South African Women To Read


A list of some must-read books by South African women.

South African Women_The Book Banque.jpg

In South Africa, August 9 is celebrated annually as the National Women’s Day. It marks the day women united, in voice and in spirit, to protest the repressive pass laws—initially instituted for black men and then extended to black women—which restricted the mobility and economic freedom of black people in Apartheid South Africa. This day in 1956 saw 20,000 women march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, calling for the pass laws to be abated. In commemoration of this historic day, here are some must-reads by South African women, young and old, who have used their pen as a mighty sword in ways that inspire.


The Ones With Purpose

Nozizwe Cynthia Jele

Cover: Kwela Books; Image: Saaleha Idrees Bamjee.

This is one of my absolute favourite books to be published in South Africa in 2018. After a 10-year hiatus, novelist, Jele, delivered a book that presents a myriad of complex black family dynamics. It is centred around Anele, who loses her sister, Fikile, after she succumbed to breast cancer. She is then thrust into a position she had not entertained—one in which she has to become everything to everyone.

The Ones With Purpose is like delicate knitting. In it, Nozizwe Cynthia Jele writes as softly as she speaks. The painful incidents covered do not stab beyond recovery. Instead, Jele carefully rubs the reader’s wounds with her compassionate, non-abrasive writing style.


Cover: David Philip Publishers; Image: Adrian Steirn via 21 Icons South Africa. 

If there is a short story collection every (South) African needs to read, this is it. It is seasoned with history: life on train rides, black love in a time of resistance, and general community life in her era. What is more is that Tlali was the first black woman to be published in South Africa in 1989.

What strikes me about this book is the revelation that though South Africa has progressed past the period of pass laws, much still remains unjust. Lived experiences of disparity and discrimination are still writing books. In narrating her stories, Tlali also writes from a position of wisdom. This is displayed in sentences like “as you grow older, you learn the wisdom” and, in her words, ‘ho boloka khotso’ in a marriage.


Collective Amnesia

Koleka Putuma

Cover: uHlanga; Image: Elelwani Netshifhire.

Putuma’s debut offering is stacked with striking poetry that feels so familiar and relatable. At times, when reading, it felt like the author and I were raised in the same household. Some of the lines are punchy and daring, and leave you clicking your fingers in satisfaction. Lines like "Growing up black and Christian, the first man you are taught to revere is a white man" and "Madness sits at the dinner table, too, saying grace with one eye open" dance on the pages of the book.


The 30th Candle

Angela Makholwa

Cover and Image: Pan Macmillan.

It is hard to talk about South African fiction without mentioning Angela Makholwa. In a slightly corny move, I read The 30th Candle shortly before my 30th birthday. The book introduces you to four friends entering into the all-notorious age of 30. The friends—Linda, Dikeledi, Nolwazi and Sade—are at different stages of their lives and careers and, naturally, their lives prove to be messy. Through them, Makholwa skilfully entertains yet highlights valuable life lessons; rendering a fair representation of just how and amusingly unpredictable “adulting” can be.


Miss Behave

Malebo Sephodi

Cover: BlackBird Books; Image: Okay Africa.

The title of the book is borrowed from the ever-so-relevant and popular phrase, “well-behaved women seldom make history,” by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. In expressing herself as a black feminist in South Africa, Sephodi encourages the reader to do the same. In her words, shared in the introduction of the book, she is “attempting to reclaim her voice one word at a time and to live her truth to the best of her ability.”

What is, perhaps, key is, Sephodi’s accessible writing style about fairly complex issues; using conversational language and personal experiences, as opposed to an academic tone, as many books on feminism tend to adopt. The book tackles navigating male-dominated environments, sexism, what marriage really means for a woman, and, even, self-care.


Cover: Kwela; Image: Fungai Machirori.

As the title suggests, this novel takes place across three different cities—the latter two being in South Africa. London-based couple, Germaine and Martin, take on the land “alive with possibilities,” with their young son, Zuko, in tug. Family secrets and reminders of life’s regular clumsiness await them in South Africa.

The story ends with an unexpected twist, as things take a turn for the worse. For me, the ending induced a yell of horror. In a book club discussion with Literary Alliance, the author shared the ending as an intended reaction from readers, and a medium to highlight the state of the crucial issues she wrote about.

What are your favourite books written by South African women?

These books can be purchased online at Kwela or at these bookstores in South Africa:


Where To Read In Johannesburg

In 2017, we started a series on where to read in Nigeria. Extending the series to other parts of the continent, Phathu, a literary enthusiast and the co-founder of the Literary Alliance Bookclub, shares 4 recommendations on where to read in Johannesburg, South Africa. 


