20th Century South African Fiction: A Chronology of Apartheid

South African Novels


Web Links

South African Novels

Gordimer, Nadine. July’s People. New York: Penguin Books, 1981.

An upper-middle class white family is at the mercy of their hired man, July, in a revolutionary world where apartheid has fallen. The reins of power shift as July takes the family from the capital city to safety in his village. The protagonist, Maureen Smales, who considers herself a liberal and a generous employer, now sees how tenuous the balance of power is. Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level: 6.8.

(Contains graphic descriptions of hygiene in a survival situation and a few scenes of marital sex.)  

Paton, Alan. Cry, the Beloved Country. New York: Scribner, 1948.

The classic story of Stephen Kumalo, a black minister whose son errs during the social upheaval in pre-apartheid South Africa. As Kumalo traces his son’s journey from rural village to a life of urban crime, he encounters the collective experiences of both blacks and whites in this explosive setting. Paton pleads for reconciliation of the races as both Kumalo and Jarvis, the father of the man Absalom accidentally kills during a robbery, come to terms wit the compassion necessary to heal their troubled land. Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level: 8.6. (The Center for Learning has a novel curriculum unit with handouts and suggestions for teaching.)

Wicomb, Zoe. You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town. New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1987.

A collection of 10 interrelated stories that together work as a novel. Frieda Shenton, the narrator, recounts her life as the child of a respected black teacher and his demanding wife through her early school days to college and beyond in South Africa and England. In middle age, now a writer, she confronts her family’s legacy and decides to return home to a changed South Africa. The stories can also be read individually. Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level: 9.8.

(Some students may find two of the stories objectionable. In “You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town,” the title story, Frieda insists on an abortion although her white boyfriend wants to get married. In “Behind the Bougainvillea,” she has indiscriminate sex with an old kaffir friend who had a crush on her in childhood.)


Apartheid, the legal system that called for strict separation of the races to preserve white supremacy in South Africa, began in 1948 and officially ended in 1991. These novels trace the chronology of conditions that led to apartheid to the changes in political and social conscience just before its repeal. Cry, the Beloved Country shows the escalation of racial tension among the English, Boers, and native peoples in the 1940s. The book was published in 1948 just before apartheid became law. Published in 1981, July’s People is Gordimer’s visionary world where apartheid comes tumbling down and roles for the races are reversed. Finally, You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town takes place as apartheid nears repeal; here, the author traces the changes in her protagonist’s life as restrictions gradually lessen and opportunities for “coloured” people become more open.

Although these books are on seemingly simple reading levels, the dialect, ambiguity of dialogue, shifting point of view and voice make them challenging. The ending of July’s People and You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town are purposefully ambiguous, posing a clear challenge for high school students. Paton and Wicomb include helpful glossaries of Afrikaans words, but Gordimer does not.



Suggested Student Activities  

As well as traditional essays on theme, plot, characterization, etc., the following assignments incorporate content areas for research, oral skills, group learning, and creative and practical writing:


  1. A class discussion on the challenging nature of these books is essential. What makes these novels difficult or ambiguous? Have students cite and then discuss sections where point of view, chronology, and setting change. Also look at examples of native dialogue that can be taken at different levels of meaning.
  2. Independent reading with weekly reader’s journals. Teachers could also require periodic in-class writing prompts such as conflict, theme, characterization, etc. with a final analytical paper on the student’s selected novel.
  3. Double entry journals. Student can select specific passages to analyze and discuss.
  4. Group research and cooperative learning. In groups of three or four including a cross section of members who have read each novel, students could be assigned or choose from related topics ( Ex. History of the Boer War, racial demographics of South Africa, DeBeers diamond industry, politicians pro and con apartheid.) Groups would report their finding to the entire class with posters, handouts, etc.
  5. Student research topics of students’ choosing. As they read the novels, students note what questions they have about South Africa and what they would like to know more about.
  6. Poetry on related themes. Pairs or groups of students could read and share South African or other African poetry on themes from the novels. A variety of websites include poems for free.
  7. Creative writing. Have students rewrite the endings of the novels. What if…? (Ex. What if the Smaleses had been a condescending, conservative family, and July was vindictive, not supportive? What if Absalom Kumalo had been found guilty of a lesser charge? What would he have done with his life? Write a non-ambiguous ending for Frieda Shenton. What really happened to her and her parents?)
  8. Editing/revision. Use Nobel Prize website to look up and print out Nobel lectures of African writers. Have students edit them by predetermined length. Students must decide on the main ideas and which sections have the greatest impact.
  9. Technical-practical writing. Write a letter from the protagonist to another character one year after the book ends.



Web Links for Teachers and Students



Homepage of African National Congress, South Africa’s National Liberation Movement. Weekly news updates and links to publications, maps, speeches, etc.



U.S. State Department’s consular information sheet on South Africa with warnings and advice for travelers.



Professor Ali Mazrui at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair launched the international compilation of " Africa 's 100 Best Books." This project was organized in collaboration with the African Publishers Network (APNET), the Pan-African Booksellers Association (PABA), African writers' associations, book development councils, and library associations.



Includes a list of 100 best African books over the past century selected by an international panel. Listed in alphabetical order by author, country or title. The list varies somewhat from the Columbia list. By clicking on an author’s name you can read an extract from the book.



Official site of Nobel Foundation. Simple and advanced searches available, with links to each Nobel laureate, including photo, biography, Nobel lecture and other resources. African winners are Wole Soyinka, Nigeria, 1986; Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt, 1988; Nadine Gordimer, South Africa, 1991; J.M. Coetzee, South Africa, 2003.







South African and other African poems by author.




South Africa: Authors Overview (Homepage also includes links to geography, history, politics, economics and more.)

Includes links to K. Sello Duiker, Athol Fugard, Nadine Gordimer, Manu Herbstein, Zakes Mda, Phaswane Mpe, Ezekiel Mphahlele, and Zoe Wicomb.