Best 8 South African Books You Need To Read

For tourists visiting South Africa, it is a country with beautiful nature, lush green mountains, beaches, and wildlife, with Kruger National Park as one of the biggest safari parks. Then there are big cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town, famous for Table Mountain and the sea around it.

Another exciting aspect is the many different groups of people living there. These people speak many languages and have different cultures. And because of that, South Africa is called the “Rainbow Nation”. However, South Africa’s journey to Rainbow Nation also has a past that we can only learn from South African books.

South Africa, from 1948 to 1994, was under apartheid. This system separated people based on their skin color. It meant that white people and non-white people lived differently, went to separate schools, and couldn’t mix freely.

As it happens, there’s always a resistance to injustice. No matter how dark the night is, there’s always hope for a light. The anti-apartheid resistance in South Africa had one of the biggest anti-apartheid activists, Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in jail. But he didn’t give up, as thousands of people rallied behind him for a free and equal South Africa.

We will mention some books about South African apartheid, but not all books on South Africa will be history books. We will discuss some of the best South African novels and South African authors to cover fiction and nonfiction books. 

Excited already? Let’s get started.

Best South African books

1. Long Walk To Freedom by Nelson Mandela - Goodreads 4.4 / 5

It would be a grave injustice to start books about South Africa without discussing Nelson Manedela’s book first. Long Walk to Freedom is the autobiography of Nelson Mandela, an iconic figure in the fight against apartheid in South Africa. This book tells the story of Mandela’s life, from his early years in a small village, his political involvement, and his long imprisonment on Robben Island.

The book is a powerful account of the struggle against racial oppression in South Africa. As a reader, we get a deep insight into the cruel system of apartheid and the sacrifices made in the fight for freedom.

Despite obstacles, Mandela’s commitment to justice and equality is a story of resilience. For equality, Mandela spent 27 years in prison in harsh conditions. But emerged without bitterness, advocating for peace among all South Africans.

The book is also a remarkable study of Mandela’s leadership qualities and vision for South Africa. For his very leadership qualities, he became the first black president of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. It is one of the best South African history books that remains a beacon of light even today for people fighting against discrimination.

Best South African books

2. Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - Goodreads 3.8 / 5

When people overthrow apartheid and dictatorships, it always leaves its trail. The people and writers look at the country from the pre- and post-apartheid perspectives.  Disgrace is one of the best South African novels that delves deep into such complexities. It offers a stark and uncomfortable view of the tensions that shaped post-apartheid South Africa.

The story is set in the second half of the 20th century when South Africa underwent a social and political transformation. It follows David Lurie, a divorced and middle-aged professor, who is disgraced and dismissed by the University of Cape Town. The reason is that he is having an affair with a student. After his disgrace, Lurie goes to the countryside of the Eastern Cape to stay with his daughter, Lucy.

Amid all the happenings, we experience race and power dynamics in the new South Africa. Lucy’s farm becomes the center of tension when it comes under a violent attack. Coetzee is one of South African authors’ best sellers who depicts the long-lasting impacts of historical injustices of post-apartheid South Africa. And the difficult path toward reconciliation and healing.

Disgrace is available if you are looking for a South African novels pdf version.

Best South African books

3. Circles in a Forest by Dalene Matthee - Goodreads 4.3 / 5

South Africa is home to dense forests and lush green mountains. So, it shouldn’t be surprising if Dalene Matthee, who grew up amid serene greenery, also wrote about it. But, of course, she didn’t just write to describe forests; she wrote about the destruction of jungles by humans. One of the best South African books that weaves observations into fiction.

Circles in a Forest is set in the dense and enchanting Knysna Forest in South Africa. Saul Barnard is a woodcutter with a deep love and respect for the forest. He is quite unlike others who see the trees merely as timber. As expected, he is at odds with the colonial authorities and his community.

We also see the majestic Knysna elephant, which plays a symbolic role in the novel, a powerful reminder of what is at stake. Overall, it sheds light on environmental issues and the importance of preserving natural heritage.

If you like historical fiction or stories that celebrate humans’ connection to nature, this is one of the South African novels to read. Dalene Matthee wrote “Circles in a Forest” in Afrikaans. However, this South African novel reached a global audience as translators translated it into many languages.

Best South African books

4. The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay - Goodreads 4.4 / 5

The Power of One is one of the best South African novels, published in 1989. The novel’s backdrop of pre-apartheid South Africa gives insights into the racial divisions and injustice. And the power dynamics that would define the country for decades.

It is set in South Africa during the 1930s and 1940s and tells the story of a young English boy named Peekay. From a tender age, Peekay finds himself in a world where he is the minority, being English in an Afrikaner-dominated society. The hardships and bullying inspire a deep desire within him to prevail over adversity.

There are other characters who also shape his outlook and destiny. One is Doc, a German musician and botanist who gives lessons on kindness and nature. Geel Piet is a prison inmate who teaches Peekay about boxing and the harsh realities of racial discrimination. And Miss Bornstein, a librarian who introduced him to the world of ideas.

It is one of the best South African books, and it’s an exploration of personal empowerment and the fight against oppression. Due to this inspirational message, it is one of the most loved books by South African authors.

The novel was also adapted into the same-name movie in which Morgan Freeman and Daniel Craig played lead roles. You can stream The Power of One on Amazon Prime.