As someone on a mission to read 52 books this year, I can easily be found stuck in the pages of a book while nestled on my couch, or in between my sheets. Sometimes, being surrounded by familiar walls eventually gets a little tiring - even for a self-confessed recluse. The experience of reading a good book and glancing away, only on occasion, to enjoy frothy coffee or chilled wine is always a win. When reading needs to be done away from home, here are a few spots in Johannesburg that I enjoy visiting.


Bridge Books, Joburg CBD

Image: Bridge Books.

Image: Bridge Books.

If you are in downtown Joburg, Bridge Books has a great selection in African literature and doubles up as a coffee shop; serving some great cappuccino. The store boasts of beautiful reading tables that are customised with covers of some highly-acclaimed books such as Mohale Mashigo’s ‘The Yearning’ and Yaa Gyasi’s ‘Homegoing.’

Owned by the friendly and helpful Griffin Shea, the indie store is perfectly positioned on the bustling Commissioner Street, and is home to a diverse and delicious range of brand new and second-hand books. On a good day, a previously loved book on your to-be-read list can set you back only R20 (roughly 2 US Dollars) – a real steal by any standard! A bargain hunter like myself will definitely find Bridge Books a dream.

Joburg-based book clubs such as Literary Alliance regularly make use of the space, so, a random Saturday visit could result in you witnessing a passionate book discussion and perhaps, you meeting your favourite local author.

Tip: The second-hand books are right by the entrance. Start there and see what gems you can discover.

Go For: Books by African authors, children’s books, and coffee.

Avoid If: The busy Joburg CBD is not your cup of tea. Fortunately, they have another branch in Maboneng.


Exclusive Books in Hyde Park

A big fan of grounded coffee beans? Choose to wear your sweet tooth on your sleeve? Well, Exclusive Books is the spot for you! On any given day, you will find fellow bookworms occupying intimate reading spaces, or the more accommodative long reading tables that rest alongside bookshelves amassed with multiple genres of local and international books; some of which you can also find at their other stores nationwide.

There rarely is a shortage of good books to choose from, and I always stop by the delightful Pan-African section, which seems to improve with every visit. One of my favourite things to do there is sample books and authors I am curious about and keen on exploring. Even on a chilly day, everything above - coupled with the tasteful décor - is enough to tempt. My visits there are usually after work, which, fortunately, is a stone’s throw away.

Tip: There is a restaurant, EB Social Kitchen & Bar, adjacent to the bookstore. If you have time to spare, stop there for a quick bite. You could even buy a book and enjoy solo dining.

Go For: Good coffee and book launches.

Avoid If: You are on a sugar-free diet.


Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens

Image: Expedia.

Image: Expedia.

Sometimes, the outdoors provide a refreshing and even inspiring atmosphere to soak up nature’s goodness. When I manage to find time on a summery Sunday, I prefer to give the couch a break and lie on the grass to read. However, when I crave for a change of scenery, the tranquil Walter Sisulu Botanical Garden in Roodepoort gives the perfect opportunity to read and reflect in a picturesque environment.

The award-winning Garden makes for the ideal place for picnics, bird watching and hiking. It is also a great place to take some pictures to adorn your social media accounts. Naturally, some slightly distracting moments may grace you with their presence, though usually minimal: think of glorious birds chirping about, people enjoying relaxed strolls, and jovial kids running around. A pretty butterfly could also land on your book while you are looking away.

Tip: The Garden gets busy at times but if you take a walk around, you may find a quieter, intimate space to read. Entrance is between R15-50.

Avoid If: You are easily distracted and have a hard time locating your spot in a book.

Go For: A relaxed and breezy reading environment outside your comfort zone.


Sandton Library

If you are looking for a relatively peaceful location to read, a library is probably the perfect place. Just outside one of Johannesburg’s most loved tourist attractions - the Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton - lies the resourceful Sandton Library. With three stacked floors, there is ample space to get lost in your favourite piece of literature, or discover different titles. The library also affords you some privacy, which is extremely welcome; especially if, like me, you can only visit on a weekend when it is quieter. Sadly, drinks are not allowed inside, however, the peaceful environment allows for a productive reading session.

The library occasionally hosts book sales where you can grab a second-hand book for as little as R10 or R20 (roughly 2 US Dollars). Book events and launches are a regular sighting, too. The library is said to be home to over 90,000 books which readers in the community can borrow for an annual fee of R48. Be sure to take a copy of your ID and proof of residence to sign up.

Tip: The library has different operating hours on certain days; be mindful when you go.

Go For: A noise-free environment is not your vibe.

Avoid If: A noise-free environment is not your vibe.


A few other spots in Johannesburg that I would recommend are Book Circle Capital in Melville and African Flavour Books in Braamfontein — both of which specialise in African literature and have just recently opened.

Got any favourite reading or working spots in Johannesburg we should know about? Share in the comments and let us know what to look out for!