The best books about South Africa 📚

Browse the best books on South Africa as recommended by authors, experts, and creators. Along with notes on why they recommend those books.

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

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

By Charles Van Onselen

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…

From the list:

The best books to understand modern South Africa

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Book cover of A History of South Africa

A History of South Africa

By Leonard Thompson

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…

From the list:

The best books about Southern Africa as picked by a historian

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Book cover of The Mall (Downside)

The Mall (Downside)

By S.L. Grey

Why this book?

I love the fact this book was the first in a series of spooky stories that takes you into the shopping mall when the shutters are down and lights are off. It’ll make sure you never see shopping in a mall the same again. The ‘author’ is actually a partnership between a crime novelist and a holder of a post-religious apocalyptic fiction doctorate. 

From the list:

The best books for winning with the modern consumer

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Book cover of The Conservationist

The Conservationist

By Nadine Gordimer

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.

From the list:

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

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

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

By Marq de Villiers

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…

From the list:

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

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Book cover of If You Want to Make God Laugh

If You Want to Make God Laugh

By Bianca Marais

Why 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.

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The best recent books on secrecy and denial

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