Bookbox: A South African Odyssey: Rage, Rugby, Lions and a Signature Campaign

Dear reader,

A thrilling event took place in the summer of my sixteenth year. It was Nelson Mandela, whose birthday was celebrated earlier this week.

Early in the morning in 1986, a group of us boarded our RK Puram school bus from Delhi Public School and drove to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s residence at 7 Race Course Road. We carried with us bundles of paper – a signature campaign we had led for the release of Nelson Mandela. Standing there on the beautifully manicured lawns, in my schoolgirl uniform, speaking to one world leader, for the release of another, I felt, for the first time in my life, part of history.

The author (fourth from right of Rajiv Gandhi) at the Free Nelson Mandela signature campaign presented to Rajiv Gandhi.

Nelson Mandela captured the imagination of the whole world. On his birthday week, we look at five books from his home country, a spectacular literature spawned by stunning landscapes, tribal lore and a turbulent history.

Book 1 of 5: Political History

Play the enemy.

As the London Independent’s South Africa bureau chief, John Carlin closely followed the tumultuous anti-apartheid years. In Playing the Enemy, Carlin tells the story of South Africa around the drama of a rugby match. The book is full of fascinating black and white vignettes of antagonists and startling details of their encounters. I particularly enjoyed the audio version, where the narration comes to life in the accents of political actors. The perfect companion book for this is Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.

Book 2 of 5: Memoirs on Wildlife

The Elephant Whisperer.

The Elephant Whisperer begins with a desperate phone call. A herd of elephants has gone rogue and they will be killed unless author and conservationist Lawrence Anthony agrees to take them in. The Elephant Whisperer is action-packed, featuring dangerous poachers and the rogue elephants themselves. It’s also touching and profound. “Perhaps the most important lesson I learned is that there are no walls between humans and elephants except those we put up ourselves, and that until we have just left to the elephants, but to all living creatures their place in the sun, we can never be whole ourselves. ,“says Lawrence, who died in 2012. But his story continues. Read An Elephant in My Kitchen by his wife Françoise Malby-Anthony, who continues her conservation work.

Book 3 of 5: Award Winning Fiction

Weep, beloved country.

Cry, the Beloved Country is the story of two families – one black and one white – in apartheid South Africa. A classic from 1948, this book is still relevant in the way it tackles the theme of division and conflict. “It suited the white man to break up the tribe, he continued gravely. But he didn’t like to build something in place of what’s brokensays Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo, who travels to Johannesburg, encountering protest, prison, hope and forgiveness in this unforgettable tale.

Born a crime.

Trevor Noah’s very existence violated an apartheid law. He was the child of a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother at a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison. As a mixed-race child, Noah spent his life being an outsider, in all worlds – black, white and colored. He writes about it through simple incidents like losing a new bike, getting kicked out by a girlfriend, starting a rock band, selling pirated CDs, and using humor as a buffer against the world. This almost flippant narrative style and rags-to-riches storyline make Born a Crime a standout read. The audio version of this story, voiced by Trevor Noah, is also a great option.

Book 5 of 5: The Short Story of a Nobel Laureate

Once upon a time.

Read South Africa’s literary novel winners – Doris Lessing, JM Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer. All three also have fabulous novels, including the highly commented Disgrace by JM Coetzee. If you want to start small, start with this audio version of a short story – Once Upon a Time by Nadine Gordimer.

This list of 5 leaves out many amazing books – like The Book of Joy where Bishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama share their life lessons, historical fiction by Wilbur Smith and thrillers by Deon Meyer. But we have some other fabulous book recommendations, from an unusual source.

On a rainy day in Manali, I meet South African animal rights activist Irma Wouters. She has been visiting India for years and currently works with animal rescue charity Manali Strays. Over steaming cups of masala chai, she talks about reading in three different languages, Dutch, Afrikaans and English, and explains why reading about quantum physics was important to her work.

Edited excerpts from our conversation:

Irma Wouters.

