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Books, movies, TV

If you want to load up on some South African culture, there are great books, TV shows, and movies about (or set in) South Africa. Below, in no particular order, are some good and critically acclaimed ones.


My Octopus Teacher (2021). What sounds like dull material —a diver swimming with an octopus that lives in a kelp forest off the coast of Cape Town— is a really remarkable story of the bond between man and animal. Winner of the 2021 Oscar for Best Documentary.
Searching for Sugarman (2011). A 70s-era musician from the US known as Rodriguez became a huge hit in South Africa —with sales and recognition on par with Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones— and was widely rumored to have died. Two obsessed fans set out to learn the man's true fate. Winner of Oscar for Best Documentary.
Skin (2008). This biographical drama is a powerful depiction of racial inequality in Apartheid South Africa.
Invictus (2009). The story of the most important South African sports match, uniting a new and divided South Africa during the 1995 Rugby World Cup. With Oscar-nominated peformances by Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman.
District 9 (2009). A sci-fi movie that has echoes from the apartheid playbook. Aliens arrive on Earth —not to conquer or give aid— but to find refuge from their dying planet. They get forcefully separated from humans, one of whom needs to find shelter in their area: District 9. Nominated for four Oscars.
Tsotsi (2005). "Tsotsi" follows a young Johannesburg gang leader who steals a car only to discover a baby in the back seat. Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film.
Escape from Pretoria (2020). Sentenced to a South African prison for 12 years, an anti-apartheid activist and his fellow inmates devise a daring plan to escape.
Moffie (2019). Set in the 1980s during South Africa’s border war in Angola. A young man completes his two-years of compulsory military service, navigating what is taught as the “red threat” of communism, the “swart gevaar” (literally “black threat”), while hiding his growing attraction to a fellow recruit.
Yesterday (2004). The first South African film nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. The film tells the story of a young mother, Yesterday, who is diagnosed with AIDS and struggles to make a life for her daughter.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" (2013). If you don’t have time to read Nelson Mandela’s incredible autobiography (but, really, you should read it).
Life, Above All (2010). A 12-year-old girl fights prejudice when her family is ostracized by a South African community.
Catching Feelings (2017). A fairly innocent romcom. (I haven’t seen it, but heard good things)


"Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood" by Trevor Noah: This hilarious autobiographical book by the South African comedian and host of "The Daily Show" recounts his childhood growing up in apartheid-era South Africa as a person of mixed race. It’s really a laugh-out-loud book, highly recommend it.
"Disgrace" by J.M. Coetzee: This Booker Prize-winning novel tells the story of a university professor who is dismissed for sexual misconduct. The book explores the complex societal and racial dynamics of post-apartheid South Africa. (J.M. Coetzee received the Nobel prize for literature)
"Cry, the Beloved Country" by Alan Paton: Published in 1948, just before apartheid was officially enacted, this novel provides a portrait of South Africa's racial divide and the effect it has on its people.
"Coconut" by Kopano Matlwa: Matlwa's debut novel explores the experiences of a young woman navigating identity, race, and mental health issues in South Africa.
"Beauty's Gift" by Sindiwe Magona: Magona's novel tells the story of a young girl growing up in a township in the 1960s, exploring themes of poverty, racism, and resilience.
"Long Walk to Freedom" by Nelson Mandela: This is the autobiographical work of Nelson Mandela, describing his youth, his political development, and his 27 years in prison under apartheid. One review nailed it when it said that the book “should be read by every person on this planet”.
"The Quiet Violence of Dreams" by K. Sello Duiker: Examines the challenges faced by a young black man in post-apartheid South Africa, exploring themes of mental health, identity, and urban alienation.
"Country of My Skull" by Antjie Krog: This is a powerful non-fiction book about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, exploring the emotional toll of apartheid on South Africa's citizens.
"July's People" by Nadine Gordimer: A novel about a white family that seeks shelter with their black servant's family after a violent revolution in South Africa. (Nadine Gordiner also received the Nobel prize for literature)
"The Whale Caller" by Zakes Mda: Mda's novel weaves together themes of love, loss, and spirituality through the tale of a man who communicates with whales and falls in love with a woman from Johannesburg.
"A Dry White Season" by André Brink: This novel centers on a white South African who becomes involved in the resistance against apartheid after the death of a black friend at the hands of the police.
"The Promise" by Damon Galgut. Set in South Africa and spanning several decades, focusing on the decline of a white South African family living on a farm outside Pretoria. The novel examines the consequences of the family's failure to keep a promise made to their dying mother. The book was very well received and won the Booker Prize in 2021.

TV shows

"Africa" (2013): This BBC documentary series, narrated by David Attenborough, explores the wildlife and landscapes of the African continent, including South Africa.
"Is'thunzi" (2016-): This South African drama series follows the life of Winnie, a teenage girl with dreams of becoming a superstar, who has to deal with the hard realities of life in her pursuit.
"Queen Sono" (2020-): A South African crime drama series that debuted on Netflix in 2020, "Queen Sono" is about a secret agent who fights crime while dealing with crises in her personal life.
"The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" (2008-2009): Filmed in Botswana but co-produced by South Africa's Industrial Development Corporation, this series was based on the (fun!) novels by Alexander McCall Smith about a detective agency run by women in Botswana.
"Blood & Water" (2020-): Another South African Netflix original, this series follows a teenager who uncovers a family secret and the truth about her sister who was abducted at birth.
"Trackers" (2019-): A South African crime thriller series based on the novel of the same name, interweaving several plot lines involving organized crime, the smuggling of diamonds, state security, and an international terrorist plot. .
"Selling the Big Issue: South Africa" (2011): This documentary series from the BBC follows four homeless men in Cape Town who sell The Big Issue magazine as a means of survival.
"Madiba" (2017): This miniseries, starring Laurence Fishburne as Nelson Mandela, delves into South Africa's socio-political history, offering a glimpse of its culture and heritage.
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