All Gomorrahs Are the Same


All Gomorrahs Are the Same

A Socio-critical overview of trajectories of the ‘South African novel’, 2020 – 2023
Nhlanhla Maake
Nhlanhla Maake


‘South African literature’ is a phrase received over two centuries as an epithet which referred to a body of fictional works written in English. Subsequently, and with a degree of begrudging tolerance, it admitted literature written in Afrikaans, as the language developed its own literature as separate from Dutch. Literature written in languages other than these two, has historically been deprived of privilege of locus in this body of literature and canon. The nomenclature of literature written in the ten official Bantu languages, often referred to as African or Indigenous languages, was traditionally qualified by the language in which texts were written. It occupied third-class citizenship in the corpus of the so-called ‘South African literature,’ in the same way as the speakers of these languages. The conundrum of identifying literature written and published in South Africa by South African writers has not been an easy one to resolve. Attwell and Attridge observed in the introduction to their edited work, that: ‘The challenge of producing a collective description of south Africa’s literary past has given a rise to a series of particularly lively attempts over the past three decades […]’ (2012:3).

Professor Nhlanhla Maake is a language activist and senior lecturer at the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS) in Johannesburg, South Africa. He has published five non-fiction books and more than 20 fictional works in Sesotho and English, several accredited articles, radio plays, study guides, poems, polemical and position papers, and a memoir.

The phrase ‘South African literature’ is controversial, vexatious, and untenable. Firstly, it attributes a national character or characteristics to the literature referred to, or for that matter a leitmotif, within the European concept of a nation state. But most importantly, it obfuscates the flexibility and hybridity of identity, citizenship and nationality. Over decades this concept has often referred to literature written in English. To explain my rationale for making this assertion, I would like to take 1994 as a salient temporal geopolitical marker in the continuum of South Africa history. The concept ‘South Africa’ started evolving over the nineteenth century, but was only consolidated in 1909 when a draft constitution was signed. In 1910 the ‘four colonies became the provinces of the Union of South Africa, but the central government was legally supreme over all local institutions’ (Thompson, 1990:150), with a sovereign parliament.  

The Union remained a dominion of Britain and part of the British Commonwealth. From the onset, the government of the Afrikaner Nationalist Party which took over in 1948 set out to change the status of the Union. Thus in ‘1957 the Union Jack and “god Save the Queen” were finally abolished from official ceremonies. In 1960 a new decimalized currency of rands and cents replaced British sterling’ (Beinart, 1994:161). A fully-fledged Republic was formed, and it seceded from the British Commonwealth.

The Union and the subsequent Republic was a state that excluded most of the population because of their race. It denuded them of their inalienable human rights; rendering them de jure to the status of third-class citizenship, and de facto personae non grata. After a protracted liberation political struggle, eventually in 1994 South Africa became a real democratic state. All its inhabitants were recognised by virtue of a non-racial Constitution (1996) as full citizens.  This development and new status quo opened South Africa to the world at large, weaning it from its pariah status which was due to its apartheid past. This opening introduced complexities that were brought about by massive influx of migrants from other parts of the continent and the world, who came to settle in South Africa for different reasons. The immigrants were a miscellaneous group of people who migrated as voluntary professionals with scarce skills, refugees, and political asylum seekers. Over and above, there were also white-collar and blue-collar criminal syndicates in abundance, most of whom were attracted by the protection that the South African Constitution offered them. Thus, the criminal underworld in South Africa evolved to such novelty that it introduced crimes that were hitherto unknown. Some of these crimes, like the bombing of Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs) and high frequency  of CITs (Cash in transit) were sui generis to South Africa. The former criminal activity has been acknowledged by international policing and crime investigative agencies in the world, e.g. FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) in the US and INTERPOL (International Criminal Police Organization).

Coming back to literature, academics, intellectuals, writers of fiction and non-fiction, journalists, actors, painters, sculptors and film makers, inter alia, migrated to settle in South Africa when the post-apartheid era dawned. Some of them were naturalised and acquired permanent citizenship, and established themselves in and outside institutions of higher learning as lecturers, researchers, professors, full-time and freelance writers. Migration for economic reasons seemed to flow in one direction. This is explicable, in that globally populations tend to gravitate towards relatively strong, wealthy and developed economies (Masssey, 1998).

There are several levels in which the post-apartheid evolution above had an impact on the production of literary texts their content. Migrant writers continued to write their works as a continuum of their earlier works. These might or might not have been predominantly set in the milieu of their origin. Resettlement would most likely change the trajectory of their works, perhaps mostly thematically so, due to the influence of the new habitat, without necessarily breaking the umbilicus with their earlier works. Writers are adaptable, and can change trajectory and merge into their new landscape with dexterity, in a manner which might absorb them into the literature and canon of their host countries. This is not a new phenomenon but a common one among African writers who migrated to the New World and Old Worlds.

The new socio-political dynamics in South Africa would ipso facto be brought to bear in literary production. Above all, the settlement of migrant academics, writers and intellectuals and acquisition of permanent status inexorably embedded their work in ‘South African literature.’ This is the thrust of my opening argument, that the phrase ‘South African literature’ has become more complex, controversial and even untenable, as it has been over many decades. Another aim of this discussion is to challenge the historical paradigm that has prevailed since about the end of the Victorian era in South Africa, whereby ‘South African literature’ referred to literature written by the dominant English-speaking class, which later begrudgingly admitted literature written in Afrikaans, at the exclusion of works written in Afrikaans variations spoken by Black people. An example of this paradigm is conspicuous, for instance, in an essay entitled ‘Romance and the development of the South African novel’ (Rich, 1984), where his selection of novels is strictly that of white male and female authors, without mentioning even one black writer who wrote in English.

My hypothesis is that ‘South African literature’ is a misnomer, which presupposes a national character to the body of works so named. If the setting of the works so denominated bear certain local characteristics, this is merely coincidental and is overarched and overshadowed by the human condition: as stated in Montaigne’s most quoted statement: ‘Every man bears the whole stamp of the human condition.’  True to what Magaziner and Jacobs (2012) state: ‘South African problems are no longer specific to apartheid, but about more global issues of poverty and inequality.’

Concomitant to the past definitive paradigms was reference and definition of literature written in English by Black writers habitually and historically with qualification, as ‘Black South African literature in English,’ as evident in Mzamane’s essay entitled, ‘The use of tradition in orals forms in Black South African Literature’ (Mzamane, 1984). Mzamane’s essay is a critique of fiction written by Black writers exclusively, akin to Rich’s apartheid of his historicised critique of white writers in the same anthology. Manifest in the mindset of both critics is subliminal indulgence in practising segregation in South African literary canon. As for literature written in Bantu languages, it was rendered almost bereft of status, by either excluding it or placing it in the periphery of mainstream discourse, and rendering it almost bereft of gravitas. As Mhlambi keenly observed in the introduction to her seminal critique of Black television series: ‘The paralysing effect of this arrangement is that African-language literatures remain incapable of realizing themselves as, or of achieving a status of, pan-ethnic or national literature’ (2012:15). The writer, academic and literary critic, Andries Oliphant saliently observed what was true even throughout the twentieth century: ‘The three literary traditions in South Africa, issuing from three competing but inter-related paradigms marked the dominance of the British over the settled territories […] remained separate for much of the 19th century’ (2000:113).

The composition of the volatile and changing demographic, academic and intellectual post-apartheid geopolitics would inevitably have an impact on the thematic trajectory of ‘South African literature’ or the ‘South African novel’ and its definition, by broadening its hybridity. From this point I will use the epithet simply without quotation marks to avoid potential convoluted syntax and redundant implicit or explicit reiteration of my working definition, and avoidance of using clumsy phrases such a ‘South African literature by expatriates’ or ‘South African literature by non-native speakers’ or ‘South African literature by African writers,’ or any of such preposterous term.

I have selected a sample of novels of a little more than 30 authors published between 2020 and 2023, to undertake reviews and overviews of their novels. My selection encompasses authors whose novel were published in South Africa, irrespective of their national origin. My selection also includes texts written in Bantu languages. These comprise; two novels in isiXhosa (Ntwalana, 2020 and Maputi, 2021), one in isiNdebele (Ngcongwane, 2022), one in isiZulu (Sibiya, 2020),  one in Sepedi or Sesotho sa Lebowa (Thokolo, 2021), two in Sesotho (Lethola, 2021 and Seema, 2023),  one in Setswana (Bosilong, 2020). I read the original versions of these texts, and none of them has yet been translated into English. I find myself having no alternative but to accept the paradox that unfortunately most of the texts selected are written in English. This is a statistical imperative rather than a prejudice, because the annual number of texts published severally and jointly in Afrikaans and English far outnumbers those published in other languages collectively. Historical statistics yielded by research funded by PASA (Publishers’ Association of South Africa) on print revenue stood as illustrated in this table:


Table 1: Revenue from local titles, by format and language (R’000)
Afrikaans215 08078 830300 28113 984275 5897 897
English1 741 89212 8732 396 403259 9332 053 757148 999
isiNdebele 106 0798321 378121 210154
isiXhosa 40 9651 02036 4941 17749 495869
isiZulu 25 02637494 2681 20885 2541 816
Sepedi19 64549128 3451 85830 328869
Sesotho 59 12841123 54857122 8441816
Setswana9 59414260 34754867 070729
Siswati3 03496862334585
Tshivenda2 770143 402333 48924
Xitsonga10 989599 1171409 033621
Multilingual1 939 932 2001648267
Other1 3061816092121 01718
Total2 237 45095 3012 958 507272 1802 601 246163 722

(Le Roux, E., Harvett S. & Edgar, L. 2024. South African Publishing Industry Survey. 
Cape Town: Publishers’ Association of South Africa, p.6. 
This is a result of the asymmetry of education and access to means of production, a question 
which I will not address for the purposes of this discussion.)

