South Africa country overview

The culture of South Africa

Geography, People, Culture, and Economic Profile

South Africa information index

The arts of South Africa

Ancient rock and cave paintings, attributed to the indigenous San people and estimated to be approximately 26,000 years old, have been discovered throughout Southern Africa. The most significant concentration of these artworks, which predominantly feature depictions of human figures and a variety of animals such as elands, elephants, cattle, and horses, is located in the Drakensberg mountains. This region, incorporated within the uKhahlamba/Drakensberg Park, was honored with the designation of a UNESCO World Heritage site in the year 2000.

In addition to these paintings, archaeological findings have unearthed terra-cotta sculptures, notably the Lydenburg heads, which date back to around 500 AD and are named after the town near their discovery site. Excavations conducted in the Limpopo River valley, specifically at the sites of Bambandyanalo and Mapungubwe, have revealed a collection of gold animal figurines, an array of pottery, and numerous clay animal sculptures.

The historical narrative of South African art is further enriched by the Zulu wooden statues crafted in the 19th century, preceding the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. These artifacts offer insight into the pre-colonial artistic expressions of the region.

In the contemporary art scene, South African artists maintain a connection to traditional methods while also embracing Western artistic techniques. Esteemed artists such as Jane Alexander, Helen Sebidi, Willie Bester, and Bongiwe Dhlomo exemplify the fusion of these influences in their diverse bodies of work.


Throughout the 20th century, South African literature emerged as a pivotal medium for expressing dissent against the apartheid regime. A seminal piece in this literary canon is Alan Paton’s “Cry, the Beloved Country” (1948), which garnered international focus on the divisive policies of apartheid. By the 1960s, the literary community coalesced around various periodicals, giving rise to a group of influential writers known as the Sestigers. These writers, active during the 1960s, were unified in their opposition to the National Party’s authoritarian governance, yet their consensus fractured over the debate between advocating for a violent upheaval and pursuing the ethos of art for art’s sake.

The 1970s witnessed a continuation of literary works that scrutinized the apartheid system, with notable contributions from André Brink with “Kennis van die aand” (1973; “Looking on Darkness”), Nadine Gordimer’s “Burger’s Daughter” (1979), and Breyten Breytenbach’s “In Africa Even the Flies Are Happy” (1977). Concurrently, the South African government sought to suppress dissenting voices through the Publications Act of 1974, which intensified censorship efforts. This oppressive climate led many writers to seek exile, some of whom only returned in the 1990s, while others remained abroad even after apartheid’s dissolution.

Despite the exodus, André Brink chose to stay in South Africa and articulated his perspective in “Writing in a State of Siege” (1983), highlighting the National Party’s failure to silence the voices of South African authors. In recent years, a burgeoning recognition of a shared identity among writers has fostered a newfound solidarity. This collective has become an informed and eloquent force in the resistance against oppression, transcending the historical divisions of black, Afrikaans, and English literary traditions.

Black literature

Within the spectrum of South African literary expression, the domain of Black literature remains comparatively under-recognized. The diverse Black communities of South Africa are custodians of a wealth of oral traditions, encompassing narratives, poetry, historical recounting, and epics. These traditions have evolved in tandem with the transformations in Black society. There is a prevailing concern that the classical oral traditions may diminish as literacy and recorded music become more widespread. Nonetheless, these oral traditions have significantly shaped South Africa’s written literature, integrating with literary currents from other African regions, the Caribbean, the Americas, and Europe.

Esteemed authors such as Oliver Kgadime Matsepe (North Sotho), Thomas Mofolo (South Sotho), Guybon Sinxo (Xhosa), and B.W. Vilakazi (Zulu) have drawn more profoundly from their indigenous oral traditions than from European literary structures in their written works. Other Black authors, commencing with Solomon Plaatje in the 1930s and his historical novel “Mhudi” (1930), have deliberately incorporated Black oral history into their English writings. The expansion of literacy gave rise to a commercial press, predominantly in English, catering to a Black readership and influencing subsequent generations of authors. The journal “Drum” stands out, with contributors such as Nat Nakasa, Can Themba, Bloke Modisane, and Lewis Nkosi, who vividly depicted the urban township life and the burgeoning aspirations for freedom within the Black community.

