Books and literature in South Africa

South Africa has a rich literary history.

In terms of quantity, the literary output is relatively modest. However, in terms of its quality, influence and reach, South African literature has an important place in the world.

Though fiction is written in all of the country’s eleven official languages, most literary works are in English and Afrikaans. Out of 576 fiction titles of new and subsequent editions published in 2007, 444 were in Afrikaans, 84 in English, and the reminder in one of the African languages.

The diversity of cultures and languages in South Africa makes it difficult to speak about one national literature. The literary output of South African writers was especially resonant in its reaction to the policy of apartheid. Their contributions played an important role in the struggle against racial discrimination. Breyten Breytenbach was jailed for his involvement in the liberation movement; Andre Brink had his novels banned by the apartheid government.

The major themes in SA literature have not changed much since the abolition of apartheid in 1994; many writers are still exploring racial issues and re-investigating the past.

  • Olive Schreiner's novel The Story of an African Farm (1883) is generally considered as the founding text of South African literature.
  • Rider Haggard's mythical and adventure stories were enormously popular in 1880s; his most famous book, King Solomon's Mines, was filmed several times.
  • The first novel by a black South African was Mhudi (completed in 1920 and published in 1930), by Solomon (Sol) Thekiso Plaatje.
  • Probably the most famous South African novel to day is Cry, The Beloved Country (1948), written Alan Paton.
  • Nadine Gordimer was the first South African writer to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1991.
  • In 2003, another South African writer, JM Coetzee, became a Nobel Laureate in Literature.

Also see: Great writers of South Africa and 2007 PASA survey