100 books like The Night Trains

By Charles Van Onselen,

Here are 100 books that The Night Trains fans have personally recommended if you like The Night Trains. Shepherd is a community of 11,000+ authors and super readers sharing their favorite books with the world.

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

Christine Amoroso Author Of Bare Naked in Public: An earnest and humorous account of one modern American woman trying to have it all

From my list on memoirs that evoke inspiration empathy compassion.

Why am I passionate about this?

I have always believed that everyone has a story to tell. I have connected to people throughout my life because I chose to sit, listen, and share stories. I do this in my own neighborhood and on my travels worldwide. I do it with people I don’t have anything in common with and people I think I might not like. Every time, without exception, I learn something. Often, I am inspired. These experiences have tested and grown my compassion, empathy, kindness, and understanding capacity. I suppose this is why I love reading. It’s like meeting strangers and sharing stories. 

Christine's book list on memoirs that evoke inspiration empathy compassion

Christine Amoroso Why did Christine love this book?

I was intrigued by the title, so I had to read it. And because Trevor Noah was reading the audio version, I had to listen. His story was poignant, heartbreaking, and, at times, hilarious. I found myself literally laughing out loud. His life experience couldn’t be farther away from my own.

I learned so much about South Africa, its history, its people, and its culture. I love a good inspirational rags-to-riches story, and this book did not disappoint.  

By Trevor Noah,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked Born a Crime as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE THURBER PRIZE

The compelling, inspiring, (often comic) coming-of-age story of Trevor Noah, set during the twilight of apartheid and the tumultuous days of freedom that followed.

One of the comedy world's brightest new voices, Trevor Noah is a light-footed but sharp-minded observer of the absurdities of politics, race and identity, sharing jokes and insights drawn from the wealth of experience acquired in his relatively young life. As host of the US hit show The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, he provides viewers around the globe with their nightly dose of biting satire, but here Noah turns his…


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

Gail Nattrass Author Of A Short History of South Africa

From my list on modern South Africa.

Why am I passionate about this?

Gail Nattrass was born in Northern Rhodesia. She was educated at Mufulira High School and the universities of Natal, Rhodesia, 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 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, 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.

Gail's book list on modern South Africa

Gail Nattrass Why did Gail love 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.

He feels that twenty years of ANC rule have shown that the party is hopelessly ill-equipped to cope with the challenges of running a modern industrial economy.

By R.W. Johnson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked How Long Will South Africa Survive? as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1977, Johnson's best-selling How Long Will South Africa Survive? offered a controversial and highly original analysis of the survival prospects of apartheid. Now, after more than two decades of ANC in government, he believes the question must be posed again. 'The big question about ANC rule,' Johnson writes, 'is whether African nationalism would be able to cope with the challenges of running a modern industrial economy. Twenty years of ANC rule have shown conclusively that the party is hopelessly ill-equipped for this task. Indeed, everything suggests that South Africa under the ANC is fast slipping backward and that even…


Book cover of A Military History of Modern South Africa

Karen Horn Author Of In Enemy Hands: South Africa's POWs in WWII

From my list on Africa and the Second World War.

Why am I passionate about this?

War is a horror story, laying bare the harm that humankind is capable of. Being a stubborn historian, I set myself the task of finding humanity in the face of conflict. I am especially intrigued by first-hand accounts that leave little to the imagination, yet I am not drawn to record the distress of the individual, but rather the ability to live through a war and find peace. I am a South African historian with a PhD from Stellenbosch University. I write about individuals in war, and I am determined to give a voice to those South African servicemen who were forgotten when they came home in 1945.

Karen's book list on Africa and the Second World War

Karen Horn Why did Karen love this book?

Starting with the battle between the Brits and the Boers at the turn of the twentieth century and ending with a Cold War battlefield in Angola, Van der Waag’s record of the development of South African military history is an interesting and invaluable aid for researchers and military enthusiasts.

I like this book because it gives a holistic picture of the country’s military. It is also evident that thousands of hours were spent in the archives, something I find reassuring, as the book is, for me, a reliable source of information. 

By Ian van der Waag,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked A Military History of Modern South Africa as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Twentieth-century South Africa saw continuous, often rapid and fundamental socio-economic and political change. The century started with a brief but total war. Less than ten years later Britain brought the conquered Boer republics and the Cape and Natal colonies together into the Union of South Africa.

