The 2023 Sunday Times Literary Awards shortlist, in partnership with Exclusive Books
In partnership with Exclusive Books, the awards this year marks the 33rd anniversary of the non-fiction award which has, over three decades, showcased the most astute, critical and incisive non-fiction writing in SA. The fiction prize, now in its 22nd year, honours authors who have crafted and created astounding imagined worlds. The winners will each receive R100,000
The winner should demonstrate the illumination of truthfulness, especially those forms of it that are new, delicate, unfashionable and fly in the face of power; compassion; elegance of writing; and intellectual and moral integrity.
Here is the non-fiction shortlist in order of the author’s surname:
My Land Obsession: A Memoir by Bulelwa Mabasa (Picador Africa):Mabasa was born into a “matchbox ”family home in Meadowlands, Soweto, at the height of apartheid. She shares her colourful Christian upbringing, framed by the lived experiences of her grandparents, who endured land dispossession in the form of the Group Areas Act and the migrant labour system. Mabasa’s world was irrevocably altered when she encountered the disparities of life in a white-dominated school. Her interest in land justice informed her choice to study law at Wits, with the land question becoming central in her postgraduate studies. When she became an attorney in the early 2000s, she felt a strong need to build on her curiosity around land reform, moving on to form and lead a practice centred on it at Werksmans Attorneys. My Land Obsession sets out notable legal cases Mabasa has led and lessons that may be drawn from them. It also details her contributions to national policy on land reform and her views on how the land question must be inhabited and owned by all South Africans.
Judges said: An engaging memoir. It’s inspirational, factual and relevant with many angles that define our past going back generations.
Unforgiven: Face to Face with my Father's Killer by Liz McGregor (Jonathan Ball Publishers):
Robin McGregor, an older man who has recently moved into a small town outside Cape Town, is brutally murdered in his home. Cecil Thomas is convicted for the crime, but his trial leaves more questions than answers. As much as his daughter Liz McGregor tries to move beyond her grief, she still wants answers. What drove Thomas to torture and kill a complete stranger? The author meets the murderer’s family and discovers that he comes from a loving, comfortable home. He is educated and skilled; there is no apparent reason for his descent into delinquency. She finally gets to confront him but not without putting herself in danger. She finds answers, but not the answers she is looking for.
Judges said: A powerfully told story of the consequences of a terrible crime, unimaginable grief and a quest to confront a killer. This resonates deeply, particularly in a country where the vast majority of murders go unsolved.
Dear Comrade President: Oliver Tambo and the Foundations of South Africa’s Constitution by André Odendaal, with editorial contributions by Albie Sachs (Penguin Non-fiction):
In his annual presidential address on January 8 1986, ANC president Oliver Tambo called on South Africans to make apartheid ungovernable through militant action. But unknown to the world, he had also on that very day setup a secret think tank in Lusaka, which he named the Constitution Committee, giving it an “ad hoc unique exercise” that had “no precedent in the history of the movement ”. The seven-member team, including Albie Sachs, Kader Asmal and Zola Skweyiya, started deliberating and reporting to Tambo. In correspondence, they typically addressed him as “Dear Comrade President”. Drawing on the personal archives of participants, Dear Comrade President explains how this process unfolded.
Judges said: A rich, refreshing, methodical, easy-to-read book that has particular relevance today amid deepening political cynicism.
The Blinded City: Ten Years In Inner-City Johannesburg by Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon (Picador Africa):
In February 2010, while Johannesburg prepared for the Fifa World Cup, the South Gauteng high court ordered the eviction of the unlawful occupiers of an abandoned carpet factory on Saratoga Avenue and that the city’s Metropolitan Municipality provide temporary emergency accommodation for the evicted. The case, which became known as Blue Moonlight and went to the Constitutional Court, catalysed a decade of struggles over housing and eviction in Johannesburg. The Blinded City chronicles this case, among others, and the aftermath — a tumultuous period in the city characterised by recurrent dispossessions, police and immigration operations, outbursts of xenophobic violence, and political and legal change. All through the decade, there is the backdrop of successive mayors and their attempts to “clean up” the city, and the struggles of residents and urban housing activists for homes and a better life. The interwoven narratives present a compelling mosaic of life in post-apartheid Johannesburg, one of Earth’s most infamous and vital cities.
Judges said: An extraordinary book shedding light on inner-city life in Johannesburg. This is particularly relevant now.
Manifesto: A New Vision for South Africa by Songezo Zibi (Pan Macmillan):
Zibi challenges himself and all those who are willing to take a chance to pursue a higher ideal, something bigger than any individual, a belief that we can be the stewards of our own destiny. This is his manifesto. The book presents a challenge to South Africa’s professionals, black and white — who should know that turning the country around will take much more than good intentions — to urgently return to public life. They are key to moving the country towards modern democratic politics and can help grow its economy to fit in with and thrive in a rapidly evolving world. South Africa will get nowhere if the most able continue to be on the periphery of politics.
