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As the first South African novel, The Story of an African Farm (1883) -- a beautifully rendered account of daily life in the harsh Karoo -- was written at the close of the 19th century by Olive Schreiner, the literature produced in this southern tip captured the imagination of its colonizers with its evocation of a bleak landscape and tough survival. This reached its apotheosis with the advent of the "Jim-comes-to-Jo'burg novel," a phrase coined by Nadine Gordimer to describe the plot in which a naive rural African moves into the corrupt and evil urban landscape -- the most famous example being Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved Country (1948). Lesser-known and more devastating is the work of Sol Plaatje, founding ANC member, who wrote Native Life in South Africa (1916), about the devastation of the Land Act in 1916. Even our best-known imports -- Nadine Gordimer, whose awards have included a Booker and a Nobel Prize (read The Conservationist [1974], The House Gun [1998], or The Burger's Daughter [1979], the prolific Doris Lessing, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and J. M. Coetzee, first author to win the Booker prize twice -- deal with the painful issues surrounding race, usually with love across the color bar; Coetzee's novels in particular explore the painful constraints of humanity when saturated in the racist fears of the "Dark Continent." He won the first Booker prize for The Life & Times of Michael K, in 1983, and the second, in 1999, for the book Disgrace, since made into a (not very successful) film. Both are brilliant reads, but my personal favorite remains Age of Iron (1990), in which a white woman who is dying of cancer befriends the black tramp living in her garden. Ironically it is this theme that won awards for the latest offering from the superbly talented Afrikaans writer Marlene van Niekerk: Agaat (2007; beautifully translated into English) features the relationship between a mute 67-year old woman dying of ALS motor neuron disease and her "colored" nurse, Agaat. It is political in some sense, but mostly it is a psychological analysis of a relationship that reverberates on many levels -- an absolute must for any serious lover of literature. Zakes Mda is another recommended novelist in this genre; either his first book Ways of Dying (1995), which follows the adventures of a self-confessed "professional mourner," or his third book, The Heart of Redness (2002), a fictional narrative inspired by the real-life story of Nongqawuse, the Xhosa prophetess responsible for the tragic Cattle Killing of 1856.

For a political overview of the country, packaged as rollicking read, you can't go wrong with Richard Calland and Allistair Sparkes, both eloquent, intelligent, and incisive political analysts, and a joy to read. Of course political autobiography often provides the most direct insights into the complex past of South Africa, and there is no shortage here. Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom (1995) is an obvious choice, as is -- if you can stand the harrowing truth -- Country of My Skull (1998), Afrikaans poet Anjie Krog's account of her work as a journalist reporting on the Truth Reconciliation Commission. Head of the Commission, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, authorized a good biography (Rabble Rouser for Peace, by John Allan, 2006), but look for the book by his successor, Njongonkulu Ndungane: A World With A Human Face: A Voice from Africa (2003) provides an excellent analysis of the challenges facing the country, and how the West exacerbates many of the problems. The gripping autobiography My Traitor's Heart (1989), written by the talented Rian Malan, gave eloquent voice to white South Africa's primal fears in the 1980s and is essential reading for anyone who finds it hard to understand how white people could live with themselves under apartheid. For a less intense read, but with plenty of insight, pick up a copy of Playing the Enemy (2008), in which John Carlin explores how Nelson Mandela used rugby to set South Africa on the path to reconciliation.

Other reads worth looking into are Fred Khumalo's autobiographical novels, Touch My Blood (2006) and Bitches Brew (2005), and Kopano Matlwa's Coconut (2007), a look at race and class in South Africa -- the latter two are both winners of the EU Literary Awards. Equally so, Dog Eat Dog (2005), by hip newcomer Niq Mhlongo, dubbed the "voice of the kwaito generation," and -- for comic relief -- Some of My Best Friends Are White (2004), by the ever-satirical Ndumiso Ngcobo. The Native Commissioner (2006), by Shaun Johnson, and The Good Doctor (2003), by Damon Galgut, are both recipients of the Commonwealth Writer's Prize. If you like poetry, Gcina Mhlope is one of the country's most beloved poets; purchase Love Child (2002) and see why. If you'd like to dip into a compendium of South Africa's best writers, Lovely Beyond Any Singing (2008) is a good choice, with snippets and excerpts from some 30 authors.

However, if all you want to do is escape with a good crime thriller that happens to be set in South Africa, pick up anything written by Deon Meyer (Dead at Daybreak [2000] and Heart of the Hunter [2003] are both recommended), or Margie Orford's Like Clockwork (2007), in which her heroine, Clara Heart, tracks a serial killer in Cape Town. Also set in Cape Town is the excellent debut by Roger Smith, Mixed Blood (2009), in which four men are drawn into a web of murder and vengeance. Better still, find your favorite crime writer in Bad Company (2009), a compendium of short stories by South Africa's top thriller writers (South Africa's real gold mine, according to master of suspense, Lee Child, who wrote the foreword). Or opt for light humor with Alexander McCall Smith's The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (1998), a series set in Botswana. The sassy Moxyland (2008) by Lauren Beukes is worth highlighting; set in a futuristic Cape Town, and tackling issues such as globalization and consumerism, it transcends South Africa's past, and the lack of baggage is refreshing. Memoirs of a haunting African childhood have become a publishing trend and produced some fine reads, among them the superbly balanced Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, by Alexandra Fuller (2001); Ja No Man (2007), by Richard Poplak; Stealing Water (2008), by Tim Ecott; and A Fork in the Road (2009), by Andre Brink, the latter of course one of South Africa's most respected writers, with a host of fictional titles worth browsing through.

