The most recommended books about Johannesburg

Who picked these books? Meet our 20 experts.

20 authors created a book list connected to Johannesburg, and here are their favorite Johannesburg books.
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What type of Johannesburg book?


Book cover of One Day in Bethlehem

Jonathan R. Rose Author Of After the Flames: A Burn Victim's Battle With Celebrity

From my list on showing uncomfortable truths.

Why am I passionate about this?

I have always strived to speak out when surrounded by silence, whether in person through my own voice, or through the books I have written and had published. Not because I am heroic or noble, but because I am angered by suppressed truth, and I believe reality should be shown as it is, not as people believe it should be. That is why the books I chose are so important to me, because they fearlessly exposed the truths the respective authors were determined to show, risks be damned. I hope these books inspire you as much as they have inspired me.

Jonathan's book list on showing uncomfortable truths

Jonathan R. Rose Why did Jonathan love this book?

This book described not just a heinous crime that was committed near Johannesburg, South Africa, but the effects it had on a man falsely accused and imprisoned for that crime. Instead of focusing on a single perspective, the author chose to focus on several perspectives, some of which were totally unreliable. As a result, I was shown the messy mind states of all those people associated with the crime, 2 decades after it was committed.

I was in a constant state of curiosity with every page, and as soon as I finished the book, I wanted to learn more, not just about the case itself, but the culture and society from which it took place. 

By Jonny Steinberg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked One Day in Bethlehem as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

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…

Book cover of Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Alex Dolan Author Of The Euthanist

From my list on female protagonists who you hate to root for.

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m obsessed with the exploration of what it means to be a human being. We’re coming into an era where we see more characters who aren’t good or evil but both—they possess the potential to save someone from jumping off a bridge one day and beating someone the next. We’re all capable of the greatest acts of kindness and the most abominable atrocities imaginable. I believe we need to be reminded of that fact so that when there comes a time when we can decide whether to hurt or to help someone, we become the better version of ourselves and make the right decision.

Alex's book list on female protagonists who you hate to root for

Alex Dolan Why did Alex love this book?

I love books that I happen to pick up by chance and fall in love with them. I picked this up at a bookstore in the airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, when I had a long layover. It was Pessl’s debut, and I was drawn in by the strength of the writing on the opening pages. The strength of the writing alone made me unable to put it down, and I finished it on the way back to the U.S.

The main character is immature and often snarky and self-absorbed, but that’s the point. It’s a story about elite high school students, most of whom you’d probably want to slap if you met them in person. But God, it’s so good. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

By Marisha Pessl,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Special Topics in Calamity Physics as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The mesmerizing New York Times bestseller by the author of Night Film

Marisha Pessl’s dazzling debut sparked raves from critics and heralded the arrival of a vibrant new voice in American fiction. At the center of Special Topics in Calamity Physics is clever, deadpan Blue van Meer, who has a head full of literary, philosophical, scientific, and cinematic knowledge. But she could use some friends. Upon entering the elite St. Gallway School, she finds some—a clique of eccentrics known as the Bluebloods. One drowning and one hanging later, Blue finds herself puzzling out a byzantine murder mystery. Nabokov meets Donna…

Book cover of The President's Keepers: Those Keeping Zuma in Power and Out of Prison

Evadeen Brickwood Author Of Singing Lizards

From my list on Southern Africa you might not know.

Why am I passionate about this?

I moved from Germany to Botswana when I was a fledgling translator and then on to South Africa 2 years later. I fell in love with this part of Africa that had a hand in making me the person I am today. Since I used to travel a lot, not all of my books are set in Southern Africa, but I have a passion for sharing my African stories with the world. My latest project is the Charlie Proudfoot murder mystery series, which is set in South Africa. Being a translator, I also translate books into German/English and four of them so far, are my own.

Evadeen's book list on Southern Africa you might not know

Evadeen Brickwood Why did Evadeen love this book?

At the time this book hit the shelves, it was dangerous to write about the facts of state capture in South Africa. The courageous author was meticulous when doing his research and had to be careful at the same time not to be detected. He got the book published despite many threats against his life and attempts to discredit him. I’ll be forever grateful that the South African public was given this opportunity to learn more about corruption in politics. The book was sold out for months for a reason.

By Jacques Pauw,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The President's Keepers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Investigative journalist Jacques Pauw exposes the darkest secret at the heart of Jacob Zuma’s compromised government: a cancerous cabal that eliminates the president’s enemies and purges the law-enforcement agencies of good men and women. As Zuma fights for his political life following the 2017 Gupta emails leak, this cabal – the president’s keepers – ensures that after years of ruinous rule, he remains in power and out of prison. But is Zuma the puppet master, or their puppet? Journey with Pauw as he explores the shadow mafia state. From KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape to the corridors of power in…

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

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 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 in the mines, the trains sent the men back to Mozambique, often ill and broken and even insane after their experiences in the mines and in the trains. The story reflects South Africa’s evolving system of segregation and apartheid and the brutal logic…

By Charles Van Onselen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Night Trains as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This seminal book reveals how black labour was exploited in twentieth-century South Africa, the human costs of which are still largely hidden from history. It was the people of southern Mozambique, bent double beneath the historical loads of forced labour and slavery, then sold off en masse as contracted labourers, who paid the highest price for South African gold. An iniquitous intercolonial agreement for the exploitation of ultra-cheap black labour was only made possible through nightly use of the steam locomotive on the transnational railway linking Johannesburg and Lourenco Marques. These night trains left deep scars in the urban and…

Book cover of Watery Ways

Linda Kovic-Skow Author Of French Illusions: My Story as an American Au Pair in the Loire Valley

From my list on unusual travel stories.

