The best books that taught me about life, about literature, and about South Africa

The Books I Picked & Why

Cry, the Beloved Country

By Alan Paton

Book cover of Cry, the Beloved Country

Why this book?

I wrote my first novel thirty years after I left South Africa. During the writing, I reread Cry, the Beloved Country. The tone of that book, the cadences of the language, almost biblical, as well as the emotional seriousness in the telling, crept into my own style.

This is a heartbreaking book, told from a very personal perspective, yet universal in its themes.

Can a work of art change the world? Perhaps not on the grand political stage, but most certainly it can change the way we see the world, and thus change us for the better.


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The Conservationist

By Nadine Gordimer

Book cover of The Conservationist

Why this book?

I read this novel in university in a course taught brilliantly by the scholar WH New. It was the first time I understood the complexity of layers in great literature. Ostensibly about a businessman who buys a farm, it encompasses race relations, power in all its guises, sexuality, relationships to nature, and how character influences personal destiny. Written with outrage and compassion.

I kept The Conservationist in mind when I wrote my own book as an example of what a novel could be, but more than that, it taught me how to think about the world in a new way.


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The Seed Is Mine: The Life of Kas Maine, A South African Sharecropper

By Charles Van Onselen

Book cover of The Seed Is Mine: The Life of Kas Maine, A South African Sharecropper

Why this book?

"The seed is mine. The ploughshares are mine. The span of oxen is mine. Only the land is theirs."

Not a novel, but a biography of an illiterate sharecropper, invisible to history except in this book, who lived for almost 100 years farming land that was always owned by others. 

As a child, I passed many farm labourers without much thought about their lives, their history, their identities. This dense social history was a revelation and a corrective to my ignorance.

Kas Maine’s story is a potent reminder of the need for justice, kindness, and respect toward every human being.


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Life & Times of Michael K

By J.M. Coetzee

Book cover of Life & Times of Michael K

Why this book?

It was a shock to read this book. So unlike anything I’d read before in the literature of South Africa. A strange almost dreamlike novel about a mostly mute man’s wanderings and sufferings through the societies and landscapes that make up South Africa. Allegorical, subversive, challenging, philosophical, yet ultimately life-affirming. 

Still valid, in our present age of wandering peoples, in its depiction of a failed Eden.

I paid homage to the book by introducing a minor character named Michael in my own novel.


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White Tribe Dreaming: Apartheid's Bitter Roots Witnessed By Eight Generations Of An Afrikaner Family

By Marq de Villiers

Book cover of White Tribe Dreaming: Apartheid's Bitter Roots Witnessed By Eight Generations Of An Afrikaner Family

Why this book?

I was born in South Africa almost 300 years to the day after the first white Europeans arrived to establish a permanent home at the tip of the continent.

This book begins with that arrival and follows the history of the author’s family through eight generations.

It is a history of individuals, related by bloodlines, but diverse in ambitions and actions, and seeks to trace and explicate how some of those first settlers and their descendants became the Afrikaners of the 20th century. 

While my own antecedents are less well documented, I like to believe that they are not dissimilar to de Villiers’s,  and were touched by the same major events in the history of the Afrikaners.


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