Film Overview

Sadly, there aren't yet many good South African-produced movies likely to give you a really coherent picture of life in the country today. That's partly because there's such huge cultural and social diversity here that it's absolutely impossible to pack everything into a single story or within a 90-minute frame. Decent local cinema that has garnered critical acclaim usually fails dismally at the box office: South Africans tend to go to movies to be entertained and escape; with so much political intrigue and real-life soap opera in our daily news, you can't really blame us. After big budget Hollywood blockbusters, South Africans consume principally stupid films about stupid South Africans making fools of themselves. Our ability to laugh at ourselves is second to none. The best known example of this type of slapstick comedy event is The Gods Must Be Crazy, which astonished audiences when it was first released in 1980. Deceptively, that film was about a bushman traveling to the ends of the earth to dispose of a Coca-Cola bottle dropped into the desert from a passing plane, but in more metaphoric terms, it deals with the clash of cultures that's still, even 30 years later, apparent within South African society. If you can sit through something slightly silly and potentially embarrassing, Gods Must Be Crazy remains a classic of South African cinema, and is not without its charms.

Since then the only South African to consistently make money-spinning films has been Leon Schuster, a pranks and pratfalls comedy man who makes fun of the contradictions and paradoxes that are so obviously a part of life in a country that still has deep underlying racial resentment and wide social imbalance. Schuster -- in films like Mr. Bones (2001, with a sequel in 2008), Oh Shucks It's Shuster (1989) and Oh Shucks I'm Gatvol (2004), and There's a Zulu on my Stoep (2009) -- capitalizes on his knack for hitting on a collective funny bone that is inherently connected to the confusing, catastrophic, and potentially wonderful cultural stew. Watch these at your own risk.

Cheap slapstick films aside, early post-apartheid cinema tended to focus heavily on "issue" narratives. Forgiveness (2004), exploring the possibilities for redemption, was ultimately a bad reminder of the worst of apartheid-era South Africa -- see it if you want to learn about some of the furious tensions that exist in our society. Picking up a number of international film festival awards, Promised Land (2003) deals with "white identity syndromes" evident in post-apartheid South Africa, but bewildered audiences with its cartoon stereotypes and art-house posturing; however, the film will give you a vague idea of how some people in this country have grown up with socialized hatred. Two small, but very memorable, late-1990s dramas that do justice to their subject matter are Paljas (1998), directed by South Africa's most prolific female filmmaker, Katinka Heyns (and quite possibly the best art-house film to have come out of South Africa), and A Reasonable Man (1999), directed by Gavin Hood, who went on to make South Africa's first-ever Oscar winner, Tsotsi, in 2005. Paljas is a small, riveting movie about a tiny, forgotten Afrikaans village and the intricacies of family and community life there. As a drama, it's searing, tender, and deeply moving, with some of the finest-ever screen performances by South Africans. A Reasonable Man explores the notion of justice in an unjust world (Hood, in fact, studied law and the legal system has always played some part in his movies).

In the last few years, three South African films have achieved international recognition: The much-lauded township opera, U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha (2005); the Oscar-nominated AIDS movie, Yesterday (2004); and the aforementioned Tsotsi, which won the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, albeit for a version of the film that featured not only a different soundtrack, but an alternate ending to the one shown in South Africa. Be that as it may, Tsotsi blew South African audiences away with its gripping human tragedy and a story that got under the belly of some of the country's most painful realities. Another film worth seeing (this time by Darrell Roodt, director of Yesterday), is Faith's Corner (2005), starring Lelethi Khumalo, the singular talent who headlines Yesterday. It's a very simple tale of a homeless woman's struggle to beg for enough money to feed her hungry children; a heartbreakingly honest reflection of life for many South Africans struggling on the streets. Three more films worth looking at are Stander (2004), which showcases the country as it looked and felt in the '70s -- it's also a very good portrayal of the only South African bank robber to have attained cult status; Jerusalama (2008), a gritty crime thriller that looks at one of Jo'burg's more audacious crime heists -- the hijacking of entire buildings by entrepreneurial slumlords; and the gripping, stirring, and sometimes hard-hitting Hillary Swank-starring Red Dust (2006), which uncovers some of the horrors of the past through episodes revealed at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Another one worth viewing is the well-made biopic of Nelson Mandela's prison warden Goodbye Bafana (2007), directed by Oscar-winning director Bille August. Then there's the Clint Eastwood-directed film, Invictus (2009), starring Matt Damon as a South African rugby hero and Morgan Freeman as Mandela, in a recounting of the country's most memorable victory ever on the sports field: the Rugby World Cup, in 1995. The most sensational South African movie in recent years is also a 2009 release: District 9 is a gutsy action/sci-fi film that does an interesting job of parodying the country's ongoing struggle with social geography and race politics. Although not to be taken at face value, the film is set in a highly recognizable Johannesburg but uses humanoid aliens as stand-ins for the country's economically deprived multitudes. It plays up all sorts of social stereotypes that -- mercifully -- you're unlikely to encounter on a visit here. With some impressive special effects, it's probably the first commercially viable film set in South Africa that steers clear of the slapstick-comedy route.

While we clearly have exciting enough material upon which to base them, we seem to lack the industry capacity to locally produce films, it seems. What we do have, though, is a massively talented film industry -- for years South African crews have been honing their skills on the plethora of international commercials and films that are shot here. Hopefully, now that the finishing touches are being put on the long awaited Cape Town Film Studios, there will be a more concerted push towards establishing a thriving, consistent industry in S.A., and we can look forward to more brilliantly-written, entertaining and insightful films such as Gums and Noses (2004), perhaps the most underrated South African film of the last decade. A slick little comedy set in the world of contemporary advertising, it's one of the few intelligent, locally-made films that side-steps politics and discovers a South Africa that is both unique and globally accessible.

By Dr. Keith Bain
PhD, Cinema Studies

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