The best books about Southern Africa as picked by a historian

Kenneth P. Vickery Author Of The African Experience: From "Lucy" to Mandela
By Kenneth P. Vickery

The Books I Picked & Why

Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela

By Nelson Mandela

Book cover of Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela

Why this book?

Well……duh! The term “icon” is undoubtedly overused these days, but if anyone deserves it, it would be Mandela. Published in South Africa’s annus mirabilis of 1994, when Mandela became the country’s first democratically-elected president, the book traces his rural childhood, his move to the big city, his anti-apartheid activism from the 1940s to 1960s, his 27 years imprisonment, and the difficult transition to majority rule. Mandela began the memoir secretly when on Robben Island, the maximum security jail offshore from Cape Town. Very readable, and utterly inspirational.

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The Old Drift

By Namwali Serpell

Book cover of The Old Drift

Why this book?

To describe The Old Drift as epic and sprawling is an understatement.  As critics have noted, it is astounding to think that this is a first novel. The Zambian-born Serpell has used her phenomenal powers of observation and imagination to create a sweeping saga of multiple families over several generations of Zambia’s history, and even verges into science-fiction towards the end. Ordinarily I prefer novels with, say, three or four main characters. This one must have thirty, but the recurring connections between them holds things together. Above all, the dead-on details of daily life, especially in the fascinating capital city of Lusaka, make the book memorable.

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Nervous Conditions

By Tsitsi Dangarembga

Book cover of Nervous Conditions

Why this book?

Another remarkable first novel, and the first of a trilogy, now complete. Dangarembga is a multi-talented Zimbabwean woman—filmmaker, playwright, novelist, and not least, political activist. A coming-of-age tale set in the late colonial period [when Zimbabwe was Rhodesia], the focus is on two girls, cousins. Tambu, the narrator, begins the book this way: “I was not sorry when my brother died."  Now, that will get your attention [we gradually learn why]. But it is her cousin Nyasha who will grab you: brilliant, passionate, troubled, sickly. In 2018 the BBC named Nervous Conditions one of the 100 stories that have shaped the world.

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Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White

By Joseph Lelyveld

Book cover of Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White

Why this book?

Move Your Shadow is a masterpiece of reportage. Lelyveld, a former executive editor of the New York Times, spent considerable periods in apartheid South Africa in both the 1960s and the 1980s. The sixties was the period of “baaskap”—“bosshood” apartheid, when the perverse racist cruelties of the system were imposed with a sledgehammer. I would call the eighties the era of “facelift” apartheid—why, the word was hardly used by the regime anymore. 

To paraphrase Gramsci, the old world was dying, a new one struggled to be born. Monsters abounded. Nobody captured the period better than Lelyveld. The chapter on Philip Kgosana, the idealist who led Cape Town demonstrations in 1960—at age 19—was betrayed by the state, and wound up in exile in Sri Lanka—is worth the price of the book.

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A History of South Africa

By Leonard Thompson

Book cover of A History of South Africa

Why this book?

Okay, he was my dissertation advisor. Sorry! But Thompson’s is a concise, perceptive, and readable one-volume history of the great country, a splendid introduction. Born and raised in South Africa, the late Thompson was a Rhodes Scholar before seeing extensive service in World War II. Like so many talented South Africans from many fields, he went into exile around 1960 when the apartheid regime moved toward a no-holds-barred stranglehold on all opposition. This was his last book, and in it he distills a lifetime of research, teaching and experience. The fourth edition has an update and new preface by Lynn Berat.

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