There are a few variables and criteria which determined my selection. The first but by no means the primary and sole criterion is that the novels were written by authors who were either based in South Africa or published in South Africa by publishers whose domicilium citandi executandi is in South Africa, either as independent juristic persons or imprints of publishers based at home or abroad. Regarding writers, the idea of being ‘based in South Africa’ is ambivalent, in that writers are by nature restless, peripatetic and nomadic beings. I therefore took loose association and place of publication as a convenient variable. The second criterion is that the setting of the narrative of these novels are predominantly in South Africa. However, this criterion is merely coincidental to the first criterion, and has no major determining consequence in my sampling, even though the author’s locus obviously and often has a determining factor in the theme, setting and plot of their works. The plot tends to unfold centripetally (convergently) or centrifugally (divergently), with a linear or multi-linear structure and sub-plots. In examples of the latter the setting and milieu transcend national borders, namely, Langa’s The Language of the Soul, Ntabeni’s The Wanderers, Nyathi’s An Angel’s Demise and A Family Affair, Sithole’s The thing with Zola, Siwisa’s Paperless and Heyns’s Each Mortal Thing. The latter three partially so, in that the cross-border settings take place through ghost[ing] characters, i.e., those who are physically and dialogically absent from the main setting and their presence materialised by mention in the dialogue of characters who remained in the main milieu.

The main question and problem which this review and overview of the selected novels also seeks to contemplate concerns the thematic trajectory of literature published in South Africa after the statutory abolition of apartheid. Oliphant once pondered: 

One of the questions confronting writers from 1990 onward had been the question of what to write about once the dominance of political themes became less pressing and the over-riding urgency of providing political rhetoric in a changed situation of conflict less obvious. During the first two years of political transition, uncertainty about this question prevailed in literary circles. The issue of ‘where to now?’ was not confined to writing. The identity of publishing houses as producers of intellectual capital, who owned the publishers, what was to be published, how far publishing could become a transformative practice affecting things like schooling and literacy, literary writing and journalism […] (Oliphant, 2000:119).

Another literary critic, Njabulo Ndebele, referred to the literature of the 1980s, a decade preceding the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners in the following terms: ‘A very brief review of black South African writing in English will reveal a glaring history of spectacular representation’ […] (Ndebele, 1994:42). He goes on to say that: ‘We can summarise the characteristics of the spectacular in this context: The spectacular document; it indicts implicitly; it is demonstrative, preferring exteriority to interiority; it keeps the large issues of society in our minds, obliterating the details; it provokes identification through recognition and feeling rather than through observation and analytical thought’ (1994:49). Stephen Clingman regarded the 1980s and 1990s as an interregnum, where ‘the forms of South African writing began to cool, to take on more recognizable or even familiar shapes. But particularly in the 1980s we begin to see a more telling shift. And so we arrive at yet a further underlying pattern. Precisely because it was not clear how reality could or should be represented, some of the key writing of the interregnum moved from the representation of history, understood as a concern not so much with the past but with an unfolding present, which had perhaps been the dominant form of writing until then – into a history of representation, in which the problematics of representing the South African reality came to the fore’ (Clingman, 2012:635).

The content of this discussion will take a two-fold approach. Firstly, by giving the context of the works through a synoptic background of the publishers of the works sampled, in view of their aims, vision and mission statements. Secondly, to undertake a composite but synoptic analysis and interpretation of the novels, employing socio-criticism, sociology of literature, comparative analysis, structural deconstruction and explication (characterisation, narrative technique and authorial purview/perspective). My eclecticism mimics the analogy of a collage; it is a blend of the nomothetic  and idiographic in both its theoretical frameworks and sampling of texts. The preconception of this discussion is in concurrence with a composite set of five disparate theoretical propositions, that are paradoxically contradictory and reconcilable: 

First,  it is ‘the task of sociology of literature to relate experience of the writer’s imaginary characters and situations to the historical climate from which they derive [… and that the writer] has to transform the private equation of themes and stylistic means into social equations.’ (Lowenthal, 1957:10); second, ‘narration cannot be reduced to the mere organization of a set of preexisting narrative materials,  but the act of narrating in itself creates fiction [...]’ (Cros, E. 1983:94); third, a novel is a ‘“mirror journeying down the high road, […]” a direct reflection of various facets of social structure, family relationships class, conflicts, and possibly divorce trends and a population composition’ (Swingewood and Laurenson, 1972:13);  fourth ‘Devices of plot, narrative, and technique existed independently of external factors [….] they are self-determined use of material’ (Swingewood and Laurenson, p.59); and fifth, that: ‘The object of representation, the “devices,” do not represent some extraartistic value for its own sake. Instead, they make the work a self-contained whole and make the whole phenomenon being represented into a constructive element of this whole’ (Bakhtin, M. /Medvedev, M. 1985:47).  

A literary sociological reading of the texts selected provides an angle from which to unravel some detailed nuances of a brief historical period in South African history. This is by no means to postulate that the novel is an empirical enterprise, but to acknowledge that fiction and sociology are not mutually exclusive but symbiotic, as Hoggart put it: ‘without full literary witness, the student of society will be blind to the fullness of a society’ (1966:). I am also conscious of and reverential to the assertion that: ‘The work of literature must never become a mere epiphenomenon of its surrounding’ (Swingewood and Laurenson, 1972:18). I am working with these contradictions in mind.

Publishing contexts of the texts

As already stated, the selected novels span a period of four year, from 2020 to 2023. Most of the works were published by mainstream publishers and a few by independent publishers and self-publishers. I will take a survey of publishers who are in the list of selected works: Blackbird Books, Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd, Kwela Books, Longman, Macmillan and Pan Macmillan, Modjadji Books, Picador Africa, and Weza Home Publishing, in alphabetical order but not descending numerical order of importance.

Blackbird Books was established in 2015. The publisher has since its founding ‘been pioneering and establishing a home for new African narratives, especially for black authors, and has been:

concerned with stories that cut to the core and reflect the African experience. We provide this platform to brilliant authors, concentrating on young black authors, who would otherwise not have the opportunity to tell the stories that shape and showcase the  wealth of their African experience. We pride ourselves on being a launchpad for black narratives that would otherwise not get the attention they deserve. (

Jacana Media is about 21 years old. On its website it defines itself as follows: 

We are a ground-breaking and fiercely independent publisher, producing books in the field of the arts, natural history, lifestyle, fiction, South African history, current affairs, memoir and biography, children’s books and public health. We publish works from some of the most imaginative, award-winning and clear-thinking minds of our time. Our books respond to the challenges of the moment and certainly inform and frequently change the national conversation […]. We are now the only major South African publishing house that is independent and owner-managed […]. And through the Jacana Literary Foundation, we give voice to the unusual, the brilliant, the queer and the brave. It is our future after all. (

Kwela Books is an imprint of NB Publishers. The latter is a conglomerate of seven imprints. Their websites states that: ‘We are the largest local general publisher in the South African book market, and we are the market leaders in adult fiction, child and youth books, and non-fiction.’ They publish ‘primarily in English and Afrikaans’ and ‘to a lesser extent, books in the local languages.’ ( The reason for the ‘lesser extent’ part of their mission is left open to conjecture, but can be easily guessed, considering the table that I presented earlier. Mpe and Seeber (2000:31) point out that Nationale Pers, an Afrikaner-owned company which changed its name to Nasper in 1998, created Kwela Books as an Associate of Tafelberg, to publish non-commercial and primarily black authors in Afrikaans and English […]’.

Longman was founded in England in 1724 by Thomas Longman. In 1983 it merged with Maskew Miller, which was established in Cape Town in 1893, to form Maskew Miller Longman and traded as Maskew Miller Longman (Pty) Ltd in South Africa. It is now part of the Pearson Group, a subsidiary of Pearson plc. The imprint presents itself as ‘one of the oldest publishing houses in South Africa [which] was established in 1893 and is the biggest educational publisher in the country with a market share of 20 – 35%.’ The publisher’s aim is: 

To uplift, develop and advance learners by being the leading provider of innovative, trusted and quality educational content and resources. We publish in all 11 official languages and  have the widest range of CAPS-approved [Curriculum Assessment Policy Statement] content trusted by teachers’ ( and

This merger points to what Mpe and Seeber (2000:30) observed, that it was ‘an attempt to consolidate their position within the school textbook market, a position almost impossible to maintain due to the  prominence of the subsidiaries of Nationale Pers (Nasper), as well as HAUM-De Jager and Perskor.’ The two companies ‘became positioned strategically within the generally perceived emerging adult literacy and education market,’ observed Mpe and Seeber.