The Union Defence Force (UDF, later SADF), was deployed during most of the major wars of the century as well as a number of internal and regional struggles: the two world wars, Korea, uprising and rebellion on the part of Afrikaner and black nationalists, and industrial unrest. The century ended as it started, with…


Book cover of Jan Smuts - Unafraid of Greatness

Gail Nattrass Author Of A Short History of South Africa

From my list on modern South Africa.

Why am I passionate about this?

Gail Nattrass was born in Northern Rhodesia. She was educated at Mufulira High School and the universities of Natal, Rhodesia, 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 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, 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.

Gail's book list on modern South Africa

Gail Nattrass Why did Gail love 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, and 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…

By Richard Steyn,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Jan Smuts - Unafraid of Greatness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Jan Christian Smuts was soldier, statesman and intellectual, one of South Africa's greatest leaders. Yet little is said about him today even as we appear to live in a leadership vacuum. Unafraid of Greatness is a re-examination of the life and thought of Jan Smuts. It is intended to remind a contemporary readership of the remarkable achievements of this impressive soldier-statesman. The author argues that there is a need to bring Smuts back into the present, that Smuts' legacy still has much to instruct. He draws several parallels between Smuts and President Thabo Mbeki, both intellectuals much lionised abroad and…


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

Lewis DeSoto Author Of A Blade of Grass

From my list on about life, literature and South Africa.

Why am I passionate about this?

I grew up during the apartheid era of racial segregation and oppression. A Blade of Grass was written with a sense of exile and regret, but also with love. It is not overtly about South Africa and apartheid. It asks a fundamental question: Where is home, and how shall we live there?

Lewis' book list on about life, literature and South Africa

Lewis DeSoto Why did Lewis love 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.

By Charles Van Onselen,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Seed Is Mine as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A bold and innovative social history, The Seed is Mine concerns disenfranchised black people who did so much to shape the destiny of South Africa. After years of interviews with Kas Maine and his neighbours, employers, friends, and family - a rare triumph of collaborative courage and dedication - Charles van Onselen has recreated the entire life of a man who struggled to maintain his family in a world dedicated to enriching whites and impoverishing blacks, while South Africa was tearing them apart.


Book cover of Muriel at Metropolitan

Joel Cabrita Author Of Written Out: The Silencing of Regina Gelana Twala

From my list on literary women you’ve never heard of.

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a historian of Southern Africa who is fascinated by questions of visibility and invisibility. I love probing beneath the surface of the past. For example, why is this person famous and renowned, but that person isn’t? To me, recognition and reputation are interesting to scrutinize as social categories in their own right, rather than as factual statements. I’ve written two books focusing on the history of religious expression in Southern Africa, and my most recent book is a biography of the forgotten South African writer and politician Regina Gelana Twala. 

Joel's book list on literary women you’ve never heard of

Joel Cabrita Why did Joel love this book?

I find the notion of the “unknown” writer quite problematic.

Most of the time, at least somebody has, in fact, heard of the writer. So by whom is this writer unknown, and for what reasons has their reputation been erased?

The South African writer Miriam Tlali – the first South African woman writer to publish a book in English - is a case in point.

Tlali’s novel Muriel at Metropolitan (about an office worker in apartheid Johannesburg) was banned when it was published in 1975 for its critical portrayal of white South Africans.

Tlali was subsequently ignored by her literary (almost entirely male) peers, dismissed as offering “reportage” rather than “art”. Yet since 2017, Tlali’s work has been celebrated.

The question of whether a writer is “known” or “unknown” is complex with many layers to consider, including the prejudices of racism and sexism. 

By Miriam Tlali,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Muriel at Metropolitan as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Banned when it was first published in South Africa in 1979, "Muriel at Metropolitan" is set in a bustling furniture and electronics store catering for poor whites and blacks and describes the daily experiences of Muriel, the accounts typist. Her relationship with her colleagues and her feelings about the stream of customers who come into the shop are depicted and illustrate life on the fringes of white society. Miriam Tlali draws on her own experience of working in Johannesburg to write this novel. She lives in Soweto and is now a professional writer. She has published a collection of short…


Book cover of Cry, the Beloved Country

Shenaaz Nanji Author Of Child of Dandelions

From my list on stories every teen must read before they turn 18.

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a writer with multiple cultures and heritage. I believe stories are magical, they touch our hearts and change the way we think and behave. Having lived in different continents around the world, my book list reflects stories with diversity of cultures and story settings around the world, and how the impact of these stories reverberated with me for a long time after reading them.

Shenaaz's book list on stories every teen must read before they turn 18

Shenaaz Nanji Why did Shenaaz love this book?

