It’s been nearly twenty-five years since South Africa held its first democratic elections, which saw the previously outlawed African National Congress (ANC) forming a government and its leader Nelson Mandela becoming South Africa’s first black head of state after his decades of incarceration as a political prisoner. It was a powerful moment for a country that had struggled for generations under an intense racial segregation – segregation that had risen to an institutional level and affected all facets of South African life during the period of apartheid from 1948 to 1991.
Apartheid was essentially a brutal system of racial oppression, one that allowed a minority of white South Africans to maintain their control over the levers of government and a position of power. While figures like Nelson Mandela counseled reconciliation and healing in post-apartheid South Africa, the pervasive violence, the struggle to overthrow apartheid, and the deep economic and societal divides that so long defined the nation left deep scars. While South Africa may be one of Africa’s most developed economies, and in broadest strokes one of its most prosperous nations, it remains a country haunted by a decades-long struggle for equality. As is generally the case, these themes permeated the literary movements of South Africa. Unfortunately, these issues are now often intertwined with issues plaguing South Africa in the post-Apartheid era – identity, the AIDS epidemic, and continuing poverty.
The books below, many by South African authors, will hopefully shed light on the complex history of South Africa, its seismic struggles for equality, and the ways that the specter of apartheid continues to loom over the country and its people.
Stories from a South African Childhood
Born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother, Trevor Noah’s birth was a crime in South Africa – his parents’ relationship was punishable by five years in prison. Born a Crime chronicles Noah’s early years, during which his mother struggled to keep his existence virtually secret for fear of government reprisal, as well as his latter years in a post-apartheid South Africa both exhilarated by his newly perceived freedom and his struggle to find an identity. And it’s all told with Noah’s remarkable insight, candor, and humor.
Published in 1948, just months before South Africa’s National Party begin to officially implement apartheid, Cry, the Beloved Country is one of South Africa’s most well-known and important literary works. The groundbreaking novel, written by South African activist Alan Paton, centers on a Zulu minister searching for his son in Johannesburg. It is a tragic and powerful examination of the early racial inequality of South Africa that soon became a more deeply rooted part of society.
Set in Johannesburg in the 1970’s, Hum If You Don’t Know the Words is a searing chronicle of one of the most tumultuous and violent periods of the apartheid era. Played out against the backdrop of the Soweto Uprising, a series of protests that were met with a brutal and deadly response by South African authorities, Hum tells the story of a young white girl named Robin and a Xhosa woman named Beauty bound together by tragedy and desperation.
It would be impossible to discuss South Africa and its history without mention of Nelson Mandela – one of the most famous political activists of his time. Mandela, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, proved to be a driving force of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement despite his incarceration as a political prisoner from 1962 until 1990. His imprisonment only served to strengthen his resolve, and upon his release in 1990, Mandela continued his push for an end to oppressive structures of South African society eventually becoming South Africa’s first black president. Long Walk to Freedom is his story.
In her debut novel, Zinzi Clemmons explores identity, race, and family bonds with the story of a girl raised in Pennsylvania by her South African mother. What We Lose is the coming-of-age story of a young African American woman named Thandi caught between cultures – her life in the United States and the ever-present specter of her mother’s childhood in Johannesburg. The novel is an elegiac examination of the complexities of racial identity and the impact on us of those we love.
A Novel (Penguin Ink)
J. M. Coetzee
J.M. Coetzee, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is one of South Africa’s most influential writers, and Waiting for the Barbarians is arguably his best work. The allegorical tale centers on an unnamed magistrate in a small colonial town on the frontier of “the Empire.” Watching the Empire’s forces led by a sadistic colonel prepare for what they claim is an impending invasion by the indigenous people of the frontier, the magistrate begins to see brutality and oppression of the Empire for what it truly is.
For his first novel, acclaimed South African author Zakes Mda views modern South Africa through the eyes of Toloki, a professional mourner who attends funerals throughout the townships of South Africa. The short and often surreal book charts Toloki’s journey as he seeks to provide comfort to the families of the victims of the country’s crime, racial injustice, and crippling poverty, and is ultimately an affecting look at the tribulations of life in post-apartheid South Africa.
Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer was another important and vibrant voice in South African literature. Her 1980 novel, Burger’s Daughter, is a sweeping classic. The story follows Rosa Burger, a young woman seeking to discover herself while also honoring the heritage of her martyred, activist parents. It is a harshly realistic and powerful chronicle of the tumult that defined South Africa in the 1970s.
Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva
The Bang-Bang Club was a group of four South African war correspondents – Ken Oosterbroek, Kevin Carter, Greg Marinovich, and Joao Silva – best known for chronicling the volatile final years of apartheid in South Africa. Two of the men, Oosterbroek and Carter, won Pulitzer Prizes for photos taken during the period. Both tragically died shortly after – Oosterbroek was shot while on assignment and Carter committed suicide. The Bang-Bang Club is a harrowing recounting of all four men’s experiences during an important period of South African history.
My Traitor’s Heart: A South African Exile Returns to Face His Country, His Tribe, and His Conscience
Rian Malan – an Afrikaner and relative of Daniel Francois Malan, the South African Prime Minister who was a driving force behind apartheid – left South Africa to escape both his family’s past and the atrocities occurring throughout the country. My Traitor’s Heart recounts his return to South Africa after eight years in exile and is a searing – and often horrifying – examination of the declining years of apartheid in South Africa.