Modjadji Books was established in 2007, and describes itself as ‘an independent feminist press that publishes southern African women writers. Modjadji Books fills a gap by providing ‘a platform for serious and ground-breaking writing by new and established women writers with brave voices.’ The publisher observes the context of its establishment in the following statement:

The history of publishing in South Africa is enmeshed with the culture of resistance that flourished under apartheid. The literature of the struggle for liberation may have emerged from the underground, but women’s voices and particularly black women’s voices – are still marginalized. Modjadji Books addressed this inequality by publishing books that are true to the spirit of Modjadji, the rain queen: a powerful female force for good, new life and regeneration (

Although there is no mention of Virago Books, it seems the vision and mission of Modjadji is in sync with this publisher, who states: ‘Since we began in 1973, our mission has been to champion women’s voices and bring them to the widest possible readership around the world. From fiction and politics to history and classic children’s stories, our writers continue to win acclaim, break new ground and enrich the lives of readers. More recently, as part of our commitment to an ever more inclusive feminism, we also publish and welcome submissions from writers of underrepresented genders (

Picador Africa is an imprint of Macmillan and Pan Macmillan, which  was established in 2004. Its aim is to ‘raise awareness of the creativity of South Africa’s people, and to showcase South Africa’s literary prowess. The focus are non-fiction memoirs and commentaries, award-winning, well-crafted fiction.’ ( To avoid entanglement, we shall take the phrase ‘South Africa’s people’ on face value, perhaps in line with the Freedom Charter, a document consolidated and highly influenced by Lionel ‘Rusty’ Bernstein (Bernstein, 2017), that ‘The land [South Africa] belongs to all who live in it. (

Weza Home Publishing describes itself as ‘a local South African company, based in Centurion, that is 100% black-owned and operated. It was founded by Mpho Motlhodiemang who has 16 years of publishing experience maintaining a strong focus on African Languages’ ( Unfortunately, the shortcoming in their publications, if the novel selected is something to go by, is that the work was not typeset, and the page margins  are not aligned. This is a serious breach of conventional practice in book publication.

Collocational phrases in these publishers are: ‘brilliant authors,’ ‘most imaginative,’ ‘award-winning,’ ‘clear-thinking,’ ‘unusual,’ ‘brilliant,’ ‘brave,’ ‘powerful,’ and ‘well-crafted.’ These descriptions connote maintenance of high standards of innovation and creativity. In terms of language, publications are predominantly in English, followed by Afrikaans, and two publishers accommodate ‘local’/ ‘African languages. Age (new and veteran writers), race (restriction to black ‘voices’) and gender (discrimination by publishing works written by women in one instance and openness to LGBTQ+ in another) are prominent ideological markers of orientation and bias in these publishers’ stated objectives.

In the history of publishing in South Africa, there were publisher’s whose mandate was to publish material, fiction and non-fiction, which challenged apartheid, the most prominent among these were, Skotaville Publishers and Ravan Press. These stood in binary opposition to government-sponsored publishers such as Nationale Pers, already mentioned earlier. The publisher was ‘wholly Afrikaner-owned’ and ready to publish schoolbooks whose uncritical approach to apartheid ideology posed no problem to the State […] and the books they produced were considered “safe” by the State’ (Mpe and Seeber, 2000:19). This history is discussed in detail by Mpe and Seeber in the text quoted above. My purpose was simply to give a brief synchronic overview with narrow reference to publishers of the selected novels. Complexities which characterise this history; concerning colonialism, ideology, censorship, collusion with the apartheid government, marginalization of African languages, etc., was undertaken by Oliphant, and he correctly observed, inter alia, that ‘Publishing in South Africa, from its inception in the 17th century, first under Dutch colonialism and then under British imperialism, was premised on the strict, if not total control and distribution of literature in all its forms’ (Oliphant, 2000:110), and that: ‘Today, English publishing consist of a range of locally-owned as well as multi-national companies, many of whom focus on educational publishing’ (Ibid., 117). This statement still holds, two decades after Oliphant pronounced it.

Analysis, deconstruction and explication of texts

I find the most convenient way to start this section is to discuss narrative techniques because one can make reasonable and tenable generalisations about the corpus of novels selected for study. Then theme, plot and characterisation will be  addressed, textually, contextually and intertextually, as determined by the theoretical frameworks that I promised to adopt, which make it imperative to refer to specific texts as their exemplars. Overviews and reviews are vulnerable to oversimplification, and this is a risk that I take consciously.

The novels selected collectively cover a wide spectrum of themes, which could be summed up as; identity, race, class, gender, generational gap, human rights (freedom of movement expression, and association), oppression, crime and greed, migration, exile, violence, exploitation, ethnocentrism, greed, and the almost ubiquitous, love (amor omnia vincit). An obvious point to make is that one cannot suggest that one work cannot encompass all or several themes, but my approach would be based on what can arguably be regarded as a major theme in each work, admitting that this can also be a subjective view. The only justification is that if one were to eschew the convenience of such an approach, one is likely to stagnate in ‘paralysis by analysis’ and hardly start to engage with the texts.

The novels selected have adopted narrative perspectives which use one of the following:  narrator-protagonist, I-narrator, omniscient narrator and direct observer, while a few of them employ multiple narrative perspectives. In all the works time is linear, plot-wise, with use of flash-back and reminiscence in a few instances, and to the least extent flash-forward and dreams. Realism is the most dominant form in most of them, except for Breasts, Etc,. (Mohlele, 2023), which embeds surrealism and magic realism in the unfolding of the plot through the protagonists’ imagination or hallucinations. Some use the technique in the form of dreams, which are para-integral to the plot of the story. Analysing and comparing over thirty works is a complex task which has potential to degenerate into generalisations, not to mention potential incoherence, if not madness. To mitigate this complication, I will try to put method in the madness, by way of distinguishing the novels in to theme-plot-protagonist categories, without necessarily pigeon-holing them.

The categories that I have formulated are: Physical and figurative journeys; Family and/or Intergenerational tensions; Culture, Identity, Race, Ethnicity and conformity; Home and exile; Political tensions and conflict; Oppression and freedom; Intrafamily and communal conflict; Political conflict; and Gender and LGBTQ+ and human rights, and crime and the underworld. Obviously, there are overlaps among some of these categories. I propose to discuss the texts in the order of this list. I will use this table for my hypothetical thematic categorization to avoid a ‘stream-of-consciousness’ flow:

When the Village Sleeps; Bahwa, Bohwa le Setšo; Lewa le Ole; Two Tons O’ Fun; Uhlobo luni lomfazi olu? and In the Shadow of the Springs I Saw. Culture, identity, race, ethnicity and conformity.
Critical But Stable; Inhlungu Yevezandlebe; A Family Affair;  Dimakatso Bophelong; All Gomorrahs are the Same; Suitcase of Memory; Born Freeloaders; and  Reggie & Me.Intrafamily, intergenerational and community tensions.
The Wanderers; The Lost Language of the Soul; The Other Side of Darkness; Sanity Prevail; E Kallwa ka Mosokwana; Veil of Maya; and Not to Mention. Physical and figurative journey.
Paperless; The Wanderers; and The Lost Languages of the Soul.Home and exile. 
An Angel’s Demise; The White People, and They Got to You Too; Here comes the Gay King; Inkululeko Engakhululekile; Each Mortal Thing, and Dreaming in Colour.Political conflict, oppression and freedom, and human rights.
Three Bodies and The Good Nigerian.Crime and the underworld.
The Thing with Zola; Christopher; Kuyawush’ Imifula, and Here comes the Gay King.Love and romance.

(The above thematic categorisation is simply for convenience because the works transcend unitary themes and bear several strata. Some of these, for instance, Nyathi’s An Angel’s Demise, cover a multiplicity of themes. Other examples are Siwisa’s Paperless, Ntabeni’s The Wanderers, Langa’s The Lost Languages of the Soul, which can also be classified under political conflict, oppression and freedom but not necessarily with layers of thematic multivocality as Nyathi.)

This categorisation has avoided classification according to type of genre, because while some novels transcend one category, most are typological; crime thriller/suspense, whodunit, detective/mystery (Three Bodies, The Good Nigerian, and Serpent Crescent), romance (Here comes the Gay King, The Thing with Zola, Christopher, and Kuyawush’ Imifula), science fiction and fantasy (The White People), historical novel (They Got to you Too), picaresque, and horror. I eschew the myth of South African exceptionalism which has been perpetrated in the last thirty years (Lazarus, 2004 and Magaziner & Jacobs, 2015).

Culture, identity, race, ethnicity and conformity

The Lost Language of the Soul by Mandla Langa

A boy in his early teens sets out on a dangerous odyssey that is triggered by the mysterious disappearance of his parents. His survival skills as a trained guerilla fighter are stretched to maximum capability as he traverses treacherous places, where he contends with friendly and empathetic hosts, and unpredictably malevolent people. The narrative describes every landscape and characters and their clandestine motives in such detail that the reader is taken through forests, rivers, gorges and hidden villages. Danger and death lurk everywhere, but Joseph Mabaso is a survivor. He eventually makes it to South Africa, where his life becomes entangled in local political activities. The story acquits the author as a master storyteller. However, towards the end the thread of the plot becomes weaker and loses depth as more characters populate it.