I studied this great work of literature in the 1960s in Secondary School in Mombasa and the injustice of humanity in this tragic story is still indelibly etched in my heart. The story is set in Ndotsheni, a poor, agricultural village in South Africa but with a strong sense of community and in the city of Johannesburg a corrupt, big city where it's every man for himself. It is about a Zulu pastor, Stephen Kumalo, who receives a letter that his sister in Johannesburg has fallen sick. Kumalo undertakes the difficult journey travelling from his village to the city in the hopes of aiding his sister and of finding his son, Absalom, who left to go to the city and never returned. What really moved me is the estranged relationship of two fathers and their sons that evoke anguish in the fathers. Upon reading this book the message that resonated…

By Alan Paton,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Cry, the Beloved Country as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A novel depicting the racial ferment in the beautiful country of South Africa in 1948.


Book cover of If You Want to Make God Laugh

Jeni McFarland Author Of The House of Deep Water

From my list on secrecy and denial.

Why am I passionate about this?

I come from worlds that look much like the worlds in these books: raised in poverty, absent father, generational trauma, and mental illness running strong in my genes. I’ve always been interested in the ways our opportunities shape us, and the coping mechanisms we wield—secrecy, denial, anger, violence, even love—as we try to survive. 

Jeni's book list on secrecy and denial

Jeni McFarland Why did Jeni love this book?

Marais does an excellent job of moving among these three point-of-view characters: a Black woman and two white sisters, all brought together by a child and the question of parentage. At the heart of the story is life in apartheid-era South Africa. A must-read for anyone who loves messy families and complex characters.

By Bianca Marais,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked If You Want to Make God Laugh as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the author of the beloved Hum If You Don't Know the Words comes a rich, unforgettable story of three unique women in post-Apartheid South Africa who are brought together in their darkest time and discover the ways that love can transcend the strictest of boundaries.

In a squatter camp on the outskirts of Johannesburg, seventeen-year-old Zodwa lives in desperate poverty, under the shadowy threat of a civil war and a growing AIDS epidemic. Eight months pregnant, Zodwa carefully guards secrets that jeopardize her life.

Across the country, wealthy socialite Ruth appears to have everything her heart desires, but it's…


Book cover of At Home with Apartheid: The Hidden Landscapes of Domestic Service in Johannesburg

Sarah Fayen Scarlett Author Of Company Suburbs: Architecture, Power, and the Transformation of Michigan's Mining Frontier

From my list on architecture and social identity in industrial America.

Why am I passionate about this?

When I was a kid I would cut out graph paper to design my ideal house. When I was in college, I walked into a class called American Material Life and had my eureka moment: “This is how I want to learn about people in the past!” I realized. I’ve been doing that ever since, first as a museum curator and now as a history professor. Houses, furnishings, and the way people interact with the built environment can reveal the complexity, diversity, and beauty of human lives.

Sarah's book list on architecture and social identity in industrial America

Sarah Fayen Scarlett Why did Sarah love this book?

OK this book is not about the United States but Rebecca Ginsburg’s incredibly nuanced investigation of the domestic landscape in apartheid South Africa should be required reading for anyone thinking about embodied experience and architecture. Houses built in the twentieth century for White families in suburban Johannesburg featured small rectangular rooms in the back yard for Black domestic workers. Using interviews, site visits, and compassionate storytelling, Ginsburg pieces together the daily rhythms for women who woke up outside, “came in the dark,” and learned the “tempo of kitchen life,” to borrow two of her provocative chapter titles. When people possessing such drastically different levels of social power share spaces built to remind them of their status at almost every turn, the visceral capacity of architecture becomes painfully clear.

By Rebecca Ginsburg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked At Home with Apartheid as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Despite their peaceful, bucolic appearance, the tree-lined streets of South African suburbia were no refuge from the racial tensions and indignities of apartheid's most repressive years. In At Home with Apartheid, Rebecca Ginsburg provides an intimate examination of the cultural landscapes of Johannesburg's middle- and upper-middle-class neighborhoods during the height of apartheid (c. 1960-1975) and incorporates recent scholarship on gender, the home, and family.

More subtly but no less significantly than factory floors, squatter camps, prisons, and courtrooms, the homes of white South Africans were sites of important contests between white privilege and black aspiration. Subtle negotiations within the domestic…


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Interested in South Africa, apartheid, and Johannesburg?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about South Africa, apartheid, and Johannesburg.

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