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South African Fiction

Over the many decades there have been tremendous contributions to South African literature. Contributions to a rich literary tradition which includes authors like Nadine Gordimer, Alan Paton, and J. M. Coetzee.  The South African literary canons have primarily focused on the apartheid experience. The following compilation of contemporary South African fiction focuses on a post-apartheid experience from a variety of perspectives. The list includes both prominent and up and coming South African writers.

1994-present: a selected annotated bibliography

Behr, Mark. The Smell of Apples. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.
Set in the bitter twilight of apartheid in South Africa in the 1970s, The Smell of Apples is a haunting story narrated by eleven-year-old Marnus Erasmus, who records the social turmoil and racial oppression that are destroying his own land. Using his family as a microcosm of the corroding society at large, Marnus tells a troubling tale of a childhood corrupted, of unexpected sexual defilements, and of an innocence gone astray.

Beukes, Lauren. Zoo City. Auckland Park, South Africa: Jacana Media, 2010.
Zoo City is a science fiction novel set in an alternate version of the South African city of Johannesburg, in which people who have committed a crime are magically attached to an animal familiar – those who receive such punishment are said to be “animalled”. The novel’s chief protagonist, Zinzi December, is a former journalist and recovering drug addict who was “animalled” to a sloth after getting her brother killed. She lives in the Johannesburg suburb of Hillbrow, which is nicknamed “Zoo City” in the novel for its large population of animalled people, refugees and the dispossessed. Zinzi is attempting to repay the financial debt she owes her drug dealer by charging people for her special skill of finding lost objects, as well as making use of her writing abilities by drafting 419 fraud emails.

Brink, Andre. Imaginings of Sand. London: Secker & Warburg, 1996.
Kristien, the narrator, is a white academic who goes back to South Africa to visit her grandmother after an attack by black youths on the old lady which leaves her tied to bed. Before she dies, she wishes to tell Kristien the story of their Afrikaner family, a task which grandmother and granddaughter find very important. Giving up her self-imposed exile is, at first, a resignation to Kristien, but gradually she learns that the country of her birth is changing towards the better.

Coetzee, J. M. Disgrace. London: Secker & Warburg, 1999.
Set in post-apartheid South Africa, J. M. Coetzee’s searing novel tells the story of David Lurie, a twice divorced, 52-year-old professor of communications and Romantic Poetry at Cape Technical University. Lurie believes he has created a comfortable, if somewhat passionless, life for himself. He lives within his financial and emotional means. Though his position at the university has been reduced, he teaches his classes dutifully; and while age has diminished his attractiveness, weekly visits to a prostitute satisfy his sexual needs. He considers himself happy. But when Lurie seduces one of his students, he sets in motion a chain of events that will shatter his complacency and leave him utterly disgraced.

Dangor, Acmat. Bitter Fruit. Cape Town: Kwela Books, 2001.
The last time Silas Ali encountered Lieutenant Du Boise, Silas was locked in the back of a police van and the lieutenant was conducting a vicious assault on Silas’s wife, Lydia, in revenge for her husband’s participation in Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress. When Silas sees Du Boise by chance twenty years later, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is about to deliver its report, crimes from the past erupt into the present, splintering the Alis’ fragile peace.

Duiker, K Sello. The Quiet Violence of Dreams. Cape Town: Kwela Books, 2001.
The Quiet Violence of Dreams is set in Cape Town’s cosmopolitan neighbourhoods – Observatory, Mowbray and Sea Point – where subcultures thrive and alternative lifestyles are tolerated. The plot revolves around Tshepo, a student at Rhodes, who gets confined to a Cape Town mental institution after an episode of ‘cannabis-induced psychosis’. He escapes but is returned to the hospital and completes his rehabilitation, earns his release – and promptly terminates his studies.

Fugard, Lisa. Skinner’s Drift. New York: Scribner, 2006.
Ten years after leaving South Africa, the country of her birth and the place where her mother died, Eva van Rensburg returns to her dying father, a violent man whose terrible secret Eva has kept since she was a child. The author paints a haunting portrait of a family careering toward disaster. She vividly describes the isolation of Eva’s rebellious and lonely English mother; the desperation of her Afrikaner father as drought destroys his farm; the conflicts among the black farmworkers as the younger generation questions the loyalty and subservience of their elders; and the dangerous silence of a young girl who witnesses too much.

