These are a few books I’d recommend for people looking to come to grips with South African life, culture and politics.
History and Politics
The Mandela Files by Zapiro (with a foreword by Desmond Tutu)
Jonathan Shapiro, who publishes under the pen-name ‘Zapiro’, is South Africa’s foremost political cartoonist, famous for his humorous and often controversial depictions of local and international figures. This book is a collection of all his cartoons featuring Nelson Mandela and was published as a belated birthday present to the then-90-year-old former-president. In addition to the cartoons, the book showcases Zapiro’s personal anecdotes regarding his encounters with Mandela, as well as his experiences as a cartoonist living through the age of Apartheid.
Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela’s autobiography takes readers from his beginnings in a small village in rural Transkei all the way to his years of political activism, utilizing guerrilla tactics against the Apartheid government, as well as recounting his decades of imprisonment on Robben Island, just off the shores of Cape Town. The book is truly inspiring, and essential reading for anyone wishing to add depth to their knowledge of the struggle.
The Bang Bang Club: Snapshots From A Hidden War by Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva
The Bang Bang Club was a group of photographers famed for their coverage of the violence between Apartheid peacekeeping forces and ANC supporters. The book follows their experiences in the townships, as well as the inquiry into the death of one of the group’s members at the hands of police officers in 1994. To date, two of the four Bang Bang Club members have won the Pulitzer Prize for photography, and a documentary entitled The Life of Kevin Carter: Casualty of the Bang Bang Club, which tells the tale of the award-winning photographer’s life and eventual suicide, was nominated for an Academy Award in 2006.
The Mail & Guardian A to Z of South African Politics (2009) by Rapule Tabane and Barbara Ludman
The weekly Mail&Guardian produces a new edition of this book each year. The books cover every figure and event of current political importance, as well as those people out of government that residents should be concerned about – always in lively, intelligent prose.
Jock of the Bushveld by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick
This is the true story of Fitzpatrick’s journeys during the 1880s when accompanied by his dog Jock, he traveled and worked as a journalist, wagoneer, storeman, and prospector’s assistant in the Transvaal region of the South African republic. This variously heart-warming and tragic book has gone down as one of the great classics of South African literature and gained international fame in the process.
Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
Widely considered to be the country’s greatest writer, J. M. Coetzee, despite his emigration to Australia, continues to set most of his fiction in South Africa. Disgrace is the portrait of an aging university professor who, first through the public exposure of his affair with a young student, and later through his failure to protect his daughter from rape and assault, is disgraced and forced to find meaning and redemption in a world he feels has left him behind. The novel won the Booker Prize in 1999, and was a strong factor in securing the author’s 2003 Nobel Prize win. It was recently adapted into a film starring John Malkovich.
Spud by John Howard van de Ruit
This comedic, diary-style novel follows the adventures of John ‘Spud’ Milton through his first year at a private boarding school in the Kwazulu Natal Midlands. The novel runs by turns from tales of ghostbusting and illegal night swimming to cricket-pitch politics and the trials of family vacations and is as universal in its themes as it is unique in its marvelous, quirky style.
During a creative writing course at the University of Cape Town, a professor said that selling more than 15 000 copies of a locally-written book on the South African market was a virtual impossibility, the mark of a true literary superstar. Spud sold 30 000 copies in its first month of release, and, as of this writing, has topped the 100 000 marks, making it officially the most successful book in SA publishing history.
A Dry White Season by Andre Brink
This powerful novel follows a white schoolteacher’s inquiry into the death of an African caretaker at the hands of the Apartheid government. Along with Coetzee and Gordimer, Brink is considered among the country’s most distinguished authors and is notable for writing his novels simultaneously in English and Afrikaans. The novel’s release in 1979 saw Brink’s writings banned from publication in South Africa. It was later adapted into a film starring Donald Sutherland, Susan Sarandon and Marlon Brandon.
Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton
Published in 1948, only a few months before Apartheid became law, this classic novel follows Stephen Kumalo, a black Anglican priest searching for his son, a political activist, who has disappeared in Johannesburg. Through a sequence of discoveries, it is revealed that the young man has been framed for the murder of a white fellow-activist, and is scheduled to be executed.
The book is regarded as one of the first works of fiction to fully unclothe the nature of racial injustice in South Africa prior to its institutionalization. It achieved critical acclaim and commercial success (selling over 15 million copies prior to Paton’s death in 1988) around the world, except in South Africa, where it was banned for decades.
July’s People by Nadine Gordimer
Written in 1981, this novel documents a fictitious civil war during which black South Africans have staged a violent coup d’etat of the Apartheid government. It follows the flight of a liberal white family from Johannesburg to the village of their black servant, July, and shows how their relationships change under the conflicting pressures of old habits and new orders.
Gordimer won the Nobel Prize in 1991, a fact which, through the associations of her various novels, helped to raise international awareness of the real revolution underway in South Africa.
Is it coz I’m black? by Ndumiso Ngcobol
Ngcobol, a self-styled urban Zulu warrior, is a screenwriter for several local television shows in addition to being an irreverent and frequently hilarious social critic. This book is some of the best of recent local satire, and sees Ngcobol tackle everything from xenophobia and personal security paranoia to bad South African drivers and angry-white-male syndrome.
The Rough Guide To Cape Town, The Winelands and The Garden Route by Philip Briggs and Loren Minsky
This is a nigh-on comprehensive guide to leisure activities in the Western Cape, including the most popular tourist road-trip routes. It should give you all the information you’ll need to plan a lifetime of holiday excursions.
The Lonely Planet Guide to South Africa, Lesotho, and Swaziland
This book showcases the history, cultures and wildlife of the country. With detailed itineraries that’ll take you to the country’s borders and beyond, it’s a great resource for anyone who fancies a true, off-the-beaten-track African adventure.