5 Great Books Set in South Africa That We Love

5 Great Books Set in South Africa That We Love

Thursday, 7 July, 2022

If you want to see a lion or a black rhino in person, South Africa is the place to go. It’s also a fantastic place to sip world-class wine, splash on a beach with penguins, or throw the South African sausage called boerwors on the barbecue.

You can also learn more about the country’s 20th-century history of Apartheid, and the promise of the Rainbow Nation since Apartheid was banished in 1989.

Here are five books set in South Africa that took us there on the page: a moving family saga, a gripping urban murder mystery, a YA novel with teeth, a must-read celebrity memoir, and a story of feuding neighbors in modern Cape Town.

To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast South Africa: Nelson Mandela, the Big Five, and Sweet Melktert.


We Kiss Them with Rain - Futhi Ntshingila

We Kiss Them with Rain
> Futhi Ntshingila

This is a young adult novel, but it’s one of those YA books that makes you wonder if the author knew she was writing a YA book. That is a compliment. This story delves into themes that a 14-year-old girl shouldn’t need to know — and it’s very affecting.

When the story opens, it’s 2005. Mvelo and her mother Zola have just been turned down for government support by a hungover and bitter bureaucrat. As the conversation winds down, she says, ‘Now, shoo.’

Instantly, their position in the hierarchy of South African society is made painfully clear.

As the two walk back to their shack in a squatter’s camp we learn why their pace is so slow and labored: Zola is HIV-positive. Later, they spend the last of their money on a pack of Oreos. Sharing the cookies and tea, they talk about when times were better.

This book is a tough ride. But, if you’re curious about what it’s like to be poor and discriminated against in South Africa, this book will take you there. The narrative shifts back in time, and we see how the mother-daughter duo came to their current circumstances. And eventually, Mvelo’s situation improves. Her story is ultimately about hope and strength of character and found family. But not before she (and we) have been put through the emotional ringer. {more}

After Sipho’s funeral, things became progressively worse for Mvelo and her mother Zola. Mvelo was young, but she felt like an old, worn-out shoe of a girl. She was fourteen with the mind of a forty-year-old. She stopped singing. For her mother’s sake, she tried very hard to remain optimistic, but hope felt like a slippery fish in her hands. — Futhi Ntshingila


Gallows Hill - Margie Orford

Gallows Hill
> Margie Orford

Meet Dr. Clare Hart and her paramour Riedwaan Faizal. He’s Captain of the Organized Crime and Drug Unit in Cape Town. Clare is an investigative journalist and police profiler. Each of them is a badass in their own right. When they team up, they’re pretty much unstoppable.

In real life, the area of Cape Town known as Gallows Hill was the 18th-century spot for public executions. After the deed, the remains of the convicted were left on public display, their bones falling for informal burial as time carried on without them.

When the book opens, a building project on Gallows Hill unearths a pile of bones. Construction immediately comes to a halt so archaeologists can examine the remains. Then another body is found. But this one is from just a few decades ago. It’s a woman wearing a green silk dress. She was murdered. Now Clare Hart is going to track down who did it and make them pay.

The suspects include amoral land developers, questionable art gallery owners, shady politicians, corrupt police officers, and a short-fuse gangster. Just another day in Cape Town.

As Clare circles the culprit, awful truths come to light about 18th-century convictions, the slave trade, Apartheid, and the 1985 State of Emergency that disappeared people regularly. Arrested? In hiding? Murdered? Does anyone care? {more}

‘I haven’t thought about that place for 20 years, maybe more. Why are you asking about it?’

‘The warehouse you built was recently demolished,’ explained Clare. ‘A young woman’s body was found under the slab.’

‘The whole place was full of skeletons,’ said Gonzalez. ‘I could hardly get my staff to work, they were so spooked. Gallows Hill. Flat as a pancake, the place they used to hang all kinds of riff-raff in the old days. Every time we dug we’d find more bodies. The owners just told us to shut up and build. Times were tough, so we did.’

‘Well, this woman was murdered,’ said Clare.

‘Nothing to write home about in South Africa.’ — Margie Orford


Born a Crime - Trevor Noah

Born A Crime
> Trevor Noah

Forget everything you know about celebrity memoirs. Yes, this book from the host of The Daily Show is supremely charming and entertaining. But Trevor Noah subverts expectations, mostly circumventing his rise in Hollywood to tell the story of growing up a mixed-race child in just-post-Apartheid South Africa.

Noah’s father was white and Swiss-German; his mother was Black and Xhosa. When he entered the world, interracial relationships were illegal in South Africa. That use of ‘crime’ in the title? Not hyperbole. Through refreshingly honest, often funny, sometimes heartbreaking stories, we meet Trevor the Troublemaker, Trevor the son, and ultimately, the man he became.