When the village sleeps by Sindiwe Magona

The plot sketches the story of a family whose lives vacillate between rural and urban life, reflecting on Indigenous traditions that have been eroded by urbanisation and modernity. The character who emerges from the onset is the intractable Busi, the daughter of an unmarried and irresponsible woman, Phyllis. The intractable Phyllis lives in the backyard of her sister’s place, Lily. Their mother, Khulu, retires to her rural home, thus life between the urban and rural connections of the family is founded. The author has integrated these in a tight plot that holds every aspect together; characterisation, plot, story and setting.

The interludes of the voice of the unborn, disabled and clairvoyant child, Mandlakazi, are a prediction of her birth and what she would achieve. They are also a barometer by which standards of unanchored life are critiqued. At the beginning of the narrative the family is falling apart, each member pulling in his and her own direction. Ironically, it is the most troublesome Busi, who gives birth to a child who eventually brings about unity in the family and redirects the welfare of people who live with disability and are marginalised by society. Mandlakazi awakens their consciousness, to wean themselves of dependency, and help others. The interludes sadly predict her tragic death. But by the time is happens, close to the end of the story, her achievements are herculean, and the organisation that she has started, YoFop (Field of Hope) thrives. The story is driven by intense characters, even though at times the main theme is foregrounded ideologically, breaking veneers of subtlety.

Bahwa; Bohwa le Setšo by Molebogeng Thokolo

The author has worked on subjects that are above ability to tell a story, She loses control of the plot and does not seem to have sense of difference of genres, e.g. short story, novel, essay, etc. In most instances characters are ciphers to express superficial opinions.

Lewa le Ole by Molebatsi Bosilong

This novel is a story of a young man, Basiame, who quarrels with his uncle, Mathata, for inheritance of the family’s cattle. Another uncle, Moeketsi, is placed in a position to resolve this conflict. The conflict is intensified against Mathata because he has just come out of jail and wants to marry a boy that he lives with. A promising plot is spoiled by change of narrative perspective and slow dialogues that take a whole chapter instead of a few lines. The story proliferates into extravagant sub-plots and flashbacks, with Covid-19 thrown in the mix, a feeble attempt complicates the story unnecessarily with LGBTQ+ theme. Given the title Lewa le Ole (‘the die is cast’ or ‘the bones have fallen/ spoken’), a ngaka (traditional healer) predictably turns up in Bokamoso’s life to help him but disappears from the plot without any relevance to the story.

Two tons o' fun by Fred Khumalo

The novel tells an interesting and inspiring story of the narrator-protagonist, Lerato, a girl who is born and bred in Alexandra Township, a slum area just outside Johannesburg. She steadily grows into consciousness and desire to become knowledgeable and starts off on an arduous journey of self-knowledge and social upward mobility. The theme celebrates the courage and magnanimity of two middle-class females, mother and daughter, who spark inspiration to self-knowledge and understanding, and the power or reading and writing in the protagonist. Gugu and Janine single out Lerato among four friends, and she becomes their mentee. Her mother, June-Rose, also plays a pivotal role, albeit unwittingly, in setting her daughter on the way to self-knowledge, through her own change of life from criminal habits. There are of course other circumstantial reasons for her metanoia. While this is her story, her friends move parallel with her, on their own way to maturity.

All the central characters of the narrative are female, and elderly men walk in and out of the story like intruders, whose role seems to be simply to populate the story like unwelcome visitors who impose themselves obtrusively on the plot. They sometimes read like appendages whose absence would have by no means weakened the plot or be missed. They are caricatures used to dramatise murder and murdering, and ‘typical township life.’ Some of these characters are Xesibe (a religious bigot), Bra Vic (ageing gangster and township capo), MaRazor (thug and rapist), Moroke and Victor Raseroke (murderers and ex-convicts), Mailula (an indifferent bureaucrat who is meant to typify the lethargy of civil service) and Chigumburi (an innocent Zimbabwean expatriate who is persecuted by some errant locals).

The story is narrated lucidly in depiction of the milieu, portrayal of characters, and description of events. However, there is a flaw of narration which is sustained throughout the story and is blatantly conspicuous; characters tend to speak like the narrator. This renders the tone of the story discordant and unconvincing, in a manner which continually dislodges ‘suspense of disbelief.’

The story stretches itself by obviously trying to handle too many themes and seems to argue by polemic rather than storytelling; power of reading, writing and knowledge, sexual abuse, traditional healing, poor service delivery, so-called xenophobia, personal rehabilitation (June-Rose), teenage or unplanned pregnancy (Matlakala), traditional healing practices (Mhangwane, Mikateko’s mother), bigotry, arrogance, ethnic superiority complex, duplicity and hypocrisy (Xesibe), gangsterism (Bra Vic), neglect of township (rats), (social responsibility (Gugu), abuse of political power in troubled times (Steven), pitfalls of polygamy (Gugu’s absent dad), courage of changing not only oneself, but remaining in dire conditions to change them. There is manifestation of the narrative’s failure to distinguish voices of characters from each other, and there are conspicuous instances of stylistic inelegance.

They Got To You Too

Futhi Ntshingila | They Got To You Too | Simon & Schuster | 200 Seiten | 17 USD

They Got to You Too  by Futhi Ntshingila

The captivating story of two people whose lives meet by serendipity. The narrator-protagonist is a ‘madala’ (old man) who takes the reader down memory lane. He was brought up by a nanny, Kristina, and his granny (grootoumatjie). He worked as a police officer and later became a soldier and senior officer. He was involved in the Angolan war and that past haunts him. When the ANC government took over, he was retained in service through the administration of Mandela, Mbeki, Motlanthe and Zuma. Young post-1994 newcomers took well to him and called him Comrade Madala. He has a son who disowned him. Now he is ailing and erupts into bouts of volatility.

After eventually taking retirement, the old man ends up in an elderly home, headed by Ms Rajah. He has bad nights, but when Zoe arrives to be his night nurse, they strike rapport, and he becomes calmer. Zoe works six months as a nurse and travels for six months, writing travelogues and earns a lot of money. When he relaxes and tells Zoe about his past adventures, the story has a gripping and captivating intensity that it becomes difficult to stop reading, until the curtain goes down with the celebration of madala’s 81st birthday. The story establishes and sustains taut expectation of some pending revelation, and when it comes, it is as surprising as the story coaxed one to anticipate it, and at the same time unpredictable.

Intrafamily, intergenerational and community tensions

Critical But, Stable by Angela Makholwa

The novel revolves around a middle-class family, whose life and activities are based on material wealth, comfort and hosting parties to flaunt their bourgeoisie trappings. The Manamela family (Noma and Julius, with a fancy name like “The Duke”), reach the milestone of the twentieth anniversary of marriage. They and their offspring are the fulcrum of the plot. Debt over properties and funds missing from banking accounts become the cause of tension in the family. Other sub-themes such as sexuality in marriage (Lerato and Mzwandile) same gender marriage (Tom and Paul) are dealt with sympathetically, extramarital affairs (Lerato and Lawrence), immoral business trade-offs (Solomzi and Serame), crime revived from the past (“The Duke” assigned to execute a heist Danie Wieser), whodunit motif (Lerato’s mysterious death in Lawrence’s apartment), and police investigations (Sergeant Kgomo and Sergeant Ndyondya) emerge. The work will find a warm welcome among readers whose interest is in middle-class cant and contradictions of their ostentatious lives. It is a light-weight narrative, entertaining but not engrossing.

Intlungu Yevezandlebe by Yamkela Ntwalana

The story opens with the narrator-protagonist attempted suicide. Towards the end we are told of another attempt at suicide, which may as well be the same scene opening scene repeated. The plot is stagnant. It keeps harping on one point ad nauseum, that Sicelo does not belong to the family, he is ‘ivezandlebe’ (a bastard). His siblings persecute him for that reason. Despite persistent persecution and their attempts to evict him from the family home after their parents died, he insists on staying, without any apparent or justifiable reason, not even for the reader to infer. Even when he is standing on his feet, is employed and seems to be more well off than his siblings, he persists on staying where he is not wanted. This is just a transparent technique to prolong the plot, without necessarily intensifying it.

Everything circles on this issue of the protagonist being a bastard, until the secret of his birth is revealed in the last chapter.  Sicelo gets into trouble under contrived circumstances, an easy way out for the author/narrator, and in a trial for murder he is acquitted of because of presentation of a video that was taken by one of the spectators in a dramatic scene. It is not even clear how this is admitted as evidence in the trial. This novel would have done better as a short story of no more than twenty pages, but the plot is protracted without an absorbing story. In the foreword the author explains that this story is meant to depict how ‘amavezandlebe’ are always treated badly in families, as the title suggests, ‘the trials and tribulations of a bastard child.’ The narrative does not support this noble intention in a creative manner which engrosses the reader. It is a drawn out ‘intention.’