Judges said: Well researched, argued and written. This is a fierce, timely, beautifully written assessment of South Africa today, what needs to be done to fix it and a call to action in the face of betrayal.
The winner should be a novel of rare imagination and style, evocative, textured and a tale so compelling as to become an enduring landmark of contemporary fiction.
Here is the fiction shortlist in order of the author’s surname:
The Heist Men by Andrew Brown (Penguin Fiction):
Cape Town is experiencing a wave of skilfully executed cash-in-transit heists, and Captain Eberard Februarie is brought in to crack the case. There are few leads to go on, and the gang always seems to be a step ahead of the cops, raising suspicions of a leak from the inside. Andile Xaba lives a double life, leading a crew of heist men while hiding his activities from his girlfriend and mother. He knows the police are on his tail, and when a job goes wrong, fault lines start emerging in the gang. They cannot afford any more mistakes. Brown pits his haunted detective against the most elusive enemy he has faced. While dealing with his own demons, problems with his ex-wife and daughter, and a colonel with a history in the apartheid police force, Eberard moves ever closer to a dramatic showdown.
Judges said: This isn’t an everyday cops and robbers story. Brown’s personal history, skill and intimate knowledge of South Africa’s troubled past and present elevate this book above the usual crime literature. Well researched, absorbing and timely.
How to be a Revolutionary by CA Davids (Umuzi):
Beth has been dispatched from Joburg to South Africa’s diplomatic mission in Shanghai. Newly divorced, childless and uneasy about her decision to remain in the employ of a regime she distrusts, she is adrift in her own life. Until she meets Zhao, her upstairs neighbour. Beth has heard him typing late at night, but Zhao insists she must be mistaken. Zhao — older, unmarried and a former high-ranking Party journalist — becomes Beth’s friend. She is not prepared for a disappearance, followed by the arrival, through her mailslot in the middle of the night, of chunks of typewritten manuscript pages. Woven into the story are Langston Hughes’s fictional letters to a South African writer about the poet’s own mysterious visit to Shanghai; Zhao ’s quest to uncover the truth behind his mother’s disappearance during Communist China’s Great Leap Forward; and the story of Beth, a teenager whose decision to join the South African struggle will have far-reaching consequences for the woman she will become.
Judges said: Masterful. A fascinating book made up of three different stories, to create a whole that is increasingly relevant in a multi-polar world where people’s pasts have to be grappled with to be made sense of.
The Quality of Mercy by Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu (Penguin Fiction):
Having recently been promoted to chief inspector, it is up to Spokes Moloi — a man of impeccable rectitude and moral spotlessness who is supported in all things by his paragon spouse, Loveness — to solve long-standing mysteries. His task now is to unravel the alleged murder of a man, Emil Coetzee, but also the tangled web that his life created. Following on her award-winning novels The Theory of Flight and The History of Man, Ndlovu weaves together elements of social comedy and cosy crime while examining the history of a country transitioning from a colonial to a postcolonial state.
Judges said: Powerful and thought-provoking, the book effortlessly captures the different classes and customs, prejudices and fears as Rhodesia morphs into Zimbabwe.
An Unusual Grief by Yewande Omotoso (Jonathan Ball Publishers/CassavaRepublic Press):
How do you get to know your daughter when she is dead? This is the question that haunts Mojisola as she grapples with the sudden loss of her daughter, Yinka, and the unresolved fractures in their relationship. Mojisola is forced to confront the dysfunctions of her life that have led her to this point, evading her errant husband and mourning their estranged daughter alone. Mojisola's grief takes her from Cape Town to Joburg where she holes up in Yinka’s flat, unearthing the life that she had built for herself there. Walking a mile in Yinka’s shoes, Mojisola slips into a clandestine underworld, where she learns to break free from the bondage of the labels of wife and mother. In this new world of feline companionship, reignited talents and unlikely friendships, including with Yinka’s acerbic landlady Zelda, Mojisola's understanding of life, and her place within it, is built anew.
Judges said: A brave and vivid story of a mother’s grief and attempts to uncover who her daughter was and what happened to her. Omotoso’s writing about trauma, loss and imperfection is outstanding.
The Errors of Dr Browne by Mark Winkler (Umuzi):
In Bury St Edmonds, 1662, two widows are charged with acts of witchcraft. Dr Browne is known as a philosopher, natural scientist, logician and medical doctor, yet despite his best efforts the trial hinges on the admissibility of “spectral evidence”: the accused women are deemed to have the ability to exploit their victims through dreams. This will set a legal precedent for the infamous Salem witch trials in Massachusetts 30 years later. Conflicted by his deeply held religious beliefs and his confidence in the validity of emerging scientific methods, Browne is left to ponder the true nature of culpability — and whether the most insidious evil is, in fact, that which we carry within.
Judges said: An interesting story drawn from an obscure witchcraft case that would later have a bearing on the Salem trials, which leads to loud echoes of what has happened and is still happening here. Well researched and masterfully written.