10 Unforgettable Books by South African Women Authors

The long journey of Poppie Nongena by Elsa Joubert

Presented here is a survey of ten unforgettable books by South African women authors, including novels, narrative nonfiction, poetry, and more. 

From The Story of an African Farm set in the nineteenth century to Circles in a Forest from the Knysna forests, South Africa has long been an interesting place for authors to situate fiction and nonfiction.

Rich with history and exploring both the good and evil in humanity, works from Southern Africa can take the reader on an unforgettable journey through space and time.

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The Story of an African Farm
by Olive Schreiner (1883)

The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner

The Story of an African Farm is an intimate portrayal of family life on a South African farm in the 19th century. First published under the pseudonym Ralph Iron, Olive Schreiner’s debut novel explores themes of Victorian culture intertwined with the South African experience.

Olive Schreiner (1855 – 1920) applied to the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, but became a writer when her health prevented her from continuing medical studies. She used her personal experience spent as a governess on several South African farms to inform The Story of an African Farm.

Subtle themes throughout the book include portrayals of intimate relationships and feminism, two subjects that were especially controversial for women of its time. A near-epic, the original novel spanned 644 pages, over two volumes.

More about The Story of an African Farm.


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Black Butterflies: Selected Poems
by Ingrid Jonker (2007)

Ingrid Jonkers - Black Butterflies

Black Butterflies collects some of author and anti-apartheid activist Ingrid Jonker’s (1933 – 1965) selected poems, translated into English from the Afrikaans language original. 

Partially edited by her Sixtiers-counterparts Jack Cope and Andre P. Brink with Antije Krog and Ingrid de Kok, Black Butterflies is kept as truthful as translation could get. Considered one of the most important though tragic South African poets, Jonker often drew comparisons to Sylvia Plath.

Most poems in this volume are taken from her second collection, Smoke and Ocre (Rook en Oker), published in 1963. It includes one of her most internationally famous poems, The child who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga.

More about Black Butterflies.

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And They Didn’t Die by Lauretta Ngcobo (1990)

And they didn't die - ngcobo

And They Didn’t Die is a novel by South African activist and author Lauretta Ngcobo (1931 – 2015). Born in Ixopo, she attended Inanda Seminary School in Kwazulu-Natal (Durban) and went on to become a teacher, activist, and writer.

With a storyline set in 1950s South Africa, the book has become famous as a portrayal of women who lived under the Apartheid regime.

Ngcobo spent the years 1963 to 1994 in exile, though both her major novels were to be set in her home country. After her period in exile, she returned to Durban with her family and lived there until her death in 2015.

More about And They Didn’t Die.


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We’re Not All Like That
by Jeanne Goosen (1990)

We're not all like that by Jeanne Goosen

Jeanne Goosen (1938 – 2020) was a prominent Afrikaans poet and academic. She debuted her first poetry collection `n Uil vlieg weg (An owl flies away) in 1971.

We’re not all like that was first published in Afrikaans, and translated into English by author Andre P. Brink. The novel explores the theme of poverty. Portraying an average white family and set in the 1950s, it was a topic that until then had been relatively unexplored in South African fiction.

Also notable is that the book is told from the perspective of Gertie, the youngest family member. Goosen credited reading Crime & Punishment as a teenager as her initial motivation to write. She later studied radiography and branched out into the formal study of piano playing.

More about We’re Not All Like That.

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The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer (2001)

The pickup by Nadine Gordimer

One of the most acclaimed South African authors, Nadine Gordimer (1923 – 2014) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. The Pickup was chosen as the winner of the 2002 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the Best Book from Africa.

The Pickup is a complex love story between Julie, a South African, and Abdu, an immigrant from an Arab country that remains unnamed throughout the book. The novel is divided into two parts, with the first set in South Africa. The second part takes Julie into a country where she becomes the outsider.

Gordimer’s work explored themes of alienation, oppression, and other moral issues displayed through her fiction and characters.

She was a political activist for most of her adult life and was one of the first people Nelson Mandela reportedly asked to see upon his 1990 release from imprisonment. Her last novel, No Time Like the Present, was published in 2012.

More about The Pickup.