Without a doubt, you will understand the horrors of living in a segregated country. Noah’s mixed race meant he wasn’t really welcome anywhere. He makes a strong case that Apartheid was very good at getting people to hate people who weren’t like them — even if they were just a little not like them.

No spoilers, but the book’s last chapter is worth the admission price. It’s a good story, well-told, with a lot of feelings.

Heads-up! Trevor Noah narrates the audiobook version, and — no surprise — it’s fantastic. He honed his storytelling skills as a stand-up comic, and hearing his life unfold in his voice is a powerful experience. {more}

The legal definition of a white person under Apartheid was ‘one who in appearance is obviously a white person who is generally not accepted as a coloured person; or is generally accepted as a white person and is not in appearance obviously a white person.’ It was completely arbitrary, in other words. That’s where the government came up with things like the pencil test. If you were applying to be white, the pencil went into your hair. If it fell out, you were white. If it stayed in, you were colored. You were what the government said you were. Sometimes that came down to a lone clerk eyeballing your face and making a snap decision. Depending on how high your cheekbones were or how broad your nose was, he could tick whatever box made sense to him, thereby deciding where you could live, whom you could marry, what jobs and rights and privileges you were allowed. — Trevor Noah


The Promise - Damon Galgut

The Promise
> Damon Galgut

The Swarts are a white family living on a small estate near Pretoria, South Africa. When the matriarch dies, the remaining family members disperse, running from the burdens of being part of this family. Their story unfolds through four funerals, each ten years apart, starting in 1986.

Just before she died, Amor’s 40-year-old mother elicited a vow from her Afrikaner husband to give Salome — a Black maid living on their estate — the deed to the home in which she’s lived for years.

Unbeknownst to either of them, 10-year-old Amor overhears, and this becomes the defining event of her life. Because her father, selfish and bigoted as he is, forgets all about the promise after his wife dies.

This broken vow follows the family through the decades like a curse or a ghost. Invisible, but undeniably present.

At each funeral reunion, we get rich snapshots of what has happened to each family member in the intervening years. So we see Amor’s older siblings’ fateful decisions play out and eavesdrop on a variety of aunts and uncles who are spoiled, racist, selfish, judgmental. We check in with Amor’s solitary life and the Black family nearby, still living in that little house, still without the deed promised to them. {more}

By the time she comes in through the back door, a hundred and thirty-three minutes and twenty-two seconds have passed since she ran away. Four cars, including the long dark one, have departed, a single new one has arrived. The telephone has rung eighteen times, the doorbell twice, on one occasion because somebody has sent flowers that improbably turn up all the way out here. Twenty-two cups of tea, six mugs of coffee, three glasses of cool drink and six brandy-and-Cokes have been consumed. The three toilets downstairs, unused to such traffic, have between them flushed twenty-seven times, carrying away nine point eight liters of urine, five point two liters of shit, one stomachful of regurgitated food and five milliliters of sperm. Numbers go on and on, but what does mathematics help? In any human life there is really only one of everything. — Damon Galgut


The Woman Next Door - Yewande Omotoso

The Woman Next Door
> Yewande Omotoso

Once upon a time, in a posh neighborhood of Cape Town — with expansive lawns, bougainvillea blossoms, and nosy neighbors — an architect named Marion designed a prize-winning home that made her name professionally. She’s wanted to live in it ever since. But opportunities to buy the place repeatedly slip through her fingers. Instead, she lives in the house next door.

Hortensia, her neighbor, knows nothing of this when she moves into No. 10 with her husband. Marion immediately hates Hortensia on principle.

And here’s where the suburban plot thickens: Hortensia is black; Marion is white. They’re both in their 80s and recently widowed. They’ve both been enviably successful in their careers; adjectives like capable, talented, and strong-willed are apt. They are mirror images of each other — and they’re sworn enemies.

But after a fateful accident, they’re forced to start dealing with each other differently. If you’re worried it might turn out to be an overly-sweet and now they’re best friends-kind of story, fear not. It’s much, much better than that.

Hortensia and Marion are prickly, beginning to end. But their misadventures sand off some of their rougher edges. Though they parry and stab with their words, you’ll be thoroughly on their side as they learn new ways to be, to think, and to engage with their changing world. {more}

After the church, all the mourners (except Marion, Hortensia noted with relief) went to Peter’s patch of ground where the tombstone stood waiting. The ashes, collected in a simple wooden box, were placed into a hole. And, even though she could feel the tears gathering in the corners of her eyes, when a wiry man began shoveling the sand, there was also a part of Hortensia that wanted to tell him to stand back so she could spit. — Yewande Omotoso

Top image courtesy of Casey Allen/Unsplash.

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