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Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

Cape Town is one of most uniquely beautiful cities in the world, a rugged coastal sprawl presided over by the imperious Table Mountain (named because it is flat-topped and perpetually shrouded in white cloud), full of gorgeous beaches, sprawling forest and vine-strewn valleys.

All that natural beauty, and a cultural reputation to match. Many of Africa’s most innovative contemporary artists can be found in the MOCAA, while Cape Town’s live music, bar and restaurant scene is second to none. 

And yet, as with many great cities, Cape Town is marked by terrible poverty, its infamous shantytowns a stark reminder to any visitor that, for all the political gains of post-athertid South Africa, much work remains to be done.

Here are five books that go some way to capturing the pride and shame, joy and pain of South Africa's ‘Mother City’.

 

Disgrace by J M Coetzee (1999)

Most novels, if they’re very good, capture something of the spirit of their age. Comparatively few can be said to take on fresh relevancy as those times change. Disgrace, J M Coetzee’s Nobel Prize-winning account of a disgraced Cape Town university professor, is firmly in the latter camp. David Lurie, the book’s middle-age protagonist, seduces a young student and is cast out of academic life when the affair is made public. Taking refuge outside the city in his daughter’s farmhouse, a shocking attack then takes place in which she is raped and Lurie struggles to deal with the aftermath.

When it was released twenty years ago, Disgrace was heralded as one of the great depictions of racial tension in post-athertid South Africa. That remains true, but today the surprisingly slim novel can also be read as a stoy about male entitlement and sexual abuse in the #MeToo age. The writing is superb – full of vivid, shocking flourishes and tight plot turns – while Lurie himself remains one of the most queasy creations in modern fiction. In the background is Cape Town itself: a city in a state of painful rebirth, still reckoning with its violent past.

 

Muriel at Metropolitan by Miriam Tlali (1979)

This trailblazing semi-autobiographical novel had a difficult birth. Written in 1969, it was rejected by publishers for six years before being banned shortly after it made it into print – already in censored form – in 1975. Nevertheless, Miriam Tlali’s account of her experiences of an office clerk was eventually published in full in 1979 and went on to make history as the first English-language novel written by a Black woman to be published in South Africa.

And what a novel. In it the narrator describes her daily working life at a furniture and electronics store, where the readers find a microcosm of the racial inequality prevalent throughout South Africa. Muriel’s white colleagues treat her with shocking levels of contempt, as do the police. In time these experiences lead to a political awakening and radicalises Muriel against the state, leading to a bold act of rebellion.     

Although technically set in Johannesburg, Muriel at Metropolitan is a landmark novel in the story of South African literature and an insightful human story that gives context to the political revolution that defines Cape Town’s modern history.

 

No Easy Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela (2002)

Many books and countless articles have been written about Nelson Mandela, but to read his own words is to get a sense of the intellect and charisma that drove him to become South Africa’s first democratically elected leader and the most famous figure in the country’s history. 

An obvious starting point is Mandela’s famous autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, which charts his childhood, his rise as a young anti-apartheid revolutionary, the famous 28-year spell in prison (where he wrote part of it in secret) and his eventual triumph as South Africa’s first Black head of state. 

But if bulky autobiographies aren’t your bag, we strongly recommend this collection of articles, speeches and letters that form a mosaic not only of Mandela’s life and thinking but the story of modern South Africa itself. The transcripts from his criminal trial are particularly fascinating, as are the reminders of his skill as a soaring political orator.

Life Times by Nadine Gordimer (2011)

“Short-story writers see by the light of the flash; theirs is the only thing one can be sure of - the present moment.” This is how 19991 Nobel Prize for Literature winner Nadine Gordimer described the area of her craft she perfected above perhaps all overs – although she also produced wonderful novels, plays and journalism over a celebrated writing career.

A life deeply entwined with South Africa’s modern history, she was active in the anti-apartheid movment, joined the African National Congress and even advised Nelson Mandela on speech writing when he was on trial in 1964. But it was her brilliant, incisive short stories, which moved deftly through all ranks and files of South African life, that won her literary fame with readers around the world, including from the pages of the New Yorker.

It’s a body of work that can seem as difficult to conquer as Table Mountain, so this collection is a great place to start exploring one of the South Africa’s finest fiction writers. 

Moxyland by Lauren Beukes (2008)

Lauren Beukes is one of South Africa's most experimental authors, lauded by both George R. R. Martin and William Gibson – themselves no slackers when it comes to shaking up a genre or two.

Her debut, Moxyland, is concerned with South Africa's future rather than its present or its past and is a technological dystopia that earned comparisons to Neill Blomkamp's hit film District 9 (itself set in Johannesburgh) when it was first released.

In Moxyland, a Big Brother-style government presides, everyone's phone has a built-in tazer controlled by the police and young 'influencers' sell their bodies and immune systems to soft drink companies. Beukes, a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, is a fantastic satirist and this is a story you'll remember for years to come.  

 

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