The book is not typeset, the front and back covers are work of amateurish complacence and embarrassing. The purpose of the glossary at the end of the book does not to serve a useful purpose. The table of contents is decorated with unconventional layout extravagance. This book should not have been published, let alone be released to the public.

Born Freeloaders by Phumlani Pikoli

The places in which Gen Z characters traverse are a patently realistic geographical map of Pretoria and its surroundings. Interludes used are poetic and highly symbolic and pose a stark contrast to the frivolity of the acts and behaviour of the youthful characters, who are offspring of opulent upper middle-class families. Their parents range from professionals to the President of South Africa. The youngsters portrayed are indifferent to education and insensitive to social and political issues that are the signs of the times. Unfortunately, the narrator’s style lacks critical nuances and undertones. The interludes, however, underline the contrast between parental wisdom and indifference of youth. The only problem is that the interludes do not fit as an integral part of the story, even though they somehow redeem the work from lack of gravity. It is a work that is good for casual reading.

A Family Affair

Sue Nyathi | A Family Affair | Pan Macmilan SA | 466 Seiten | 236 ZAR

A Family Affair by Sue Nyathi

The narrative is a subdued critical reflection on post-independence Zimbabwe and the effects on its political economy, middle class decadence, bigotry, and patriarchy. The story’s novelty is that it reflects on the effect of the economy, especially on the poor, by paradoxically portraying a wealthy and extravagant family, as a mirror image or antithesis of the poor, whose lives are hardly depicted in the novel, except one or two peripheral characters who get connected to the family through marriage. Whether the paradox works is an open question. The plot has an intricate network of love affairs and jilting, teenage pregnancy, cohabiting, one successful and several failed marriages, all revolving around the Mafu family, headed by Abraham Mafu, a domineering man who turned church owner and pastor after a life of adventures. Chapter titles are brief and sometimes witty. However, in certain instances they give away the plot of the chapter after one has read the opening lines. Consciousness of Gender Based Violence (GBV) is one of the central themes.

The novel has the potential to raise consciousness about post-independent affluence in Zimbabwe, and cultural issues that permeate relations and influence across social classes, hierarchy of influence among extended families and question of choice of marriage versus celibacy, irresponsibility of men when it comes to impregnating young women or girls (‘damaged goods’), free choice on abortion (‘marriage is a status’), domestic violence portrayed through Yandisa’s and Wesley’s life, and extramarital affairs which end up in her violent death by her husband. It is a narrative worth reading, but not as captivating as the author’s following novel, The Angel’s Demise, which I touched on earlier.

Dimakatso Bophelong by Mohlauli Lethola

The plot follows misfortunes of an orphaned girl, Ntshediseng (alias Tshedi). She is perfect beyond imagination, like a fairy-tale maiden. Her parents are not educated but want her to be educated. They send her to live with her uncle's family to enhance her chances of getting a better life. The uncle and his ugly and evil wife, Mmatolodi, live with their three daughters. They adore Tshedi, but their mother hates her. Tshedi is put through a difficult life but does not only eventually survive but triumphs. After high school she gets a scholarship to study medicine abroad, a place which is vaguely described as "mose ho Aforika" – outside Africa. After graduating she returns home and takes a job as a doctor in a government hospital and is destined to live happily ever after. The story on the Cinderella motif.

There are many spelling errors in the novel: pp. 35, 36, 37, 38, 42 (3x), 46, 47, 49, 54, 55, 62, 63, 68, 69, 73, 80, 84, 94, 95, 98, 99, 108, 109, 115,126,131, 137, 151, 153 and 164. The author has good command of Sesotho, with a tendency to overuse proverbs. The narrator is undecided whether the setting is in the wilderness of the turn of the nineteenth century when cannibals roamed forests and lived in caves or the landscape of the twentieth century.

Reggie & Me

James Hendry | Reggy & Me | Pan Macmillan SA | 256 Seiten | 250 ZAR

Reggie & Me by James Hendry

The story is set in the suburbs of Johannesburg in the 1990s, in one of the prominent private schools. Its Dickensian description of the city scape carries the reader into the narrator’s intimate knowledge and understanding of Johannesburg and its middle-class family life. The plot moves out of this setting on no more than five brief sojourns of the protagonist’s family when they go on holiday out of Johannesburg. The style flows with umpteen purple patches of humour and pleasant melodramatic and hyperbolic descriptions. It has the magnetic force of holding the reader hostage.

Although the story is about the first born in a family of two boys and one girl, the turbulent relationship between him on the one hand and his parents and school authorities on the other, The narrator introduces black African characters (Tina the house mate, Robert Gumede the rebellious but high performing African student and a white private school and Ms Vuyelwa). Ms Vuyelwa, strong as she seems as the only Black female person in a white school, tempts the reader to cast her as a stereotype, a Black graduate who enters a white middle-class school to teach isiZulu and nothing else. Besides this minor flaw, the story is mesmerising to the last page. The erudition of the story and sensitivity to racial nuance is solid and bear the magnetic force to keep the attention of the reader unrelentingly.

All Gomorroahs Are The Same

Thenjiwe Mswane | All Gomorrahs Are The Same | Blackbird Books | 295 ZAR

All Gomorrahs Are The Same by Thenjiwe Mswane

This is the story of a rural family that starts off from an unstable footing of a couple, Makhosazane and Thulani, whose characters are inherently not aligned. The husband is indifferent, scatter-brained and lazy, while the wife is conscientious and focused. Their children take after their parents in diverse ways, and the girl children are dominant in the story, especially the young Makhosazane. While the story analytically delves into family problems, married life, work, responsibilities, generational differences and sexuality, it does not stretch one’s imagination into how these problems could be seen in a new perspective except in the run-of-the-mill way. The author uses different narrative perspectives, but the voices sound the same, except in one instance where the story is told by the youngest daughter, Nonhle, where a youthful voice is mimicked skilfully.

The story is set in South Africa, and the author uses code-switching between English and isiZulu to enhance the flavour of the characters. The themes are universal but grounded in a local environment. While code-switching is a commendable technique in both the characters and the narrators’ dialogue and descriptions respectively, a conspicuous flaw that sticks out like a sore thumb is flouting of isiZulu orthography and syntax. Such incidents are so numerous that one cannot ignore them.

The author employs change of narrative perspective, whereby different characters tell their own story. This gives the reader the purview of different characters and serves the plot well. However, this technique is executed in a manner that betrays unintentional repetitions, which undermine the reader’s memory and intelligence of reading. After page 100 the story introduces more than a dozen characters, who do not necessarily advance or enrich the plot. There is also a tendency to digress from the flow of the main plot, for the narrator to add information about certain events that took place in the past. These could have been embedded through subtle flashback. Over and above incorrect orthography of isiZulu words and phrases, there are numerous other typographical errors in the text.

The themes of generational conflicts and problems faced by youth, which lure them into experiments with their lives, are strong thread of the story. The weakness is that characterisation lacks depth and the narrator tends to introduce character after character without relevance to the main plot.

Suitcase of Memory by A’Eysha Kassiem

The story takes the reader back to the South Africa of the 1950s. The fulcrum of the story are two laws, the Immorality Act and the Population Registration Act, passed in the 1950s by the apartheid regime. These laws are seen through the life of a Coloured boy who is surreptitiously adopted by an Afrikaner family and grows up with the adopted parents’ identity. His stable life as a white person is complicated by her nanny, a Muslim woman called Katheejathree (the third of women of the name Katheeja, who married one man, Abdul Sulaiman), and her daughter, Rashieda. In the boy’s relationship with the two women Christianity and Islam are juxtaposed, as his family brings him up in the former religion, and her nanny introduces him to the traditions of the latter.

The author’s descriptive style is crisp, background knowledge of religion, social constructs and Afrikaner lifestyle, Coloured lifestyle and environment of the 1950s and 1960s brings the two vividly into sharp contrast. The pseudo-science of genetics that is used to argue that the protagonist is white is lampooned in a manner that makes it simultaneously tragic and comic. Upon the protagonist’s life lies reinterpretation of artificial separation of Islam and Christianity and White and Black/Coloured segregation and how the justice system is manipulated by media. The doctrines of apartheid are brought home in a vivid microcosm.

Physical  and figurative journeys

The Wanderers

Mphuthumi Ntabeni | The Wanderers | Kwela Books | 355 ZAR

The Wanderers by Mphuthumi Ntabeni

The story of South African exiles and post-apartheid South Africa is told poignantly in the portrayal of four characters, a young woman, Fikiswa (aka Ruru), who leaves South Africa for Tanzania to find her exiled father, Phaks, who did not return after 1994. She finds her widowed step mother, Efuoa. Efuoa’s and Phaks’s exile have parallels; one escaped from the Rwandan massacre and the other from apartheid atrocities. Their two stories are skilfully woven together through competent use of diverse times and narrative perspectives.

The story offers a new perspective in looking at the lives of South Africans in exile during apartheid, especially those who did not return to South Africa, and some of the possible reasons for that. It also offers a perspective that does not only see the narrative exile from a singularly South African perspective but a continental one, by interweaving Phaks’s autobiography with Efuoa’s, who escaped from the genocide in Rwanda.

