Eileen Battersby’s favourite South African novels

To mark Freedom Day in South Africa, the Irish Times literary correspondent offers her selection of its finest literary works


Today is Freedom Day in South Africa: April 27th marks the anniversary of the election held in 1994 when for the first time the Black majority had the chance to vote. It is 21 years today since that famous picture was taken of a smiling Nelson Mandela casting his ballot. The image seemed to promise so much, and it gave a new hope for Black South Africa.

Themes of racial inequality and a divided society have dominated the literature of South Africa written by white writers, many of whom came from Afrikaans, Dutch and other European heritage, as well as by Black writers.

African writing in general is noted for its rich humour, vitality and energy, yet many of the major South African writers are activists – they had no choice. They wrote great literature but most of all, they wanted it to be important, to tell “the” story, the truth. A strongly political sense of purpose dominates their work.

Consider the achievements of its two Nobel literature laureates: the formidable Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014), whose dramatic winning of the Nobel Prize in 1991 seemed to make the world stand still and think deeply, if only for a rare moment in time, and who set out from the outset to voice her opposition to the apartheid regime and a very different writer; and JM Coetzee, a literary artist, who won in 2003, master of the allegorical and one of the finest prose stylists in any cultures.

But one simple novel remains the most famous and enduring South African narrative to emerge on the world stage. In 1947, Alan Paton, a former science teacher, then principal of a reformatory for delinquent boys in Johannesburg, was sent by South Africa’s department of education on an investigative tour of prisons and reform schools throughout Britain, continental Europe and the United States.

While in San Francisco he was invited by one of the officials he met to stay at his home. Paton was touched by the hospitality and accepted, although his host was surprised that there was a condition. His guest insisted that the official would read the manuscript that Paton had been carrying around the world with him, working on it in his various hotel rooms. The manuscript in those pre-laptop days was handwritten. It had a working title; Cry, the Beloved Country.

The American read it and was deeply moved. Paton was under pressure to abide by his timetable; he had to return to South Africa and there was no time to make any revisions. The host’s wife offered to type out the manuscript. The couple went further and sent out the first five chapters to five US publishers, one of whom was the legendary Max Perkins at Scribner in New York.

By then Perkins was probably the most famous figure in US publishing with a string of authors including Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Edmund Wilson, Sherwood Anderson and Thomas Wolfe. No editor could match Perkins when it came to looking after a writer. But Perkins had aged; he was exhausted and his non-committal attitude left Paton bewildered and unclear. Perkins had also become deaf, which didn’t help, so Paton went home without a contract.

Then Perkins seemed to become interested and sent on a contract. The book was rushed to the printers and published more or less unedited. Its simple dignity stood by it.

Cry The Beloved Country by Alan Paton (1948)

The Rev Stephen Kumalo is parson of a poor Zulu village community in rural South Africa. At first glance, it seems a green, beautiful place, but the earth is barren and the reality is sombre; “They are valleys of old men and old women, of mothers and children. The men are away, the young men and the girls are away. The soil can not keep them any more.”

A little girl knocks at the pastor’s door, intent on delivering a grubby, much-handled letter, a letter which will change his life. A fellow churchman, based in far away Johannesburg, has written to Pastor Kumalo, telling him that he has met a young woman in difficulties, and that she is the pastor’s much younger sister, Gertrude. Out of concern, not censure, the Rev Theophilus Msimangu urges Pastor Kumalo to come to Johannesburg, where he will help him save his sister.

The pastor listens while his wife reads the letter aloud. The couple realise they must help rescue Gertrude, but the only way they can is by using the money they have been saving to give their son, Absalom, the chance to study at St Chad’s College. The pastor’s wife finally relinquishes the long-held fantasy that their son, who had already left home to live in Johannesburg, will one day attend St. Chad’s. As she points out wearily: “When people go to Johannesburg, they do not come back.”

Paton’s heartbreaking yet often movingly hopeful polemic is told with near-biblical simplicity in lyrical prose that is subtle and vividly physical. The narrative unfolds through a series of dramatic experiences foisted upon the gentle, increasingly bewildered and frail Kumalo, who accepts each new blow with philosophical dignity. His sister, whom he barely knows, is some twenty-five years younger than him; she has a child and is involved in prostitution. The poor old man is then faced with another sorrow; his long-missing son, Absalom, has been arrested for the murder of a white man named Jarvis who had tried to help the black majority, and whose home Absalom and his friends were planning to burgle.

