day, an encounter with Nelson Mandela makes him think that perhaps his dream is possible. Recommended ages: 5-8 years.
The Day Gogo Went to Vote by Elinor Batezat Sisulu, Illustrated by Sharon Wilson
Thembi, a young girl, goes with her grandmother to cast her vote in the first election in which Black South Africans are allowed to vote. Recommended ages: 4-8 years.
The Soccer Fence: A Story of Friendship, Hope, and Apartheid in South Africa by Phil Bildner, Illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson
Hector dreams of playing on a real soccer field, but apartheid makes that impossible. When apartheid ends, he realizes his dream may come true. Recommended ages: 6-8 years.
Shaka – King of the Zulus by Dianne Stanley, Illustrated by Peter Venemma
As a boy, Shaka is exiled from his tribe, but he never stops dreaming of becoming a great warrior. This biography of Shaka, one of the most important Zulu kings and warriors, is a picture book for slightly older kids. Recommended ages: 7-10 years.
Middle Grade and YA Books Set in South Africa
The White Giraffe by Lauren St. John
Eleven-year-old Martine must go live on a wildlife reservation with her grandmother after her parents die. There is legend on the reservation of a mythical white giraffe, but is it really true? This is an adventure book for middle grade readers and is part of the Animal Healer series. Recommended ages: 7-10 years.
Jock of the Bushveld by Percy Fitzpatrick
This children’s classic set in South Africa was first published in 1907. It tells true stories of Fitzpatrick and his dog Jock hunting in the bushveld of South Africa in the 1880s, at the beginning of the gold rush. A look into what South Africa looked like then. Recommended ages: 10 and up.
Zulu Dog by Anton Ferreira
In rural South Africa, Vusi adopts a puppy he finds in the bush. This is the story of their adventures, and how the dog leads Vusi to an unlikely friendship with a new neighbor. Recommended ages: 10 and up.
Spud by John van Ruit
Spud is the story of John Spud Milton, coming of age in a boarding school in post-apartheid South Africa. This book is full of hijinks and hilarity and is said to be laugh out loud funny. Recommended ages: 12 and up.
Journey to Jo’burg: A South African Story by Beverley Naidoo, Illustrated by Eric Velasquez
Naledi and Tiro, and 13-year-old girl and her younger brother, trek to Johannesburg to find their mother when their baby sister becomes sick. The journey opens their eyes to the injustices of apartheid. Recommended ages: 12 and up.
When Morning Comes by Arushi Raina
Taking place during The Soweto Uprising, the books shows the event from the perspective of four different students in Johannesburg and Soweto whose lives come together as tension builds until is explodes into violence. Recommended ages: 14-17 years.
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