History has always depended on writers to tell the stories of the moment in which they live. South Africa is no exception.
From the acclaimed Steve Biko compilation “I Write What I Like” to Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, “Long Walk To Freedom,” literature is an important document of South African history.
Here, we look back at the six books that shaped the story of post-apartheid South Africa, listed below in chronological order.
“Cry, the Beloved Country,” Alan Paton, 1948
First published in 1948, the same year in which the National Party came to power and with them the official implementation of the apartheid system, author and anti-apartheid activist Alan Paton’s seminal novel went on to become one of the most famous books ever published in South Africa.
In retrospect, it’s a lesson, among other things, on the dangers of today’s white liberalism written by a white liberal in the 1940s.
The book is set during the height of racism and racial injustice in the country, and told from the perspective of a reverend in the village of Ndotsheni who receives a letter from a fellow minister in Johannesburg summoning him to the City of Gold to help his sister who has fallen ill.
Reverend Stephen Kumalo, whose brother and son are also in Johannesburg, finds that none of them are as he remembers. His sister has become a prostitute, his brother a successful businessman and politician and his son, who has impregnated a young girl, is suspected of murdering a prominent white crusader for racial justice.
On the surface, Cry, the Beloved Country is the story of a family divided, of a kid who must face the consequences after making a terrible mistake, and the heartbreak of his concerned father. At its core, it’s Paton foreshadowing the ramifications of apartheid and offering insight into the moral and social implications of legalised racism in South Africa.
“And a Threefold Cord,” Alex La Guma, 1964
The late Alex La Guma is one of the most important black literary figures of 20th century South Africa. His second novel, “And a Threefold Cord” (1964), is set in the Cape Flats and explores contemporary themes of class conflict.
The book tells the haunting tale of a coloured family living in the shanties of the Cape Flats and their daily struggle to survive. It’s a heavy critique of the apartheid regime and has been praised for its accurate representation of economic conditions in the 1960s Western Cape, where housing shortages displaced many coloured residents at the time. It paints a stark picture of suffering and defiance in the face of misery, and it succeeded not only in giving the coloured community a much-needed voice, but also shining a light on the inhumanity of the apartheid regime.
La Guma’s literary works have been all but forgotten over the years. With the exception of the 1969 Lotus Prize for Literature, there has been little to no mention of La Guma’s works on the coloured community outside of the confines of marginal black political writings. “And a Threefold Cord” is both a superior piece of complex storytelling and a scathing rebuke of injustice. It should be held to higher acclaim than it currently is.
“Burger’s Daughter,” Nadine Gordimer, 1979
Nadine Gordimer is one of the most influential writers in South African literary history. “Burger’s Daughter,” the late Nobel Prize winner’s seventh novel, delves deep into the author’s political stance in the face of the apartheid regime.
Gordimer wrote the book at a time when Black Consciousness was beginning to rise in South Africa and the limits of white liberalism were becoming increasingly clear. It’s an interrogation of white guilt from someone suffering from white guilt herself, tracing the “struggle” of the white protagonist’s consciousness “trapped” in an unearned privilege.
The book revolves around the life and journey of the central character, Rosa Burger, during 1974-1977 apartheid South Africa. Raised by a white anti-apartheid activist mother and father who both died in prison, Rosa later becomes an activist herself but is plagued by a guilt of white privilege that leads to her own incarceration.
The book touches on themes of white communism and the lives of people involved in the then outlawed South African Communist Party (SACP), which Bram Fischer was the leader of. Gordimer’s homage to Fischer even went as far as using excerpts of his writings and public speeches in the book.
In a 1980 interview, she remarked that the book was about more than a white communist suffering from white guilt, but rather that it was a story of commitment. Gordimer also predicted the marginalization of white liberals in post-apartheid South Africa, saying “unless whites are allowed in by blacks, and unless we can make out a case for our being accepted and we can forge a common culture together, whites are going to be marginal.”
“Amandla,” Miriam Tlali, 1980
In 1975, Miriam Tlali became the first black woman in South Africa to publish a novel (“Muriel at Metropolitan”). “Amandla” was her second novel. Published in 1980, it focuses on the experiences of a group of young student revolutionaries in Soweto during and after the 1976 Soweto Uprising.
The book offers a detailed fictional account of the event, drawing from Tlali’s own experiences as a Soweto resident during the uprisings. The book also details the inner workings of student movements and the mechanisms of Black Consciousness, the engine of liberation movements at the time.
But unlike other fictional works depicting the 1976 uprisings, such as Mongane Serote’s “To Every Birth its Blood” (1981) and Mbulelo Mzamane’s “The Children of Soweto” (1982), “Amandla” deviates from a heavy focus on Black Consciousness and instead looks further into the gender politics of 1976 Soweto.
The novel constructs a new vision of black masculinity rooted in Black Consciousness and laments the movement’s lack of intersectionality, following the life of Pholoso as he becomes the leader of the movement and takes a strong stance on gender equality within the movement. The book, without its own critiques and controversies, could be seen as a blueprint to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.
“Fools And Other Stories,” Njabulo Ndebele, 1983
“Fools And Other Stories” is a collection of tales from the closing days of the apartheid regime in South Africa written by one of the Continent’s most powerful voices of cultural freedom, Njabulo Ndebele.
Set in the black South African township of Charterston in the East Rand, the book deals with the formative experiences of growing up in a Johannesburg township during the apartheid years.
The current Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, Ndebele has always been adamant about African literature moving away from the all-too-easy narrative of poverty porn and the preoccupation with showing obvious oppression, but rather how and why people soldier on through the adversity and hardships.
Ndebele narrates township life with such a humorous subtlety you could overlook the varying coping mechanisms and survival tactics black people had to devise to survive under the rule of the apartheid regime just to enjoy how fun he makes township life seem.
The narratives concern the effects of apartheid from those who enforce to those who suffer under its iron rule, like the title story about an old dissipated school teacher and one of his former students who has become an activist. It details their vastly different but equally debilitating experiences with racism and highlights Ndebele’s deft ability to handle ordinary people’s lived experiences.
It won him a much-deserved Noma Award in 1984, the highest honor any author can attain on the Continent.
“Disgrace,” J. M. Coetzee, 1999
J. M. Coetzee’s “Disgrace” is about a lot of things, but at its heart it is an anatomy of racial hierarchy change in contemporary South Africa. The book is also about the condition of the human experience at the end of the apartheid regime. Published in 1999, this is Coetzee’s second book where characters are compelled to explore the intricate complexities of humanity after he published “Life & Times of Michael K” in 1983.
The story revolves around the life of twice-divorced communications professor David Lurie as he struggles with the societal restrictions placed on his sexual endeavors in a country still reeling from the effects of the apartheid regime. After he is fired from his job at Cape Town Technical University because of a sexual harassment case opened against him, he has to go live with his daughter. David is thrust into a rural world filled with crime, poverty and rape, and must salvage whatever is left of his relationship with his daughter against the backdrop of violent strikes in the Salem area of the Eastern Cape
Although race is a recurring issue throughout the book, it focuses more on themes of poverty, crime, bloodshed, homosexuality and the AIDS epidemic. The book has gained praise from international audiences for showing the true extent of the damage apartheid had on the South African people, while also drawing its share of criticism, particularly from the ANC government, for showing South Africa in “too pessimistic” a light.
Thapelo Mosiuoa is a Johannesburg-based copywriter, lifestyle writer and the author of an unfinished book. Follow him on Twitter at @ThapeloMosiuoa.