Galgut, Damon. The Good Doctor. London: Atlantic, 2003.
Laurance Waters arrives at his rural hospital posting full of optimism. Frank, the disgruntled deputy, is forced to share his room with the new arrival but is determined to stay out of Laurence’s ambitious schemes. When the dilapidated hospital is looted, the two men find themselves uneasy allies in a world where the past is demanding restitution from the present.

Gordimer, Nadine. The Pickup. London: Bloomsburg, 2001.
When Julie Summers’s car breaks down on a sleazy street in a South African city, a young Arab mechanic named Abdu comes to her aid. Their attraction to one another is fueled by different motives. Julie is in rebellion against her wealthy background and her father; Abdu, an illegal immigrant, is desperate to avoid deportation to his impoverished country. In the course of their relationship, there are unpredictable consequences, and overwhelming emotions will overturn each one’s notion of the other.

Jooste, Pamela. Dance with a Poor Man’s Daughter. London: Doubleday, 1998.
Through the sharp yet loving eyes of eleven-year-old Lily we see the whole exotic, vivid, vigorous culture of the Cape Coloured community at the time when apartheid threatened its destruction. As Lily’s beautiful but angry mother returns to Cape Town, determined to fight for justice for her family, so the story of Lily’s past—and future—erupts.

Maart, Rozena. The Writing Circle. Pietermaritzburg: Shuter, 2008.
Five women gather every Friday night to discuss their writing. Isabel, returning home, where the writing circle are to meet, is attacked in her car at gunpoint and raped. But she manages to turn the gun on her attacker and shoot him. In coping with the killing, the disposal of the body, and the breakdown and recovery of Isabel, we learn about the intersecting personal lives of the women–Isabel, Carmen, Jazz, Beauty, and Amina, all successful professionals in today’s South Africa.

Magona, Sindiwe. Beauty’s Gift. Cape Town: Kwela Books, 2008.
Beauty’s Gift is a riveting, moving tale of how four women lose their best friend and how they decide to change the fate of their own lives as well as the lives of those closest to them. The FFF used to consist of Five Friends: Edith, Cordelia, Amanda, Doris and Beauty. But then Beauty suddenly becomes very ill, and after six short weeks, passes away. On her deathbed she begs Amanda to promise her one thing – that she and the rest of the FFF will not pass away prematurely like she is doing.

Mda, Zakes. Ways of Dying. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Toloki is a “professional mourner” in a vast and violent city of the new South Africa. Day after day he attends funerals in the townships, dressed with dignity in a threadbare suit, cape, and battered top hat, to comfort the grieving families of the victims of the city’s crime, racial hatred, and crippling poverty. At a Christmas day funeral for a young boy Toloki is reunited with Noria, a woman from his village. Together they help each other to heal the past.
Meyer, Deon. Thirteen Hours. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2009.
In Thirteen Hours, morning dawns in Cape Town, and for homicide detective Benny Griessel it promises to be a very trying day. A teenage girl’s body has been found on the street, her throat cut. She was an American—a PR nightmare in the #1 tourist destination in South Africa. And she wasn’t alone. Somewhere in Cape Town her friend, Rachel Anderson, an innocent American, is hopefully still alive.

Mhlongo, Niq. Dog Eat Dog. Cape Town: Kwela Books, 2004.
Dog Eat Dog is a remarkable record of being young in a nation undergoing tremendous turmoil, and provides a glimpse into South Africa’s pivotal kwaito (South African hip-hop) generation and life in Soweto. Set in 1994, just as South Africa is making its postapartheid transition, Dog Eat Dog captures the hopes — and crushing disappointments — that characterize such moments in a nation’s history.

Moele, Kgebeti. Room 207. Cape Town: Kwela Books, 2006.
Set in a block of dilapidated apartments in Hillbrow, an inner-city neighborhood in Johannesburg, this novel tells the story of six young men who will do anything—including hustling and conning anyone they can—to survive. Painting an engrossing portrait of the friends, it shows the hopelessness and despair of a group stuck in their position in life, having to compromise themselves to make a living and reach for their dreams.

Mpe, Phaswane. Welcome to Our HillBrow. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 2001.
Welcome to Our Hillbrow is an exhilarating and disturbing ride through the chaotic and hyper-real zone of Hillbrow—microcosm of all that is contradictory, alluring, and painful in the postapartheid South African psyche. Everything is there: the shattered dreams of youth, sexuality and its unpredictable costs, AIDS, xenophobia, suicide, the omnipotent violence that often cuts short the promise of young people’s lives, and the Africanist understanding of the life continuum that does not end with death but flows on into an ancestral realm.