The tragedy of Phaks’ final days of life as he faces death from HIV establishes a poignant and melancholic tone in the story, relieved by interspersion with Fikiswa’s escapades into various parts of Tanzania and immersing herself into its culture, landscape and memories. The tragedy of Phaks’ life is an indictment of the ANC government. Often stories of those who returned from exile are told with some underlying nostalgia for exile, but this novel turns over coin, while at the same time addressing the follies of the post-apartheid government. It seem to stand in contradiction of Langa’s The Lost Languages of the Soul.

Veil of Maya by Chantal Stewart

The narrator-protagonist, a medical doctor by profession, is a curious character who attends a lecture on astronomy. Her attention gets focused on the keynote lecturer, Dr Gabriel Powell. There is subtle mutual attraction and intriguing between the two characters, underpinned by reticence on both. The professional disciplines of the two characters, genetics and astronomy, are delved into as part of what makes each tick in her and his own way. The reader is simultaneously taken into an educational tour of the content of their disciplines and professional interests and their personal development. Even though up to a point the romance which later develops is somehow predictable, the narrator affords to keep the reader on tenterhooks about how it would unfold, and how it eventually ends up. A strange medical case arises in Swaziland and requires the narrator-protagonist to go there and resolve it. It is an opportune to entertain the reader with intricacies of her specialisation, so creatively woven into the plot. The story brings what would otherwise be esoteric knowledge to easy accessibility of the lay person. It is a narrative which one might consider reading again but not compellingly so, especially because of the light that the narrator brings into the unintellectual king who is blind to what should have been obvious. The disappointment of the plot comes so late in the story that it is worth reading and enjoying it while the pleasure lasts.

E kallwa ka Masokwana by Johannes Seema

This is the story of a girl, Moilolo, who loses her mother and is adopted by an Afrikaans-speaking family. She does well at school and gets a scholarship to study medicine in the US. She falls in love with the cab driver who meets her at the airport and becomes pregnant by him. For no plausible or convincing reason, she goes into prostitution but subsequently withdraws.  Moilolo passes well, takes a degree and goes back home to South Africa, where she excels in her work as a doctor.

Some events are fabricated to prolong the plot so that the protagonist can descend into the depths of misery and then rise again. To make the heroine sound and look extremely intelligent, in her first year the narrator makes her engage in a debate with a Harvard Professor in a lecture on African literature [she is studying medicine] and she quotes major African writers like a seasoned scholar, whereas in matric she focused narrowly on Maths and Physics. This is an obvious exaggeration, and not the first and the only one in the story. The plot of the story calls for patience to follow to the end.

The layout of the books flouts conventions of publishing. Publication information such as publisher, place of publication, date and copyright are on the right page instead of left. The work is not typeset. There is no logo or publisher’s name at the bottom or right side of the spine. Patience and subjection of the work to a copy editor might have yielded better results.

The Other Side of Darkness by Tshifhiwa G. Mukwevho

A girl called Mukondeleni is impregnated by a blind old man. He is arrested and killed by inmates in jail. The blind man’s fate is followed by another tragedy, when Mukondeleni’s aunt's husband is killed by the chief's men. These circumstances force her to go on an expedition to find her father. She finds herself in a series of misadventures, which include being coaxed into a brothel to become a prostitute in a small rural town called Makhado. She subsequently meets up with a character called Alfred and moves in with him. After a series of twists and turns of the plot, the protagonist’s life ends on a high note, where she collaborates with other women of her age to start a business. It is a story of optimism and hope. It shows how vulnerable women can uplift themselves from the slough of hopelessness to hope, from utter darkness to light, and still rise again. The narrator’s style is somehow flat.

Sanity Prevail by Perfect Hlongwane

The story starts in what promises to be a captivating adventure, with Zena seeing a creature in her house, which gives her a piece of glass that it says is a diamond stone, bearing some magical powers. This evokes stories of her childhood with her twin brother, Zakhe, with whom she lives in Johannesburg. Zakhe rapes her and later she aborts and goes into prostitution. The story loses its track when Zena is admitted into a sanatorium, where a new protagonist emerges. Zena only becomes one of the residents of the sanatorium and occupies marginal room in the setting and story. The narrator seems to have lost the plot and follows a series of new characters who come into the psychiatric ward. Later, Zena is brought back and lost again. The most interesting and unique part is when the story follows the fortunes of one of the characters who is released from the psychiatric ward. He turns out to be one of the forgotten soldiers of 32 Battalion who fought for the Portuguese in Angola and Namibia (Battle of Cassinga) and were commissioned to parts of South African townships to quell violence, just before the 1994 elections.

The style of writing flows and characters are convincing, even though the motive of their introduction into the story leaves a question whether the reader was meant to be drawn into empathising with people who have mental problems and therefore question the assumed sanity of social constructs about madness and imprisoning them, or simply the adventure of the protagonist in the latter half of the story, because there was nothing more to be narrated about her.

It remains to be seen how the prostitution motif will gain traction, as in E Kallwa ka Masokwana and discussed earlier and The Other side of Darkness.

Not To Mention by Vivian de Klerk

Telling a story from a narrator-protagonist who is trapped in the immobility of her body is quirky but not peculiar per se. But this novel’s narrator is writing a memoir of her life in which she directly addresses her mother. Constant reference to the addressee places the reader in a position where s/he is reminded of intrusion in a confidential monologue strictly meant for the antagonist in the narrative. The narrator, a young woman who has been rendered immobile by her obesity, shares centrality of character with her mother, whom she vilifies and builds a case of abuse by overfeeding her, and murder of her husband, her infant and a family pet. The narrator’s pastime is writing crossword puzzles, wherein clues allude to the relationship between the two, and her dead father. Some sentences are crossed out with the use of strikethrough, an exceedingly rare technique. The plot is an intense mental journey which temporally moves back and forward. It drains the reader emotionally by its slow pace and depicting the depth of the narrator’s mental processes. It marries content and form with painstaking competence.

Home and exile

Paperless by Buntu Siwisa


Buntu Siwisa | Paperless | Jacana Media | 290 ZAR

The story is unique in its delving into the problems of living in the European metropolitan cities without legal documents. If portrays daily harassment that undocumented immigrants are subjected to, even in upper middle-class areas like Oxford. The work awakens consciousness about the isolation which African undocumented immigrants suffer in Europe. They hanker not only to be accepted but also to make ends meet so that they can improve livelihoods of the relatives they left behind in their home countries. Their plight is portrayed with empathy, more so when they are pitched in competition with immigrants from northern countries, like those from Eastern Europe, who have the advantage of European Union privileges. The means which undocumented immigrants use, fair or foul, in most cases foul, are depicted through different characters and their networks. Betrayal among undocumented immigrants is also explored.

The exploration of the question of yearning for belonging, constructing a positive identity, statelessness, exile, immigration and migration, and citizenship are handled profoundly. At times, these themes struggle to find a place in the story and are slotted randomly. Exposition and description of the setting is so vivid that it dominates characters. Most of them are portrayed in one dimension and sadly lack the second and third dimensions. Grace and Eddie McKenzie’s relationship reads like Coelho’s Eleven Minutes, especially the thematic question that is repeated umpteen times. At times, the narrator seems not to trust the reader’s memory, by listing characters in one paragraph and reminding the reader about their fate or summarising certain events about them. One cannot help gathering the sense that the book tells us that exile and suffering in Britain is better than living in Africa, as those who eventually leave Britain suffer tragic fate in their home countries.

In the Shadow of the Springs I Saw by Barbara Adair

The work undertakes a history of an erstwhile mining town in the East Rand (now Ekurhuleni), named Springs. While focus is on the glorious history and architecture and Art Décor of buildings that have seen better days, people are brought to life to inherit the buildings, and the narrator describes the town as it evolved, from its establishment in its early mining days. The novelty of the work is the integration of evolution of the town’s landscape, with emigration and immigration patterns and rapid change of population in the post-apartheid era, moulding fiction and non-fiction seamlessly.

The work has been delivered from boredom which would have been rendered on it had the buildings, deteriorating apartments and streets not been endowed with a vivacious human touch from the perspective of the people who live there. Descriptions are visceral and mesmerising. Without being prescriptive, the work provides ways of reshaping the landscape of the town through several ways and projects that can inject new life into it and restore part of the historical Art Décor of the town, without displacing the current chaotic population. The collage of poetry, black-and-white photos and prose recall avant-garde at the height of its popularity. The style of the work is as colourful as the buildings that it describes, and penetrates the feelings, perspective and views of the people who now live in Springs. The constants comparison of Springs Art Décor with Miami is well-informed and splendid. If I were to visit Miami, I would see its décor with a sharper eye, thanks to the author of this book.

