Joburg Expat’s Book Recommendations

Like every writer, I’m first and foremost a reader, although my driver, cheerleader, house tidier, school clothes shopper, food shopper, lost and found checker, button re-attacher, cook, scheduler, pool cleaner, gardener, account manager, fixer-of-anything-broken, and social planner duties seem to eternally prevent me from really reading as much as I’d like. I can barely keep up with the news, and actual books seem to fade farther and farther away from the list of things I get to on a daily basis. When I do read, it’s often other blogs!

However, I’ve been trying to read the occasional book with an Africa theme, because I find it fascinating and because there is still so much to learn. And because I’m always more motivated to do things that I can then share with you! So, even though it is far from perfect and still growing, I’ve started a list of books for you – Joburg Expat’s picks – which you will find below. I’d love to hear your feedback and additional recommendations.

You can always find this list again – and please do check back occasionally for new additions – by clicking on the “Africa Bookshelf” Tab at the top of the page. I’ve also added an Amazon widget on the right which you can’t miss, as it is the only thing that “moves” on my blog. Please use those links, since (full disclosure) I am earning (teensy tiny) commissions if my links lead to any purchases, and I’m hoping that one day they’ll pay for a bit more than the occasional cappuccino to get me through my midnight blogging sessions. In fact, I would be eternally grateful if you used my links to go to Amazon for anything you buy, whether I recommend it or not:-). You should also know that I only recommend something if I personally believe in it. So if you’re ready to smack that Mandela-book, all 700+ pages of it, at the wall in frustration, you can totally blame me.

Cry The Beloved Country by Alan Paton

A must-read for anyone with an interest in South Africa, its history, and its race relations. Set in a time before apartheid was conceived, it is about the culture clash between rural blacks and their counterparts in the cities, about the conflicts stemming from a lost way of life that cannot be replaced and the inevitable tragedy this loss of values brings about. What I most love about this book is the almost poetic style of the prose, incorporating the essence of the Zulu language very well even though it is written in English.

West With The Night by Beryl Markham

This memoir is set in 1930s British East Africa (today’s Kenya). I love this book for so many reasons. It’s beautifully written, for one, and it describes Africa so accurately, even though it was written such a long time ago. A timeless classic.  What you should really do is read it, and then read Circling the Sun, which is another brilliant account of Beryl Markham’s life, yet tells the story in a wholly different perspective.  For a review of both books, click here.

The Power Of One by Bryce Courtenay

If you could only read one book about South Africa, then I would say read this one. It was also made into a movie with Morgan Freeman, but it’s not nearly as good as the book. It’s comparable to the Kite Runner, revealing key aspects of a country’s history and culture through a compelling story you won’t be able to put down until the end.

Movie: The Power of One

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

You have to be an ambitious reader to get through over 700 pages of this, but if you are, it is well worth the time to gain more insights into the anti-apartheid struggle and Nelson Mandela’s life. I wonder if this would be a good book to get from the library as an audio book for your car.


Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane

This haunting memoir offers good insights about township life and what it was like for a black kid to grow up during the apartheid years. I feel a special connection to it because it is set in Alexandra and features a youth’s involvement in sports as the ticket to a better life.

Kindle version: Kaffir Boy: The True Story 
of a Black Youth’s Coming of Age 
in Apartheid South Africa

Spud by John van de Ruit

I was made aware of this book by our two boys, who absolutely loved it. It’s actually a series of three books, all set in a South African boys’ boarding school shortly after the end of apartheid. It resembles the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, and, apart from its hilarity, makes you understand not only boarding school life but coming of age in this country. This is actually a rare instance where I think the movie (starring John Cleese) is at least as good or even better than the book, although it seems to be impossible to find in the U.S.

Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa by Peter Godwin

Another great read about growing up in Southern Africa. The setting for this excellent memoir is actually Rhodesia up until 1980, which of course is now Zimbabwe. But in those days Rhodesia and South Africa resembled each other in many ways and their history is intertwined. This book makes you sad about what was lost in Zimbabwe due to years of civil war and brutal crackdown, and hopeful that South Africa (so far, as some will fret) has chosen a different path.

Invictus: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation by John Carlin

I actually haven’t read this book yet, but put it on my list after reading the reviews, which all agree that the book is much more powerful than the movie (which I did see and liked). The story of the Rugby World Cup is just a thread linking various characters in this account of how South Africa managed to emerge intact from the dangerous years after the end of apartheid to become what it is today. I imagine reading it will further enhance (if that is even possible) my enormous respect for Nelson Mandela and his power not only to forgive but to convince others to do the same and come together as one nation.

The Bang Bang Club by Greg Marinovich



Again a book I’m only recommending based on the excellent movie I’ve seen. There is no better way to understand what South Africa went through in the early 1990s after Nelson Mandela’s release before elections were held. Where Invictus shows the “good” side of that process, this book shows the “bad” side of it, through the eyes of a group of photographers who chronicled the violence. It’s a haunting story.

Movie: The Bang Bang Club

The Native Commissioner by Shaun Johnson

Hauntingly beautiful, this story pretty much picks up where Cry the Beloved Country left off, when racial segregation is formalized into the policy of apartheid. It shows the struggle of someone who is trying to do good while working for an evil regime, becoming more and more conflicted about its morality and his own role in it. I’ve written a full review of it on Amazon.



For all my book recommendations, visit the Africa Bookshelf.

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