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The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena
by Elsa Joubert (1978, translated 1980)

The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena

The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena was first published in Afrikaans (1978) and translated into English two years later. The book tells the story of the title character, Poppie, as she finds her way through South Africa after being classified as an illegal citizen due to the death of her husband.

The book documents the character’s travels, from when she is uprooted from Lambert’s Bay to a safer destination. The story was also adapted into a stage production and later a movie titled Poppie Nongena.

Elsa Joubert (1922 – 2020) was a full-time author who documented her travel experiences from Uganda to Western Europe for several of her nonfiction books. 

More about The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena.

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Circles in a Forest
by Dalene Matthee (1984)

Circles in a Forest by Dalene Matthee

Dalene Matthee (1938 – 2005) is one of the most widely translated authors to emerge from South Africa, with her Forest Books series arguably the best known. Circles in a Forest explores the theme of nature conservation from the viewpoint of the inhabitants of the Knysna Forest.

Circles in a Forest focused on the Knysna woodcutters and the impact surrounding their exploitation of the environment and Knysna elephants.

Matthee followed Circles in a Forest with Fiela’s Child, The Mulberry Forest, and Dreamforest (later republished as Karoelina’s Forest). She was meticulous about translating the initial versions of her novels into English and did most of her own research for her novels. Circles in a Forest was first adapted to film in 1989.

Learn more about Circles in a Forest and Dalene Matthee’s Forest Books.


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Between Two Worlds by Miriam Tlali (1975)

Between Two Worlds by Miriam Tlali

Between Two Worlds is a novel by Miriam Tlali (1933 – 2017), one of the first Black female authors to publish an English-language novel in Southern Africa. In this novel, race relationships are explored, as told from the perspective of Muriel, a bookkeeper who works in a store selling electronics.

The story explores interactions between the oppressed Muriel, who shares her world with the mostly white customers. Between Two Worlds is an honest and sensitive portrayal of daily life in 1960s South Africa.

While the novel doesn’t focus on atrocities and violence, it also doesn’t shy away from a candid portrayal of bygone times that many people still remember.

More about Between Two Worlds.

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Cape Malay Cookbook by Faldela Williams (1988)

The Cape Malay Illustrated Cookbook by Faldela Williams

The Cape Malay Cookbook by South African author and chef Faldela Williams (1952 – 2014) is considered one of the first truly comprehensive guides to Cape Malay recipes, featuring a mixture of traditional recipes that were mostly unknown until the book’s publication.

Williams was born in District Six and began her career in cuisine as a wedding caterer. Later, she realized that her recipes could be an inspiration to others for years to come.

She wrote two more cookbooks — More Cape Malay Cooking (1991) and The Cape Malay Illustrated Cookbook (2007).

More about The Cape Malay Cookbook.


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My 100 Favourite Herbs by Margaret Roberts (2018)

My 100 Favourite Herbs by Margaret Roberts

Margaret Roberts (1937 – 2017) was known in South Africa as an author and herbalist. She wrote more than forty books about herbs and their practical use. She licensed her name to the Margaret Roberts Herbal Centre, which continues to honor her memory.

My 100 Favourite Herbs is a clear, comprehensive look at her personal favourites in the garden — with more about how to plant and care for each. She wrote about plants with the ardor of a romance author, in love with nature.

Roberts was also one of the foremost lavender experts and cultivated the Margaret Roberts lavender from South Africa.

More about My 100 Favourite Herbs.


Contributed by Alex J. Coyne, a journalist, author, and proofreader. He has written for a variety of publications and websites, with a radar calibrated for gothic, gonzo, and the weird. His features, posts, articles and interviews have been published in People MagazineATKV Taalgenoot, LitNet, The Citizen, Funds for Writers, and The South African, among other publications.

2 Responses to “10 Unforgettable Books by South African Women Authors”

  1. This list, as interesting as it is, leads me to wonder. How many treasures lie undiscovered, unloved except by the author. How many hand scribbled stories in old dog eared exercise books or abandoned deep in a forgotten hard drive recess. Some, probably most, rubbish. Maybe, just maybe a story with a bit of polishing could bring a little pleasure to a reader or two. Perhaps an author, as lonely as surely all authors must be, looks at those coffee stained pages and dreams of what might have been.

    Perhaps it’s not just the authors who lose out. Occasionally fate takes a hand.

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