Also involved in Absalom’s crime is Pastor Kumalo’s nephew, the son of the pastor’s ruthless brother, John Kumalo, a local political force of sorts who makes sure his son is cleared. John Kumalo makes no attempt to help Absalom, who is sentenced to death, while his accomplices are pardoned.

Paton confronts apartheid as an evil yet also shows the efforts made by both sides to understand race and also their respective abilities to forgive.

Kumalo, a weary, aged man at 60, returns to the village with his son’s pregnant girlfriend and his sister’s child. The murdered man’s father refuses to judge his son’s killers, and instead helps improve the life of the villagers. Yet Paton (1903-1988) has not written a naively idealistic fairytale. In the symbolic closing sequence, the pastor climbs a mountain before sunrise to pray on the morning of his son’s execution.

This is a towering work, written with courage and abiding belief in God as well as in human goodness. It is sustained throughout by Paton’s profound love for his tormented country. It is the first major novel of South African literature in English, and may have influenced J. M. Coetzee’s magnificent parable, the 1983 Booker Prize-winning Life & Times of Michael K.

A Dry, White Season by Andre Brink (1979)

This could well be Brink’s finest novel. A white South African investigates the death of a black friend in police custody. The obvious parallel is Donald Woods’ Cry Freedom about Black consciousness leader Steve Biko.

A Question of Power by Bessie Head (1973)

After establishing her forthright voice in When Rain Clouds Gather (1969) and Maru , Head, who had moved to Botswana, wrote her best novel, A Question of Power, in which a woman of mixed race comes to Botswana to escape apartheid. She becomes successfully assimilated into her new society yet cannot reconcile herself to being referred to as “mixed” back home. It is a novel of conscience and another character, an Afrikaner who has rejected his country, is also seeking liberation.

Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor (2001)

Shortlisted for the Man Booker, Dangor, the author of Kafka’s Curse (1997), told the story of Silas Ali, a former political activist, now a middle-aged civil servant working on the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Set in 1998, the action unfolds following a chance meeting in a street. Ali bumps into a ghost from his past, a retired security policeman. It revives something which Silas and his wife has been trying to forget for close on 20 years. The past begins to threaten their family life. Dangor exposes the heart of his society with a daring that even by the standards of South African writers leaves the reader shaken.

The Native Commissioner by Shaun Johnson (2006)

“On the morning it all started, I woke and sat in one moment. I remember the feeling clearly; it was as if I’d been propelled upright by a forklift. The sunlight was bouncing gently off the sea and feeding through the gaps where we’d closed the bedroom curtains haphazardly in the night. Outside it was warm and still with wisps of mist burning themselves off the ocean surface as the sun spread over the hills.”

It may seem a very ordinary beginning but this important novel is based on what happened when the narrator was given his father’s papers. His father had been murdered when the narrator was eight years old. The papers are not random heirlooms; they tell the story of what happened in South Africa during the 1950s and 60s. His father had been a Native Commissioner, disturbed by the amorality of what he was expected to do, enforcing a system he despised yet of which he was a part, a servant. This is a very good novel deserving of a far wider readership.

White Boy Running by Christopher Hope (1988)

Best known for his second novel, Kruger’s Alp (1984), with its flashes of surrealist humour, Hope is a sharp observer. His memoir, White Boy Running, written after returning to South Africa after a 12-year absence to observe the all-white election of 1987, caused him to revisit his past. The result is a study about having grown up in an asylum. No one sees the absurdity of life and particularly of life as lived in South Africa better than Hope does in this book.

Tsotsi by Athol Fugard (1980)

In common with fellow playwright Harold Pinter, who also wrote one novel, The Dwarves that also happened to be very good, Fugard’s Tsotsi is a riveting performance. The central character, a gangland thug, stalks the black ghetto of Sophiatown and shows no mercy. It is about the dispossessed as a chance encounter with a woman offers an expected redemption. With echoes of Dostoyevsky, this realist narrative originally written between 1959 and 1960 – again, about the same time as Pinter was experimenting in fiction – was left to one side for 20 years. It is far more than a literary curiosity. It is a study of the depravity of violence.