Political conflict, oppression and freedom and human rights

An Angel's Demise by Sue Nyathi

An Angel's Demise

Sue Nyathi | An Angel's Demise | Pan Macmillan SA |  354 Seiten | 340 ZAR

This novel covers a multiplicity of themes in an tightly integrated manner; culture, identity, race, ethnicity (conflict among the Ndebele and Shona in the military and Gukurahundi massacre of the Ndebele and Kalanga by Mugabe’s regime) and class/racism (interracial rape and conception), intrafamily, intergenerational and community tensions (former military combatants and communities from which land was grabbed), figurative journey across generations (first generation settler community, the Unilateral `declaration of independence’ by Ian Smith to post-independence), political conflict (conflict over land in post-independent Zimbabwe) oppression and freedom, crime and greed (post-independent elite and theft of land). The sense of movement of time from independence to post-independence heavily weighs on the reader but at no point does the plot idle and slows down. The work is delightfully intense and insist on being read again.

Inkululeko Engakhululekile by Dumisani Sibiya

UmaSibisi is pregnant and delivers a hermaphrodite baby. The matron explains that they must submit a letter and a sworn statement in which they state which gender genitals should be removed. They go home and decide that the male parts must be removed. When the child grows up boys are suspicious, and they ambush her/him in the loo and undress her/him. After passing matric he is admitted at a university in Johannesburg. The life of a rural-come-to-the-city unfolds, and the character goes through hard lessons of the city, and in the process makes serious choices and mistakes.

The narrative delves into the LGBTQ+ rights and gender as a social construct, which makes ‘freedom of choice is not free,’ as the title suggests. The narrative has captivating moments. However, narrating life of an overpopulated story leads to chopping and changing thematic and plot threads, and lapsing into the soapy mode of intercuts. There are many a captivating moment, narrated in delectable isiZulu idiom. Unfortunately, the book does not meet all the conventions of book publishing, such as typesetting and aligning margins.

Dreaming in Colour by Uvile Ximba

Dreaming in Colors

Uvile Ximba | Dreaming in Color | Modjadji Books | 140 Seiten | 240 ZAR

There are various dimensions in which homophobia expresses itself; through indifference, begrudging tolerance, open hostility, stigmatisation and violence. The theme of this novel is placed in this whirlpool of social intolerance. While it follows on many a work that have challenged parameters of taboos in this respect, it asserts its perspective by creating two central characters, Langa and Khwezi. They are not stereotypic, and neither are any characters on all sides of the homosexual-heterosexual dichotomy. Langa’s and Khwezi’s tentative exploration of their sexuality advances and changes without the guaranteed stability and certainty of their ideological positions, and thus portrayal of their development evades predictability. The uncertainty of their same-sex relationship and vacillating raises the story above polemic and posturing or creating a sense of martyrdom on the part of lesbian relationships. The novel holds its paradigm with firm affirmation, but also tentatively and without making it sacrosanct, or making heterosexuality an aberration, as for instance, in Here comes the Gay King, which I discuss later.

The story travels over a wide range of geographical milieus which are recognisably South African, beyond just place and personal names. The peculiar way in which people’s names are mentioned with the Bantu third-person personal prefix “u-” and the isiXhosa stylistic inflections are not belaboured but smoothly permeate the narrative perspective and characters’ dialogues. The subculture of youth is captured without exacting effort. The youthful characters who join the company of Langa and Khwezi bring their vivacity, pleasure and irritation to them with errant but excusable liveliness.

The story of youth is told in a combination of youthful and mature manner. The temperance of style is disarming and invites the reader to a mature dialogue, or at least to listen to the story benevolently. A moment which comes close to grating on the nerves is when Langa takes stock of the qualities of her relationship with Khwezi. It reads like bullet points of the anatomy of her private parts. The inherent conflict between heterosexuality and homophobia on the one hand and same-gender attraction and LGBTQ+ rights on the other are topical, and destined to recur like racism, patriarchy and GBV. This novel will be relevant while these triggers of social conflict endure.

The story bears continuity of literary tradition in that it underlies a time-worm theme of amor omnia vincit, whether about prohibited love across social norms or religious doctrines, cultural affiliation, racial classification, or class stratification.

Here Comes the Gay King by Dimakatso D. Mokwena

The novel is a story of two men who want to marry each other but are obstructed by cultural and conservative attitudes of conservative relatives back in the rural home of one of them. The novel opens another window into LGBQT+ perspectives, with reference to gay men, at the exclusion of lesbian and other non-heterosexual people. The setting is depicted with vivid emphasis and stubbornness. Incidents of magical realism where the protagonist’s conservation mother and uncle perform metaphysical acts are somehow Hollywood style. The two are arch antagonists to the propose same sex marriage of a person who is destined to become king. In most instances the novel crosses the line from the erotic into unadulterated pornography. Pornographic scenes are so aggressive that they bear the seed of potential demurral even by broad-minded readers, but applause from permissive readers.

One cannot help but read nuances that heterosexuality is stereotypically vulgar and amounts to sexual fascism. The motif of asserting the rights of marginalised people in South African society is vociferous to the point of ideological dogmatism overriding storytelling.  The work unapologetically advocates the rights of LGBTQ+ people. What this reviewer finds paradoxical in its motif are sometimes melodramatic characters on opposing sides of sexual orientation, where its characterisation and plot lean towards assertiveness which is averred (like an argument more than a portrayal) through culturally conservative characters who do not understand LGBTQ+ life or regard it as an aberration. At the same time, it manifests sexual exhibitionism of gay people through pornographic scenes in dimly lit chambers where sex is free as a pastime. The novel ironically undermines the LGBTQ+ advocacy. The title betrays the end of the story as one completes the first chapter. There are tongue in cheek patches in some dialogues.

Hlobo luni lomfazi olu? by Mohlauli Lethola

As the title suggests, ‘what kind of a woman is this?’, the plot of the story revolves around an indignant killjoy of a woman; a virago in the most negative sense of the word. She goes out of her way to spoil other people’s marriages, including her own. She cuckolds her husband then gets her lover to come to arrest him for a crime he has not committed. The plot of the novel gallops away with the author and gets rife with melodramatic and apparently unintended farcical events. Somewhere in the author’s mind there might have been a good concept for a novel, but as soon as s/he started writing it, it ran out of ideas and only guts and no creativity kept it going until the end.

Each Mortal Thing by Michiel Heyns

Each Mortal Thing

Michiel Heyns | Each Mortal Thing | Umuzi | 300 ZAR

The story revolves around a South African expatriate settled in Britain. He has a close circle of local friends. A South African female visitor breaks the narrow circle by introducing the home element in the story, albeit briefly. The launch of her book is a disaster but introduces a new strand of intrigue and cloak-and-dagger in the plot, including a street beggar and his dog. Some characters come into the story and fall by the wayside, narrowing the plot to unexpected intimate relationships; Terence and Natasha (back at UCT and in England), Natasha and Tertius, Terence and Andy (and Robie the dog), Simon and Gary (and the latter’s suicide), Andie and Sally, and Sonja Bester from South Africa appear and disappear unceremoniously. The novel comprises a small cast but complex relationships, past and present.

A beautifully written and coherent story; the style, content and theme leave nothing to be desired. It is eloquently articulated, and its diction is in keeping with the milieu and class of characters and their English city life styles of well-off professionals; eating more in restaurants than at home. Their homes are like places they only visit after a day of work and adventure. The shifting of relationships is slow but well-constructed. Rounding off the plot brings a tidy resolution of conflicts, with a sort of ‘and the hobo lived happily ever after.’ The whole story is set in the UK, with a few South African characters and minor flashbacks about their home country. It is fascinating how the characters evolve in terms of their sexual orientation, with the theme narrowing from a broad stroke of themes to sexuality. This reader cannot help feeling that this part is woven into the fabric of the story to fit into the LGBTQ + theme, albeit with hesitance, timidity or diplomatically.

The White People by Michael Hermel

The narrative is relevant in its broad stroke of making an argument for balancing humanities and social sciences on the one hand, and science and technology on the other. Aliens land on earth, slowly establish their presence and take over control over terrestrial human beings. A scientist, Terence Wright, is taken to the land of the White People in outer space, compares and reflects upon outer space advancement in science and technology with earthly human achievement: ‘In the two fields in which I profess knowledge – medicine and education – they were skilful and learned, far beyond contemporary human achievement. But when it came to art, music, literature and – to use an old-fashioned but very expressive and appropriate word – humanities, they lacked infinitely behind us. In all they did, they lacked sense of beauty. In their architecture and design, functionality was carried to mad length.’

The novel declares itself to be a ‘satirical Fantasy,’ but it reads more like an allegorical tale, with subtle incorporations or rather evocations of elements from George Orwell’s two novels, Animal Farm and 1984. There are also motifs of Thomas Moore’s Utopia. One wishes for moments of laughter or amusement that is often evoked by satire but is left this reader bereft.

Crime and the underworld

Three Bodies by N R Brodie

This is a hybrid of a thriller and a whodunit, rolled into a novel noir. Its pace skilfully interchanges between the two genres. The reader is led into the underworld and is tantalised with unexpected discovery of the corpse of a woman. From there we are slowly led into the world of a couple, Captain Reshma Naidoo and Ian Jack, who work on crime from two different angles, the (SAPS) South African Police Services and an NGO (Non-governmental Organisation) respectively.

