The best books to understand modern South Africa

Gail Nattrass Author Of A Short History of South Africa
By Gail Nattrass

Who am I?

Gail Nattrass was born in Northern Rhodesia. She was educated at Mufulira High School and the universities of Natal, Rhodesia, and Nyasaland, and UNISA. She relocated to South Africa with her husband in 1967, and subsequently lectured in the history department at the School of Education, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg for 20 years. She has written materials for students and presented papers on various aspects of South African and international history at four universities in South Africa. She is also the author of The Rooiberg Story, published by the mining house, the co-editor with S B Spies of Jan Smuts: Memoirs of the Boer War, and a contributor to They Shaped Our Century and Leaders of the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902.

I wrote...

A Short History of South Africa

By Gail Nattrass,

Book cover of A Short History of South Africa

What is my book about?

Gail Nattrass describes how writing her book, A Short History of South Africa is the culmination of almost a lifetime of researching and teaching the broad spectrum of South African history, collecting stories, taking students on tours around the country, and working with distinguished historians whose specialised studies are acknowledged in the text. She acknowledges that she has learned so much from all of these people. 

Her book takes us from the early occupants of The Cradle of Humankind, early settlement, both pre and post-European arrival, to the warfare of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries that influenced the democracy that is South Africa today. She describes how wars, rebellions, strikes, and protests have divided South Africa’s people and highlighted the differences between them. South Africans are also of mixed ancestry, class, and culture, a `rainbow’ nation of diverse people but who nevertheless have characteristics in common, and despite the problems that still exist, consider South Africa their home. Peppered with anecdotes of individual lives and illustrated with maps and photographs, this is an accessible read both for South Africans, themselves, and for people overseas who might like to visit the country.

The books I picked & why

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Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

By Trevor Noah,

Book cover of Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

Why this book?

The popular comedian and talk show host on The Daily Show in America, Trevor Noah, originally comes from South Africa. His book, Born a Crime describes how his birth was a criminal act. He was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother in apartheid South Africa, when such a union was forbidden under the Mixed Marriages Act of 1949. Mixed race liaisons were punishable by five years in prison. His parents could not live together, and when his mother took her young son for a walk in the park, if she saw a white policeman coming, she would drop her son’s hand and walk separately from him for fear of being questioned about why she as a black woman had such a fair-skinned child. The book, Born a Crime is a funny, honest collection of stories that details the memoirs of one man’s coming-of-age, set during the twilight of apartheid and the tumultuous days of freedom that followed.

The Night Trains: Moving Mozambican Miners to and from the Witwatersrand Mines, 1902-1955

By Charles Van Onselen,

Book cover of The Night Trains: Moving Mozambican Miners to and from the Witwatersrand Mines, 1902-1955

Why this book?

This book by South Africa’s most eminent historian, Charles van Onselen, tells the story of the night trains which brought poverty-stricken  Mozambican men from Rossania Garcia on the Mozambique border to work as migrant labourers on the gold mines in Johannesburg, between 1902 and 1955. The men travelled in appalling conditions, and were preyed on by petty criminals, con men and corrupt officials.  The night trains were a transport system run in partnership between the mining houses and the railways and designed to maximise profit at the expense of the health, well-being and even the lives of the men it conveyed.  At the end of their time on the mines, the trains sent the men back to Mozambique, often ill and broken and even insane after their experiences on the mines and in the trains. The story reflects South Africa’s evolving system of segregation and apartheid, and the brutal logic of industrial capitalism.

How Long Will South Africa Survive?: The Looming Crisis

By R.W. Johnson,

Book cover of How Long Will South Africa Survive?: The Looming Crisis

Why this book?

R W Johnson, an international commentator on South African affairs, first wrote a book with this question in 1977. It provided a controversial and highly original analysis of the survival prospects of the apartheid regime.  Now, after more than twenty years of post-apartheid ANC (African National Congress) majority rule, the situation has become so crucial that he feels the question must be posed again. He moves from an analysis of Jacob Zuma’s corrupt rule to the increasingly dire state of the economy, and concludes that South Africa under the ANC is fast slipping backward. Twenty years of ANC rule he feels has shown that the party is hopelessly ill-equipped to cope with the challenges of running a modern industrial economy.

A Military History of Modern South Africa

By Ian van der Waag,

Book cover of A Military History of Modern South Africa

Why this book?

The first of its kind, this book provides an overview of South African military history from 1899 (1900) to 2000. It focuses on campaigns and battles, evolving military policy, and the development of the South African military. The century started with a brief, but total war, the Anglo-Boer War (more appropriately now called The South African War) 1899-1902, then only 10 years later, it moves to the unlikely establishment of a  Union of South Africa, consisting of the two former Boer republics, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State and the two English colonies, Natal and the Cape Province. As the century wore on, the military was involved in different ways with the rise of Afrikaner (basically Boer) nationalism, industrial disputes, and uprisings by disenfranchised black South Africans. The century ended as it started with another war, but this was a limited war, a flashpoint of the Cold War, which embraced more than just the subcontinent.

Jan Smuts - Unafraid of Greatness

By Richard Steyn,

Book cover of Jan Smuts - Unafraid of Greatness

Why this book?

This book by former lawyer and journalist, Richard Steyn, is a study of one of South Africa’s most celebrated, brilliant yet enigmatic figures, Jan Smuts. Soldier, statesman, philosopher, politician, Smuts was all of these things and a man unafraid of greatness. Prime Minister of South Africa from 1919 - 1924 and again from 1939 - 1948, a distinguished veteran of three wars, an international figure, whose opinions were sought after in the councils of the world, and the personal friend and confidante of world leaders like Winston Churchill and King George VI, Richard Steyn gives an extremely readable account of how Smuts achieved greatness in so many areas. He helped establish the United Nations and drew the attention of the world to South Africa, yet failed to address the growing need to create equitable political, economic, and social relations between black and white peoples in South Africa.

Steyn does not praise nor condemn Smuts. Rather he places him in the context of the time (Smuts died in 1950, two years after the Nationalist government came into power and instituted the policy of apartheid (separation of the races), and he gives a balanced account of the qualities and activities which made Smuts extraordinary. In recent times, statesmen like Jan Smuts have been side-lined in South Africa’s history and the focus has been more on previously neglected people, but he still deserves to be studied for his contributions during the times in which he lived.

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