Local literature: 7 must-read South African classics

The beloved country is home to some wonderful pieces of literature.


Sunny South Africa has a lot to boast about: beautiful weather, breathtaking beaches, friendly people, a melting pot of cultures, and lots lots more.

But one thing that deserves particular attention is South Africa’s rich pool of talented writers and poets who have created and continue to create classic literature about our cherished land.

Whether autobiographical, political, historical, non-fiction, or fiction, South Africans have produced a rich corpus of narratives that are must-reads for every South African.

I adore books and I totally identify with George RR Martin when he says:

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”

This truly resonates with me because of what I take away from each piece of literature and text I read.

So without further ado, let’s get straight into it.

I have selected seven of my all-time favorite books that I believe make for classic South African must-read literature from the 20th and 21st century. These are texts I can pick up and read over and over again for several reasons which I’ll expand on below.

It was hard to choose which ones make the cut, but here we go:

Disclaimer: The order of this list is in no particular order! The use of any political terms I mention bear no racial connotations whatsoever.

1. Shirley, Goodness and Mercy – Christopher van Wyk


The late Christopher van Wyk, famous for his poignant Apartheid poem “In Detention,” wrote children’s books, poems and novels. Van Wyk was born in Soweto but moved to Riverlea, a suburb on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Shirley, Goodness and Mercy, published in 2004, is an autobiographical account of his life growing up in a coloured community during the Apartheid era in the townships of Riverlea and Coronationville and all the relationships he built with family, friends, and neighbors.

The book is comprised of short anecdotes divided into chapters that detail his vivid memories in the townships. The title is inspired by Psalm 23 “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me,” which he replaced with Shirley, his mother’s name.

In the stories, Van Wyk recalls how humor, laughter, and hope carried his community through tough social experiences and political hardships. This book is a real page-turner filled with hilarious South African jargon, and one in which you can immerse yourself in young Van Wyk’s shoes to see the world through a naïve but observant and honest perspective of a child who then went on to become one of the country’s bravest freedom fighters through his eloquent writing.

Van Wyk teaches his readers to find joy in the simplest things in life like trips to the local kiosk with friends. The narrative is light and humorous but carries a lot of weight about the seriousness of the conditions of non-whites living in South Africa during Apartheid and the suffering they had to endure.

2. Ways of DyingZakes Mda


Zakes Mda, born in Herschel, Eastern Cape in 1948, is a South African poet, novelist, and playwright with many South African and British literary accolades and awards. His first novel, Ways of Dying, released in 1995, is set in an unnamed city during the years in which South Africa was transforming into a democracy, a time full of hope, but also a time pierced with extreme violence that sent shock waves through the world.

Mda adopts the South African oral storytelling tradition to travel across time and space and to tell his story in the omniscient first-person plural narrator, which gives voice to all politically oppressed people.

This story is about the right to tell stories. I adore this book because of the storyline and Mda’s use of magical realism, which portrays how tragedy and laughter intertwine. Mda is sensitive to the black community’s reticence to talk about the deaths of their own because of fear to report it to the authorities, which was governed by the white supremacists, and so the book is a parody of the “business” of death.

This may sound depressing; however, the novel is actually about a love story and one that celebrates the tenacity of the human spirit. Toloki, the protagonist, becomes a professional mourner while he reflects on all the violence going on around him in the townships. He crosses paths with Noria, his childhood friend, and they build a relationship while she mourns over the death of her son.

3. Mafeking Road and Other Stories – Herman Charles Bosman


Herman Charles Bosman, born in 1905, is remembered as South Africa’s greatest short-story writer. His stories are based on Afrikaans characters and communities during the first half of the twentieth century in which he explores the many contradictions of their society.

Mafeking Road and Other Stories, originally published in 1947, is an anthology of short stories that appear to be simple at first glance, but reveal so much about the South African Transvaal and the Afrikaner community that lived there.

Bosman also adopts the tradition of oral storytelling by the fireplace narrated by his main character, Oom Shalk Lourens. Readers pick up on the witty, unromanticised, satirical, and moving account of the simple life in the Groot Marico District.

