When planning a visit to a new country, the first thing you are likely to do is buy a guide book on the place; however, if you really want to know about the spirit of a place you need to do more background reading – here are 10 of the best books about South Africa. If they don’t get you in touch with the spirit of the place, not much else will.
Jock of the Bushveld, by Percy Fitzpatrck
‘Jock’ is the first real book that most every English-speaking South African parent reads to their children. It does it no harm that it’s the story of a dog- a very brave and endearing dog. Fitzpatrick was a transport rider, shuffling supplies between the port of Lorenço Marques (now Maputo) and the Rand gold fields in the late 19th century. Every transport rider needed a dog and rookie Percy got Jock, runt of a litter of Staffordshire terriers, born in what is now the Kruger National Park. There were adventures aplenty, with baboons, leopards, crocodiles, heroes and villians. But it was a kick from a kudu which rendered Jock deaf that was his undoing. Percy, who became a gold “Rand Lord” and a sir, wrote the story for his grandchildren.
Middlepost, by Anthony Sher
This cultural Renaissance Man, Sher was born of Lithuanian stock in Cape Town. He was always going to be a bright light: having pioneered alternative theatre with the likes of Athol Fugard he emigrated to England and soon started raking up accolades. Following years in alternative theatre there, he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and was soon hailed as the finest since Sir Laurence Olivier. Then came his art and more accolades, then the novels. Now it’s Sir Anthony to you and me. Smous, the tragi-comic anti-hero in Middlepost is something of a Lithuanian-African Don Quixote, set in a time of cultural cholera. Arguably the finest piece of magic realism ever written about South Africa.
Adrift on the Open Veld (including Commando), by Denys Reitz
This is a trilogy by a man who started the Anglo-Boer War as a lowly trooper, and later become a famous lawyer, writer and cabinet member. This is basically his war diaries, evoking the hopes of a tiny new nation, the despertion of war where men ate their shoes and died of cold in the saddle as defeat became reality after three years of the bitterest fighting. It was not unlike the American Civil War, where the scars remain in a divided nation. This collection is its most evocative telling.
A South African Eden, by James Stevenson-Hamilton
The lie about the Kruger National Park is that Boer leader President Paul Kruger never supported nature conservation. Like most of his supporters he was a hunter who believed it was a God-given right to plunder the game herds of the Lowveld. But miracles happen, and one of them was that a feisty Scottish army officer was put in charge of a fabulous tract of that malaria-ridden bushveld. Without Stevenson-Hamilton there would be no Kruger National Park, and maybe no game reserves at all in South Africa. His is a charmingly written early history of the park and a captivating tale.
Mhudi, by Sol Plaatje
Plaatje was one of the mission-educated generation of black South Africans who looked and acted like English gentlemen (and wanted to be treated as such), and who founded the ANC. He was also the county’s first black novelists, among his many talents. Mhudi is an historical novel, about his people at the time of blood-thirsty Zulu renegade chief (later a king as founder of the Matabele nation in Zimbabwe) Mazilikazi and the land-grabbing white Voortrekker pioneers. It more than holds its place as one of Africa’s great epic tales.
My Traitor’s Heart, by Riaan Malan
Malan was working as a freelance writer in LA when he sold the idea of returning to South Africa just prior to the first free elections there in 1990, to write the story of his famous family. He arrived back just as the country seemed to be going up in a blaze of revolutionary and anarchic violence. Malan’s talents as a crime reporter and magazine features writer come to the fore, with some of the keenest observations about that period in the country’s past. Not for the faint-hearted.
In the Heart of the Country, by JM Coetzee
I suppose we had to include at least one Nobel prize winner in our list. Although Coetzee is best known for his more recent works such as The Life and Times of Michael K and Disgrace, this early work (his second) delves deeper into the dark soul of the country than any other. A thin book, this tale of a young woman trapped on a lonely Karoo farm, has a gravity, darkness and desperation that is all consuming. Not health food for depressives.
The Dark Stream: The Story of Eugene Marais, by Leon Rousseau
Marais was South Africa’s greatest and tormented polymaths. Dabbling fashionably with opium as a dapper young newspaper editor in early Pretoria, after the death of his wife in childbirth he became terminally addicted and it coloured everything he did. He was a naturalist to rival the best in the world, a self-taught surgeon, prospector, lawyer, journalist, writer and poet. But it was his observations and writings on termites, baboons and the human psyche that most set him apart. Ultimately a tragic tale of genius. Marais’ own books (My Friends the Baboons, The Soul of the White Ant, The Soul of the Ape) are classics themselves.
Mafeking Road, by Herman Charles Bosman
Bosman is to South African literature what Mark Twain is to North American. He was a great wit and his best stories are those about the simple folk of a young nation in what was then the Western Transvaal (something like Oklahoma, or Tennessee, in the bushveld). Mafikeng Road is a collection of 21 short stories, recounted by the loveable rogue Oom Schalk Lourens: “’Leopards?’ – Oom Schalk Lourens said – ‘Oh yes, there are two varieties on this side of the Limpopo’….” If you ever read only one of his stories, let it be this one, ‘In the Withaak’s Shade’.
Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela and Richard Stengel
These are Mandela’s famous prison diaries that were smuggled off Robben Island piecemeal by friends and family. They were later reconstituted in collaboration with Time magazine editor Stengel. Not much more needs to be said, other than it’s not only a great tale, but a great read too.