Tell us about your first readings?

The first books I read were in Dutch. We had moved to South Africa when I was three and the only books at home were in Dutch. First it was picture books and then I read whatever was available. Gypsy novels were very popular at the time, it was then the thing of falling in love with a gypsy and being free to roam around, so we had all these gypsy novels in Dutch, many translated from German and I read all those at home.

As a teenager growing up in Pretoria, what were the books that influenced you?

I still remember Kringe in ‘n bos a novel by Dalene Matthee about the extermination of elephants and the exploitation of loggers in Knysna Forest. It was a school reading and I loved it even though most of the students didn’t read it because it was in Afrikaans. But since I had gone to an Afrikaans primary school and then an English high school, I find it easy to read in both Afrikaans and English. There is also an English translation of the book called Circles in a Forest, although I’m not sure how it reads.

Another book was A Dry White Season, another book I read in Afrikaans. It was banned shortly after publication, as it was far too leftist for the political climate of the time. Andre Brink writes from the “honest” perspective of a man, so it may sound harsh, sexist, misogynistic, or rude in places, but the story was good. Alas, in his later books they edited his words into a smooth, soft polish and his later writing lost a lot of passion due to editing.

What other wildlife books would you recommend?

If you love animals, the mystery and symbolism with a touch of culture thrown into Linda Tucker’s Mystery of the White Lions blew me away. I met Linda during an animal communication class when she just published this book. Brave woman. My sister and I went to one of her lion rescue lectures, when a group of burly hunters and canned lion herders came in with big guns to intimidate her…and us. The book is also controversial because of its teacher, Credo Mutwa, he is revered by many as a great seer, but he is also somewhat controversial.

Mystery of the White Lions.

Tell us about your reading phases?

For many years I did not read. We lived in the suburbs and I didn’t have access to books. But one day, when I was in class 9, a teacher handed me a book. We had exams at that time, one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and we had to sit and wait between exams. “Why don’t you try?” I think you’ll like it,” she said. The book was the first in the Belgariad series by David Heddings. I immediately hooked. She was right. I just had to find the right book.

Later, I had a friend who borrowed a lot of books on witches and feminism from her college library. I sat in his place and read them all.

It was the apartheid era and with all the sanctions we were locked away from the world. You didn’t have many books, you read everything you had.

I always wanted to be a veterinarian, but I started working in IT instead. We used to have what we called these “hurry up and wait for the nights”, we would run the code and have to stay awake, in case there was a mistake. We spent those nights reading whatever we could find, often science fiction.

Have you visited bookstores?

When I was 16, I got my first motorcycle. It changed my life. I had a weekend job at a mall and there were bookstores there. And once apartheid was lifted, more books began to arrive. Then I moved to Ireland to work and started buying and reading books there.

Besides science fiction, what are your other interests?

While working in IT, I began to study the T-Touch method of healing animals, working with the nervous system. People think T-Touch is hocus pocus and flaky, but quantum physics can explain these energy healing concepts. One of the books I remember from that time is The Dancing Wu Li Masters.

My sister gave me The Agony and the Ecstacy and I loved it. The Harry Potter books, I loved them too, staying home from work to read them

What’s next on your reading shelf?

Zakes Mda’s Heart of Redness. I am glad to read this author. Not only is it considered by Chimamanda Adichie, it is also recommended by avid reader friends in South Africa.

Finally, what are the 3 South African books that you recommend?

Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom — When people hear you’re a white South African, they automatically assume you’re a racist. But when they hear you like Mandela, they’re fine. I am happy to sincerely and sincerely admire Mandela and recommend his book.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Circles in a Forest by Dalene Matthee


Have you visited South Africa?

And do you have any books that you enjoyed – write to us with recommendations.

Next week, as we prepare for the July 31 deadline for filing our tax returns, we’re bringing you some life-changing personal finance books.

Until then, happy reading!

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week she brings you specially selected books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, email him at

Opinions expressed are personal

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Charles P. Patton