South African novels

5. Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton - Goodreads 3.9 / 5

Cry, the Beloved Country is one of the classic South African novels by Alan Paton, first published in 1948. If one looks at the South African authors and their books, Alan Paton stands tall as an anti-apartheid activist and writer.

This classic, just like The Power of One, is set against the backdrop of the racial divisions of pre-apartheid South Africa. In the novel, Paton explores the country’s landscape, issues, and the human capacity for kindness and reconciliation.

The story revolves around Stephen Kumalo, an elderly priest from the rural village of Ndotsheni. He travels to Johannesburg in search of his son, Absalom. He encounters a city divided by race and class, far from the values he cherishes.

To his utter dismal, Absalom stands accused of murdering a white man, Arthur Jarvis, an advocate for social justice. As the narrative unfolds, the lives of two families share grief and common humanity that bring them together.

One of the best South African books on the themes of fear, forgiveness, redemption, and hope. Through the personal stories of Kumalo and Jarvis, we see the possibility of reconciliation between South Africa’s divided communities. Just like other classics, Cry, the Beloved Country is a universal message of peace, which makes it one of the best books about South Africa.

books on South Africa

6. Born a Crime by Trevor Noah - Goodreads 4.5 / 5

If you love watching late-night American TV shows, you must have seen Trevor Noah on the satirical news program The Daily Show. How many of you know that Trevor Noah is an African? I bet very few, as most people have a general idea of him being a comedian and television host.

Apart from being a comedian, Trevor Noah is also a political commentator and writer. His book Born a Crime is one of the best South African books, selling millions of copies worldwide.

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood is the second autobiographical book on our list. It gives an insightful and humorous look at life in South Africa during the latter years of apartheid and the early years of democracy.

Noah’s birth, as the title suggests, was a crime. He was born to a black South African mother and a white Swiss father when interracial relationships were illegal.

One of the book’s most interesting aspects is Noah’s relationship with his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah. As per Noah, she is a strong, independent, and religious woman determined to give her son a better life. Noah credits his mother for giving him the values to overcome the complexities of his identity.

These values did age well as Trevor Noah is one of the most successful TV show hosts and comedians. Enjoy a standup funny skit of Trevor Noah talking about his mother.

The book received critical acclaim for its honesty and the balance of humor with reflection on issues of societal importance. Noah’s Born a Crime is a compelling read among South African authors and their books. If stories that intertwine personal history with larger social and political themes, this is one of the South African books that you should read.

South African novels

7. Spud by John van de Ruit - Goodreads 4.1 / 5

It’s time for another comedic commentary on social issues but in the form of a novel. Spud is one of the comedy books on South Africa written by John van de Ruit. The story takes place in 1990, at the end of apartheid. However, the novel focuses on the everyday experiences and humorous adventures of its main character.

The novel is basically a diary of 13-year-old John “Spud” Milton. He wins a scholarship to attend an elite boys’ boarding school. After admission, Spud’s adventures and misadventures start as he faces the challenges of boarding school life.

This novel is a beautiful commentary on growing up and the awkwardness, friendships, and humorous moments that define adolescence. It is one of the best South African books that is a delightful weekend read not to be missed!

As John van de Ruit is also an actor and producer, the novel was also into a feature film in 2010, starring Troye Sivan as Spud. You can rent Spud on Amazon Prime.

books on South Africa

8. Playing the Enemy by John Carlin - Goodreads 4.2 / 5

Sports is not just about playing the game; it’s also a form of resistance and resilience. South Africans love to play cricket and Rugby. Despite a world-class cricket team, they haven’t won any Cricket World Cup. But it’s a different story altogether when it comes to rugby. South Africa has won 4 Rugby World Cups, most by any country.

So, how about a sports book, particularly rugby?

Playing the Enemy by John Carlin is one of the best South African books on sports. The book details how Nelson Mandela, during his presidency, used the soft power of sports to unite a country divided by decades of apartheid.

The narrative centers around the 1995 Rugby World Cup, held in South Africa just a year after the country’s first democratic elections. Historically, rugby in South Africa was an oppressor’s sport associated with white minority rule. The national team, the Springboks, was reviled by the country’s black majority, symbolizing segregation and inequality.

It was Mandela who saw an opportunity in the Rugby World Cup to promote reconciliation between South Africa’s divided racial groups. Despite the resistance from both the black and white communities, Mandela threw his support behind the Springboks.

The climax is South Africa’s unexpected victory in the tournament, the first Rugby World Cup win, in fact. It was a watershed moment for the nation, as it brought South Africans of all races together.

The book was later adapted into the movie “Invictus,” directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar. You Can rent or buy the movie on Amazon Prime.


Best South African Books | A Recap

There’s a history, and then there’s a pre- and post-history. South Africa is one such country whose social, political, and economic life is between its pre- and post-apartheid history. And that pre- and post-history gives people and writers so much to write, reflect, and learn.

Words can be a way to heal, scratch old wounds, and still hope to heal. One can regret by reflecting on the past. One can look at the future with optimism by not repeating pre-history, and look at the past and feel proud of how far they have come.

The words are there. Pre- and post-history is there. There are lessons that one can learn. There is hope that one can find in the lives of these characters. Hope is all that keeps us alive, and hope, and resilience are consistent themes in the best South African books discussed.

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