Why am I passionate about this?

Linda is an award-winning author and travel enthusiast. Her two-book memoir series, French Illusions, is based on her diaries from 1979 and 1980. She has completed an adaption of these books into a screenplay and is currently seeking representation. Originally from Seattle, Linda now resides in Saint Petersburg, Florida with her longtime husband near her youngest daughter and grandchildren. To this day, she tells people that she is thankful for her storybook life.

Linda's book list on unusual travel stories

Linda Kovic-Skow Why did Linda love this book?

With humor and grace, Valerie describes her trials and tribulations as she transitions from a divorce and corporate job in Johannesburg, to renting and eventually purchasing an old barge in the city of Rotterdam in the Netherlands. As she points out, “one of the first things you learn about living on a barge is that an awful lot of stuff is going to end up in the water.”

By Valerie Poore,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Watery Ways as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this account of her first year of living on a barge in Rotterdam's Oude Haven, Valerie Poore’s overriding impression is that “one of the first things you learn about living on a barge is that an awful lot of stuff is going to end up in the water”.The year in question is 2001, and at forty something, the author takes the plunge to exchange her life in the corporate fast lane of Johannesburg, for life on a historic Dutch barge. Every month brings new challenges, obstacles and experiences. She meets a whole world of fascinating people, not least of…

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 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 Strong Medicine

Dave-Brendon de Burgh Author Of Betrayal's Shadow

From my list on speculative fiction by South African authors.

Why am I passionate about this?

I was a bookseller specializing in SFF for around 13 years, during which I wrote two novels and many short stories, and I ran a review blog for many years. My love of SFF and Horror began when I was around nine years old, at which time I read Pet Sematary, which opened up the world of ‘grown-up’ books for me. I’m proud to say that I read more speculative fiction than anything else, and I love discovering new voices and visions in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror.  

Dave-Brendon's book list on speculative fiction by South African authors

Dave-Brendon de Burgh Why did Dave-Brendon love this book?

I enjoyed the local setting, the intensity of the novel, and its unflinching exploration of South Africa’s violent crime problems and how crime ties into cultural beliefs.

The novel goes to some dark places, in terms of events and character arcs, and the pacing and well-written scenes keep the reader nailed to the story – you’ll see a side of South Africa which is very real, but perhaps largely unknown to the rest of the world.

By Angela Meadon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Strong Medicine as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Erin du Toit's 9-year old daughter has been kidnapped by Johannesburg's most powerful witchdoctor. Can Erin save her child before she's chopped up for muthi? Erin’s first instinct is to go to the police, but the South African Police Force is paralyzed by corruption and overwhelmed by hundreds of open cases. Cases just like Erin’s. Erin delves into the dark underbelly of Johannesburg to find the man who took her daughter. When she realizes that the police are protecting him, she must decide between disobeying a violent police force and giving up on her daughter. *** "Strong Medicine is an…

Book cover of Just The Way I Am

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m from Mauritius, of Indian heritage, and proudly African. I remember reading my first chick-lit romance circa 2001, thinking Mauritius has everything—the drama, the over-the-top characters, love matches, exciting backdrops both physical & cultural—to create great rom-coms & uplifting fiction…but where were such stories? A decade later, I was helping other African authors showcase their feel-good books by creating an imprint dedicated to African romance with a US publisher. I’m an author who loves to write about her country & life experiences, and I have the perfect day job for a bookworm as an editor who specializes in editing romance stories for indie authors & publishers alike.

Zee's book list on feel-good romance books showcasing how IRL Africa is not just a hotbed of misery

Zee Monodee Why did Zee love this book?

I love an amnesia trope, and this one delivered!

I couldn’t read fast enough to find out who Zoe really was before her accident and how everything would be revealed. And Jo Watson delivered a rollicking ride filled with feelings–so much feels!–and it just kept getting better, coming together like a tapestry right until the end. It was a journey the heroine went on, and as a reader, I also went along with her, which was magical & so enthralling!

Set in Johannesburg mainly and the South African countryside, it showed normal people living normal lives amid extraordinary circumstances, all with a feel-good, rom-com vibe throughout.

By Jo Watson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Just The Way I Am as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

She's starting over. And the real her is letting loose.

From the author of the 100,000+ copy-selling rom-com, Love to Hate You! No one makes you laugh like Jo Watson!

If you love by Mhairi McFarlane, Sophie Ranald, Sophie Kinsella and Paige Toon, you'll LOVE Jo Watson - readers are raving about her glorious rom-coms!

Readers are already WOWED by Just The Way I Am!

'Without a doubt Jo Watson's best book so far, and I've almost read all of them'

'I have read ALL of Jo Watson's previous books and this is quite possibly my new favourite'

'An intricate…