Letters to Martha and Other Poems from a South African Prison by Dennis Brutus (1968)

Written to his sister-in-law, this collection contains some of the most disturbing insights into prison life ever written. Brutus is a brave man, which may sound a simplistic statement, but he really stood to be counted and served hard labour for his opposition to apartheid. Also rewarding are Sirens, Knuckles, Boots (1963) and Stubborn Hope (1978). He possesses a rare fire.

The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer (1974)

Co-winner of the 1974 Booker Prize, this is Gordimer at her finest. Never one of the great prose stylists, there is a powerful directness and this is a beautiful work, her salute to the art of fiction, never mind the power of story. A wealthy industrialist is only interested in the privilege being white in a black country can give him, until the discovery of a dead man in one of the most remote fields in his 400-acre farm convinces him that ultimately Africa belongs to the black, not the white, who thinks mere money can buy it.

It is an extraordinarily thoughtful book, a most unexpected meditation. In person Gordimer was aloof, almost regal, cold and the detached side of angry. Interviewing her was like sitting an exam. Afterwards, though, she wrote me and said she was grateful to be interviewed about her books, and not just her politics. Among her finest novels are None to Accompany Me (1994) and, of course, Burger’s Daughter (1979). Writing and Living: 1950-2008 (2010) is a vast volume extending to more than 700 pages of non-fiction pieces in which Gordimer really explains the plight of her country and the history of the events that led it there.

Heshel’s Kingdom by Dan Jacobson (1998)

One of the most dazzling of family memoirs, which all begins when a Lithuanian rabbi dies suddenly, causing his impoverished family to emigrate to South Africa. Jacobson is a terrific writer, one of the unsung masters of South African letters who has yet to be sufficiently celebrated. His early novel, The Evidence of Love (1960), tells the story of Marker, Cape Coloured but able to pass as white, who comes to London and there falls in love with a girl from back home. Isabel is beautiful, rich and white. In England no one cares but in South Africa their love makes them criminals.

Mating Birds by Lewis Nkosi (1986)

Forbidden love between black and white is also the theme of this novel, the tone of which has drawn comparisons with Albert Camus.

White Lightning by Justin Cartwright (2002)

A man returns home to South Africa because his mother is dying. He also returns to his former life and memories including the death of his son. It shows the ordinary face of not only living but of South Africa. Always a shrewd, candid and kindly observer, Cartwright is that increasingly rare thing: a natural novelist.

The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut (2003)

Another master of understated, limpid prose Galgut is a sensitive writer with an astute understanding of the marginalised, the haunted. The Good Doctor is very much about a country in flux and brings with it a tension evocative of Graham Greene. The most useful advice is simply to read all of Galgut. Another work is The Quarry (1995) in which a minister of religion is killed on his way to a new post and the killer decides to steal his victim’s identity. One of his first duties is to perform a funeral service for the body found in mysterious circumstances. In common with Gordimer and of course Coetzee, Galgut is clear-eyed about the new South Africa.

Disgrace by JM Coetzee (1999)

Twice winner of the Booker Prize, with two of the finest novels ever to win it, Coetzee is a force combining eloquence and purpose with imagination. At his best, he has few equals. In addition to Life & Times of Michael K and Disgrace are In the Heart of the Country (1977); Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) and Age of Iron (1990), in which an elderly classics professor writes a letter to her grown daughter who has fled South Africa and now lives in the US. Alone and aware that she is dying, she discovers a homeless man who has taken up residence in her driveway. “There is an alley down the side of the garage,” she writes to the daughter, who obviously won’t care, “you may remember it, you and friends would sometimes play there. Now it is a dead place, waste, without use, where windblown leaves pile up and rot.”

And with that she goes on to describe finding the tramp living there. It is a novel which presents Coetzee at his most humane. Another intriguing work is The Master of Petersburg (1994), inspired by the life of Dostoyevsky. This is magical. Have we left the best to last? Possibly, and why not? It is also fitting that Coetzee, having written so much about his native country and done fine and honourable service, should then leave and move to Australia where he has been welcomed and is now an Australian citizen. Many of his books have been about South Africa,. This one is not; it is about the madness of survival. So there again, perhaps it is about South Africa.

South African writing is about many things. It is dominated by a colonial past and the evils it imposed. The European presence is evident in much of the work, particularly those by white South Africans. The Black writers bring a different dimension and there is also the complexity that their sense of Africa is far less ambivalent to a white reader. Most of all there is the undeniable fact that South African writers are also African writers and have a role within the wider area of African writing, one of the most exciting bodies of literature there is. More anon.

Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times

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