Many books have been written about South Africa.
It may lie on the southernmost tip of the African continent, but it’s attracted a fair amount of attention since 1994 for numerous reasons – political and otherwise.
This list of 10 best non-fiction books about South Africa does not include Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom (we assume you’ve read that). Here, instead, are some you’ll know and others about which you won’t.
All of them are worth reading …
1. SHIRLEY, GOODNESS & MERCY: A CHILDHOOD IN AFRICA by Chris van Wyk
This is not a book about racial politics, despite author Chris van Wyk’s contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle. Instead, it is a delightful account of his years growing up in apartheid South Africa – the joys and sadnesses of his relationship with friends, relatives and neighbours. It is one of two memoirs of his childhood (the other is Eggs to Lay, Chickens to Hatch) written before the author, editor and playwright died an untimely death at only 57, from cancer.
What others say: The Mail & Guardian describes the book as a ‘runaway success’, whilst Amazon rates it 4.6 out of 5 stars.
2. DOWN SECOND AVENUE: GROWING UP IN A SOUTH AFRICAN GHETTO by Ezekiel Mphahlele
One reader sums up the story thus: ‘If you want to cry, laugh and laugh again, this is the book for you.’ Down Second Avenue is an autobiography about a young black man growing up in South Africa during apartheid by the author considered the father of black South African writing. It follows the well-trodden path of people moving from rural areas to relocate into black and coloured townships, during the early 1940s. The language is beautiful and the account, personal. Es’kia Mphahlele was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1969.
What others say: Amazon rates it 3.7 out of 5 stars
3. MY TRAITOR’S HEART by Rian Malan
Related to one of the major architects of apartheid, Rian Malan fled the country during apartheid. This story charters his return, after eight years in exile, and how he explores the legacy of hatred and suffering, offering his account of the physical and emotional damage it has caused generations of South Africans.
What others say: The Guardian describes his book as ‘a tortured, mesmerising attempt to capture exactly the conflicts of his upbringing’ and Amazon rates it 4.5 out of 5 stars.
4. GOOD MORNING, MR MANDELA: A MEMOIR by Zelda la Grange
Zelda la Grange served in the last 20 years of Mandela’s life as his secretary, gatekeeper and constant companion. But the tale is less about the change in her regard for the man she calls ‘Khulu’ (grandfather) than it is a memoir of Mandela’s twilight years and the offensive way in which he was treated by all after retiring from the presidency in 1999. La Grange obviously writes in her second language but the honesty of her story shines through, regardless.
What others say: London’s Telegraph described it as ‘compelling and ultimately heartbreaking’, whilst Amazon gives it a 4.3 out of 5 stars.
5. RABBLE-ROUSER FOR PEACE: THE AUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY OF DESMOND TUTU by John Allen
Not only is this a brilliant account of a fascinating and inspiring man, but it’s also an excellent account of the South African apartheid struggle (one cannot separate the two). The biography is a highly readable account of a man both loved and revered by South Africans. This authorised biography tells the inside story of Tutu’s part in the struggle and the incredible and judicious role he played in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
What others say: The Guardian calls Tutu ‘God’s first warrior’ whilst Amazon rates it 3.9 out of 5 stars.
6. COUNTRY OF MY SKULL by Antjie Krog
After following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for almost two years, journalist, poet and author Antjie Krog, who reported for the SABC, wrote an account of the commission’s work and the effect the testimonies had on her – she was transfixed by the country’s capacity for violence. Headed by Desmond Tutu, the commission was intended as a healing process and took centre stage in the healing process. Krog supplies all the drama, horrors and the personal stories of the victims and their families. Riveting, the subject is at once a journey and a beautiful read.
What others say: Good Reads describes how ‘Krog’s powerful prose lures the reader actively and inventively through a mosaic…’ and Amazon rates it 4.5 out of 5 stars.
7. ANOTHER COUNTRY – THE INSIDE STORY OF SOUTH AFRICA’S NEGOTIATED REVOLUTION by Allister Sparks
Described as a ‘who’s who’ of the inside story of South Africa’s ‘negotiated revolution’ this is an account of how one of the world’s most remarkable political transitions was pulled off without a bloody coup. It is an historical account with vivid insight into the journey from apartheid to non-racial democracy.
What others say: New York Times Book Review described it as ‘a gripping, fast-paced, authoritative account of the long and mostly secret negotiations that brought South Africa’s bitter conflict to its near-miraculous end.’ whilst Amazon gives it a 4.9 out of 5 stars.
8. WHAT’S GONE WRONG – SOUTH AFRICA ON THE BRINK OF FAILED STATEHOOD by Alex Boraine
Described as ‘the book that Alex Boraine never wanted to write’ the author wonders, two decades after the country’s transition to democracy, what exactly has gone wrong in South Africa? Despite its criticism of the situation in which the country finds itself, Boraine offers a number of constructive proposals to prevent the country from becoming a failed state.
What others say: Amazon rates it 4.3 out of 5 stars.
9. WHAT IF THERE WERE NO WHITES IN SOUTH AFRICA? By Ferial Haffajee
The provocative title of the book by Ferial Haffajee, journalist and editor of the City Press until June 2016, is described as a black woman’s account of the controversial sociopolitical issues around race in South Africa. Her argument is that white people don’t hold as much power as contemporary critics claim, and she uses the story of her life to illustrate her arguments.
What others say: Huffington Post says that the book ‘provokes the hard, uncomfortable conversations about the ‘unfinished business of colonialism and apartheid’, whilst Amazon rates it 3.3 out of 5 stars.
10. WE HAVE NOW BEGUN OUR DESCENT : HOW TO STOP SOUTH AFRICA LOSING ITS WAY by Justice Malala
In a nutshell: the politicians have failed the country and the salvation of the country is in the hands of the people. The well-known political journalist and commentator, Justice Malala, forces the reader to come face-to-face with the corrupt, crime-ridden and compromised state that is the country in 2015. All is not doom and gloom, however. Malala believes the country can turn things around based on its Constitution and its history of activism.
What others say: The Mail & Guardian describe Malala’s writing as ‘an accessible style and with a common-sense decency and rationalism that many people will find compelling’, whilst Amazon rates it 4.4 out of 5 stars.