What impressed this reader is how the narrator weaves South Africa’s past within the police regime, where some people were murdered because of political activities, the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission), and post-apartheid activities of former police officers, Kotze, Van Rensburg and Myburgh. The narrative also blurs the boundaries between fiction and fact, yet subtly reminds one that the two worlds coexist all the time.

The change of pace and style are in synchrony, leading to an end that is fast-paced and forces one to sit up. The editing is clinical and neat, style and diction in keeping with the genres that it conflates. Descriptions of crime scenes are cinematic, and investigation in mortuaries evoke so strong a sense of reality that at times one tastes and smells the setting of a mortuary and post-mortem procedures that take place inside it. This narrative connects the covert and the overt social worlds and takes on a tour of the underworld, literally and figuratively. Captain Naidoo’s successful break into a fiercely male domain is likely to be an inspiration to many a young woman, and MaRejoice is an epitome of ethical practice in the profession of African divination and healing.

The Good Nigerian by David Dison

The Good Nigerian

David Dison | The Good Nigerian | Jacana | 240 ZAR

The story depicts the intricacies of connections and networking in the underworld across regions of the continent, South Africa and Nigeria, and historically Eastern Europe and South Africa, the ANC in exile, and work of crime intelligence. The structure adheres to the morphology of a crime thriller and whodunit. Characters are close to being caricatures and deal in narrowly defined crime areas; extortion, kidnapping, prostitution and money laundering.

This story is told competently, and the plot moves from different directions, feeding into one main plot like tributaries of a river, set in South Africa. There is quite an abundance of stock characters that populate crime novels; hefty men wearing dark suits and shading their eyes behind dark sunglasses, with brute force and little brains. Scenes of suspense are craftily constructed but fall short of the palpitation-inducing pace and plot intricacy of thrillers. Every chapter title is a lead that eases what would otherwise be a complex jigsaw puzzle of intricate relationships among characters and their histories / biographies. As a crime thriller it is a few notches below Robert Ludlum and John Le Carré. There are pockets of unexpected twists rather than tight suspense.

The novel somehow romanticises crime and reinforces the idea that means justify ends. In the latter regard we see, for instance, how Ngozi, the ‘good Nigerian,’ offers sex to assist ends of justice. The novel’s attempt to de-stereotype Nigerians floats on the surface of the theme. The question that this reader is left with is, after a story well told, what does one go away with that is edifying. This is a story for light entertainment and knowledge of some facts drawn from historical documents about Jewish immigration to South Africa and the underworld from early 20th century South Africa. reading the story was entertaining but reading it twice might be a slow haul.

Love and romance

The Thing With Zola by Zibu Sithole

The eponymous protagonist is a lively character often finding herself trapped in situations where she has little control. The initial trap is a love triangle in which she is faced with a domineering woman and a weak man. The plot is light-hearted, buoyant and flows smoothly in the tone of Mills & Boon romances.

It is set in suburbia and in the township, with an indecisive available bachelor and stereotypes of obstructive or goading relatives (cousin or mother) and inquisitive neighbours (mamgobhozi). It is refreshing but as light as a feather, with some comedy of errors and comedy of situations. It leaves one with no memorable moments or characters but light-hearted vaporous memories of Zola and her rival and employer, Okuhle, in the love triangle. This is likely to be an enjoyable read for young middle-class readers who are excited by matters of the heart on a light note. Zola the protagonist is so sweet, the sweetness of a lollipop, that she deserves the living happily ever after that she is granted at the end of the story.

Christopher by Nozuko Siyotula


Nozuko Siyotula | Christopher | Jacana Media | 240 ZAR

The story is told by a daughter of a resilient progeny of Christopher Katjies and Mam’Bhele. Katjies is an outsider who settles in a rural area where the community is so close-knit that settlers are unwelcome. The strong characteristics of the genes of the family manifest in female characters. Their lives unfold in parallel strands in the story, and at times narrative authority changes hands, within the authoritative purview of a character called Beatrice. Mxolisi, a male character, borrows narrative authority where the protagonist gives leeway.
Articulation of the rural landscape is visceral, encompassing life in minutiae, where the community’s knowledge and inquisitive intrusion into each other’s affairs weaves intense inter-connections. There is a strong and deliberate attempt of the protagonist to steer attention to her deceased lover, Christopher. There are long spells where Christopher is overshadowed by other characters like Ma, Romance, Nontsikelelo, Vuyo Aitken, Mxolisi, Mam’Bhele, Avumile and Sister Britta.

The genealogy of the January family and how it evolves as family members cut their own paths outside the family testifies competency in the vivacity of characterisation. The familial relationship of family members and how women handle situations within the family endowed the story with liveliness, and strong presence of the indomitable and memorable aunt Romance. The one among a number of protagonists goes through a range of experiences; from rape, being whisked away to a boarding school, witnessing a clandestine act of political sabotage, elopement and mirage, racial attitudes, especially towards mixed couples, celebration of racial hybridity, harassment by the police during the political struggle and the TRC (Truth and reconciliation Commission), and simply loving and living through these tribulations. A story well narrated with a few memorable characters and many easily forgettable ones.

Kuyawush' Imifula by J J Ngcongwane

The foreword promises that the intention of the novel is to celebrate the history of Mgwenya College, which was established in the then Eastern Transvaal, an area that is now called Mpumalanga Province, post-apartheid. The story indeed starts off with the College as the setting, in 1975, and moves on to the events of the 1976 Soweto students uprising.

Political and social pressures of the time are given prominence of description by engaging the lives of college students, and slowly narrowing down to the protagonist. Seeing events from a rural or semi-rural college is a fresh angle. This serves as the backdrop of a story of love, which starts at the college and ends many years later. Towards the end the narrator was bent on rounding off the story neatly but instead introduced simplistic complications of the plot to create pockets of new suspense. Unfortunately, these complications turn out to be run-of-the-mill problems of suspected paternity and incest (brother unwittingly marrying sister), which are resolved quickly in the last two chapter in an apparent haste. The story ends with sympathetic fallacy, the sun setting to reinforce resolution and renewal of love between the protagonist and his wife.

The themes can be summed up as: College life, political developments of 1976 and the aftermath, changes in the college, love gained and lost, attempted regain of love, family suspicion of infidelity, cultural and Western solutions of criss-crossing paternity and maternity conundrums. Perpetual love sworn, that kuyawush’ imifula (title – rivers will run dry) ‘before my love for you dissipates.’ Good Siswati is wasted on a badly told story. It would take someone to put a gun on my head to read the 485 pages again.


Authors and books, unlike ordinary citizens, are not easily subject to saluting, worshipping and deifying pieces of cloth hanging on poles with arbitrary colours that are meant to signify nationhood. They also have a streak of rebellion not to venerate national anthems which are sung at attention, as if they were sacred hymns. In that tone, literature has the propensity to ignore nationalism, not to mention its almost inevitable result, jingoism. This statement leads me to the premise that there is no common thread among all these novels that make them ‘South African,’ except perhaps some exterior characteristics such as place names, characters’ names, local linguistic variations and recognisable geographical settings.

I would like to conclude by proposing that the sociology of the works which I have reviewed in this article demonstrate that: 1) there are publishers who are gaining ascendancy in publishing literature in South Africa, who have clearly defined mission statements; 2) The wide scope of themes of the works published in South Africa in the period that I have ringfenced suggest that they give insight of social and political trajectories in the ever evolving post-apartheid landscape, and reflect on culture, identity, race, ethnicity, conformity to old taboos, intrafamily, intergenerational and community tensions, crime and the underworld in South Africa. However, on cannot determine what can be regarded as a South African leitmotif or zeitgeist. These themes are not peculiarly South African; 3) The writers who have produced these works are cosmopolitan in their worldview and cannot be justifiably associated with one country or be attributed to any nation state.

Stating the above is not to deny that the novels are also figurative and in certain instances allegorical reflections of the reality of South Africa. But they neither manifest a literal sociological interpretation of South Africa nor present the spectacular representation that Ndebele referred to. Perhaps the second decade of the 21st century signals another interregnum, a la Clingham. Some of the selected writers were born and bred in South Africa, others lived in exile, while others migrated to South Africa and others live in South Africa as their secondary home or have migrated to live abroad. In these works, one cannot determine political, social and economic landscape leitmotif. Perhaps this is because my periodisation is narrow and inductive and no deductive authority may be drawn from it.

Areas which need further exploration about the development and trajectory of the literature published in South Africa is a sociology of literature that will investigate the background of writers with reference to their class, age, education, and psycho-sociological values, to see how these have influenced their writing and how new younger writers emerging have new perspectives (the impression that one has is that not more than five of the selected are under 40 years). Will young writers described in the mission statements of the publishing houses discussed reflect on the aggressive 4IR (Fourth Industrial Revolution) and AI (Artificial Intelligence) era that is looming, and how it affects society, is a question that can only be answered retrospectively in the next five or more years. Finally, if I were to make a choice of the top ten in this selection, this is how my list would stand, in descending order from the top favourite: The Wanderers, An Angel’s Demise, Reggie & Me, They Got to You Too, In the Shadow of the Springs I Saw, Languages of the Soul, Inkululeko Engakhululekile, Suitcase of Memory, The Thing with Zola and Three Bodies, etc.


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