Bosman describes the lives of the local herdsmen, concertina players, and ambitious dreamers in a land where legendary mambas slither and leopards dwell, which seems parochial but in fact reveals so much about the immense contradictions within the society, prejudices of the time, and the mysteries of the small-talk between these people.

4. The Story of an African Farm – Olive Schreiner


Olive Schreiner is renowned as one of the most influential South African anti-war campaigners, intellectuals and writers. She was born in 1855 and is most famous for her novel The Story of an African Farm first published in 1883.

The main thing I love about this piece is that it takes place in the Karoo, definitely one of the most beautiful, quaint places in South Africa. In her narrative, Schreiner addresses lots of pressing ethical, political, and philosophical issues of the time, but which still hold true today, such as the effects of British imperialism, individualism and existentialism, secular religion and agnosticism, and feminism.

There is no solid plot but rather a series of loosely narrated episodes based on the fates of three children who stand for the different attitudes towards religion and gender roles. Her writing style is beautiful; she weaves simple farm romance and coming-of-age narrative into one philosophical masterpiece.

5. A Long Walk to Freedom – Nelson Mandela


You can’t call yourself South African if you haven’t read our beloved Madiba’s autobiography. Published in 1995, a year after South Africa was sworn into democracy, this book takes you on a lifelong journey of Nelson Mandela’s life up until his age of retirement.

It is a microcosm of his life and South Africa’s long and difficult history of Apartheid. In one book, Mandela manages to narrate all the significant moments in his personal life and that of the political climate of South African which he so significantly influenced. Despite the fact that this book is long, one can read it in one sitting because of the gripping and honest way in which the narration is told.

Mandela not only recalls important events, moments, conversations, and memories in this book; he also shares his inner most feelings and emotions on extremely touchy subjects with the reader.

6. Cry, The Beloved Country – Alan Paton


Alan Paton, an anti-apartheid novelist, was born in 1903 in Pietermaritzburg. Paton’s seminal novel Cry, The Beloved Country published in 1948, predicts the searing future of South Africa in the upcoming decades after its release, and yet it is a narrative about hope and reconciliation.

The story is set in the mountainous region of Natal in the remote village of Ndotsheni and tracks the journey the Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo needs to make to Johannesburg when he is summoned by Msimangu, a fellow priest.

Kumalo is faced with pressing personal issues concerning his sister and son, but he is also confronted by a land riven by racism and hatred.

Paton writes in an unforgettable lyrical and poetic style, and this excerpt from the book is probably one of the most famous quotations in the history of South Africa.

Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much. (Chapter 12)

7. Disgrace – J.M. Coetzee


J.M. Coetzee, born in 1940, is a world-renowned South African essayist, novelist, translator, and linguist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003. His novel Disgrace was published in 1999 and won the Booker Prize.

The title Disgrace definitely emanates the tone and plot line of this text which reveals a story about falling from grace and salvation; the tensions between ruin and recovery.

David Lurie, a South African English professor in Cape Town, loses absolutely everything: his job, his reputation, his dreams, and his relationship with his daughter because of his supposed sexual activities. He then moves to the Eastern Cape to live with his daughter when the plot thickens and he is at risk to lose more than he ever imagined.

The story is set in post-Apartheid South Africa, so while there are political intonations in the analysis of the characters, location, and developments, Coetzee also explores the theme of exploitation and how one person can be used to fill the emotional needs of another.

He comments on human emotions and capabilities, especially in a time of chaos. This novel was very well received and a 2006 poll by The Observer, hailed the work as the greatest novel of the last 25 years of British, Irish or Commomwealth origin.

There are many other household names which I couldn’t elaborate on who have written texts that will forever be etched in history. These include the works of Athol Fugard, Antjie Krog, Andre Brink, Breyten Breytenbach, Nadine Gordimer, and the list goes on.

I’ll leave you with the words of Garrison Keillor: “A book is a gift you can open again and again.”