Before we travel to a new destination, we make a list of books that are set in the country we are visiting. Whether the books are fiction or non-fiction, we always feel that by reading destination specific literature, we gain a deeper understanding of the place we are in.
Here are our picks of the top books you should read before or during your trip to South Africa:
In Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela, one of the world’s most influential leaders, recounts his painful struggle for racial equality during apartheid in South Africa. This book will give you a deeper understanding of the harsh policies of the apartheid government and the ANC’s path to liberation. Don’t be intimidated by the length of this book. Many people look at this thick, 750-page autobiography and cross if off their list, but it’s actually a quick, easy read.
Kaffir Boy: An Autobiography–The True Story of a Black Youth’s Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa
This is the powerful story of Mark Mathabane growing up during apartheid in South Africa. Living in a township outside of Johannesburg, Mathabane and his family endure crippling poverty, appalling police corruption and harsh gang violence. Encouraged by his mother and grandmother, Mathabane teaches himself English and learns how to play tennis. In 1978, he is awarded a tennis scholarship from an American university. Mathabane’s extraordinary life story details the horrors of apartheid and celebrates the triumph of the human spirit over racial hatred and debilitating poverty.
Trevor Noah, the host of The Daily Show, tells his life story about growing up in South Africa as a “coloured” person. Trevor was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother during a time that interracial relations were punishable by five years in prison. Trevor is a mischievous boy who is trying to find his place in the complex, radicalized world around him. Some of the stories he tells are absolutely hilarious but at the same time, they expose the very painful racial divisions in South Africa.
At the beginning of the book, we meet Rosa Burger, a 14-year-old girl, who is the daughter of a revolutionary, communist doctor, Lionel Burger. Set in the mid-1970’s, the story traces the next 15 years of Rosa’s life and follows a group of white anti-apartheid activists planning to overthrow the South African government. The novel is rooted in the history of the anti-apartheid movement and often references actual events and people from that time period. It is “more revealing than a thousand news dispatches as it tells the story of a young woman cast in the role of a young revolutionary, trying to uphold a heritage handed on by martyred parents while carving out a sense of self.” (Goodreads)
Set in post-apartheid South Africa, Disgrace tells the story of 52-year-old David Lurie, a professor of Communications and Romantic Poetry at Cape Technical University. Lurie has an affair with a student which leaves him jobless, shunned by his community, and ridiculed by his ex-wife. To escape the shame he is experiencing, he retreats to his daughter Lucy’s farm in the Eastern Cape. During his stay, father and daughter begin to confront their fractured relationship and together they navigate the painful racial complexities of South African society.
The Power of One details the life story of an English-speaking, South African boy named Peekay from approximately 1939 to 1951. After his mother suffers a psychotic break, Peekay is shipped off to boarding school where his Afrikaner classmates ridicule him for being English. During this time “Peekay learns the hard way the first secret of survival and self-preservation – the power of one. An encounter with amateur boxer Hoppie Groenewald inspires in Peekay a fiery ambition – to be welterweight champion of the world.” (Goodreads)
Set in the 1940s, Cry, the Beloved Country, is the story of a black South African priest, Stephen Kumalo, who goes in search of his lost son, Absalom. Kumalo discovers that his son has been charged with the murder of a white man in Johannesburg, and is scheduled to be executed. Kumalo begins working for reconciliation and justice in a world where racial tensions are escalating. His story details a black man’s experience under white law and reveals the racial landscape from which apartheid was born.
Country of My Skull is set in post-apartheid South Africa and examines the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s challenge of uniting a deeply scared, racialized nation. The author, Antjie Krog, a writer who covered the TRC’s two years of hearings as a radio reporter, offers her account of commission’s “attempts to expunge the society’s old foundations of political legitimacy and replace them, through a complex process of exposure, confession, amnesty, and reparations,with a new morality.” (Foreign Affairs)
Do you have more book suggestions for South Africa? We would love to hear them. Please share your reading recommendations in the comment section below.