Mzobe, Sifiso. Young Blood. Cape Town: Kwela Books, 2010.
Sipho is a “young blood”, a young man of the school-going generation caught up in a world of money, booze and greed. He lives in Umlazi, Durban – he is seventeen, has dropped out of school and helps out at his father’s mechanic shop during the day. But odd jobs underneath the bonnets of wrecked cars do not provide the lifestyle his friends have.

Ndebele, Njabulo. The Cry of Winnie Mandela. Claremont, South Africa: David Philip, 2003.
The Cry of Winnie Mandela is a powerful story that links the lives of four “ordinary” South African women with the life of Winnie Mandela. It is the story of five women who wait for their husbands during the long years of struggle against apartheid.

Scholts, A H M. A Place Called Vatmaar. Cape Town: Kwela Books, 2000.
A hundred years ago, a small settlement sprang up in the Northern Cape. A rich diversity of people moved in, as the children were born, Vatmaar became a village. A. H. M. Scholtz tells of Oom Chai, who in turn tells of a Vuurmaak, who in turn introduces someone else. Thus a chain of stories is created interlinking the fates of unforgettable characters like Lance-Corporal George Lewis and his Tswana wife, Rush, Sis Bet, Old Chetty, Hendruk, January, Tant Vonnie and her daughters as they recount tales of the Anglo-Boer War, the diamond diggings, court cases and stokvels: the tricksters and the tricked, marriages and funerals, love and betrayal.

Serote, Mongane Wally. Gods of Our Time. Randburg, South Africa: Ravan Press, 1999.
Gods of Our Time traces the latter years of the liberation struggle in South Africa and successfully conveys the bewilderment and uncertainty that were the experience of those involved in the historic events of this time. Unique in the multitude of characters who enter the pages in a seemingly random manner and then inexplicably leave again, the novel accurately portrays the surreal mood of the day when people really did come and go, frequently disappearing without a trace.

Van Niekerk, Marlene. Triomf. London: Little, Brown, 1999.
This is the story of the four inhabitants of 127 Martha Street in the poor white suburb of Triomf. Living on the ruins of old Sophiatown, the freehold township razed to the ground as a so-called ‘black spot’, they await with trepidation their country’s first democratic elections. It is a date that coincides fatefully with the fortieth birthday of Lambert, the oversexed misfit son of the house. There is also Treppie, master of misrule and family metaphysician; Pop, the angel of peace teetering on the brink of the grave; and Mol, the materfamilias in her eternal housecoat.

Vladislavic, Ivan. The Restless Supermarket. Cape Town: David Philip, 2001.
Set in Hillbrow during the tumultuous years of apartheid’s demise, the rapid changes taking place both in the neighbourhood and the country are charted by staid, conservative Aubrey Tearle, a retired proofreader whose life has been devoted to reading telephone directories. Obsessed with what he terms ‘corrigenda’––mistakes that crop up with increasing frequency as ‘standards decline’––he embarks on a grandiose plan to enlighten his fellow–citizens, with disastrous, hilarious and poignant results.

Wanner, Zukiswa. The Madams. Cape Town: Oshun Books, 2006.
Thandi loves her life. She loves her cute son Hintsa, her witty husband Mandla, her comfortably challenging work with the tourism board, and her best friends Nosizwe and Lauren. But she has to admit – its tough being Superwoman in South Africa today. Try being the perfect traditional wife and African mother at home, the perfect promotable black woman at work, and the perfect foil for her Benetton friends one black and Xhosa, one white and English! Thandi admits defeat and decides she needs that great South African bourgeois accessory: a maid. And since she doesn’t have the heart to boss about a sister in her own home, she decides it must be a white maid. Marita joining the household seems to disrupt the comfortable space Thandi, Siz and Lauren have settled into. The secrets of the three womens lives are dramatically exposed and they are forced to confront their assumptions about relationships, history and each other.

Wiscomb, Zoe. David’s Story. New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2001.
Unfolding in South Africa, at the moment of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1991, this novel explores the life and vision of a male activist through the pen of a female narrator. David Dirkse is part of the underground world of activists, spies and saboteurs in the liberation movement — a world seldom revealed to outsiders. With ‘time to think’ after the unbanning of the movement, David is researching his roots in history of the mixed-race ‘Coloured’ people of South Africa and of their antecedents among the indigenous people and early colonial settlers.


List courtesy of Good Reads.