However, the 1960s saw severe governmental repression that stifled much of this creative spirit, compelling luminaries like Dennis Brutus, Ezekiel Mphahlele, Mazisi Kunene, and others into exile, where they continued to voice their literary prowess.

Afrikaans literature

The Afrikaans literary tradition, which emerged from the cultural and artistic endeavors of the early Afrikaner nationalist movement, traces its roots back to the late 19th century. This movement, which began in the 1880s, established the groundwork for a political nationalism that solidified after the British conquest and played a significant role in shaping the ideology that underpinned the apartheid system. By the 1920s, through clandestine groups such as the Afrikaner-Broederbond and various cultural organizations, a spectrum of influential figures—including educators, scholars, clergy of the Dutch Reformed Church, authors, artists, and journalists—began to forge a potent and somewhat authoritarian narrative. This narrative centered on an exclusive, divinely sanctioned national identity based on race. This narrative found expression in various cultural forms, including literature, drama, music, and public monuments, and it underpinned the official culture of apartheid. It paradoxically advocated for the separate development of non-Afrikaner cultures under state-dictated terms.

As Afrikaans literature evolved, authors began to address more universal subjects such as love, conflict, nature, and the intricacies of everyday life, and some even voiced opposition to apartheid. The early 20th century saw the prominence of poets like Jakob Daniel du Toit and C. Louis Leipoldt. The emergence of the Dertigers, or “Thirtyers,” in the 1930s, marked a significant milestone in Afrikaans literature, with figures such as W.E.G. Louw elevating the literary standards. Subsequent generations of writers, including the Sestigers like novelists Etienne Leroux and André Brink, as well as the poet Breyten Breytenbach, continued to make notable contributions. Following the Sestigers, distinguished authors such as poets Wilma Stockenström, Sheila Cussons, and Antjie Krog, along with novelists Elsa Joubert, Karel Schoeman, and Etienne van Heerden, have left an indelible mark on the landscape of Afrikaans literature.

Anglophone literature

The emergence of the Anglophone literary tradition in South Africa can be traced back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This period was marked by the contributions of notable authors such as Olive Schreiner, a pioneering feminist whose seminal work, “The Story of an African Farm” (1883), is often regarded as the first significant novel to emerge from the region. Additionally, Herman Charles Bosman gained recognition for his incisive short stories that vividly depicted the idiosyncrasies of life on the veld.

In the post-World War II era, a new wave of literature emerged, which could be characterized as the literature of the liberal conscience. This period saw the works of Alan Paton, Nadine Gordimer—who was later honored with the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991—and their contemporaries. Their narratives were distinguished by acute social critique intertwined with contemplations on the moral obligations and destinies of individuals caught within repressive circumstances beyond their control.

Multicultural literature

In the 1970s, the South African arts scene witnessed the emergence of potent themes that reflected the nation’s diverse cultural tapestry, incorporating elements from multiple races and languages. This period was marked by the creative endeavors of writers and artists from varied backgrounds who delved into the social unrest stirred by apartheid. The resultant artistic expression fostered a profound awareness of Black culture and history, drawing upon influences from intellectual movements across West and North Africa, the Caribbean, and African American communities. The literature of this era, particularly the poetry and prose of urban authors such as Mothobi Mutloatse, Miriam Tlali, Mbulelo Mzamane, and Njabulo Ndebele, and showcased in publications like Staffrider, resonated with the themes of Black consciousness. These themes were rooted in the literary and oral traditions of indigenous South African languages, as well as in works penned by Black authors in European languages.

Throughout this period, the South African government imposed strict censorship on literary works that dealt with political dissent or explicit sexual content. Authors including Breytenbach, Brink, Leroux, and Dan Roodt faced the banning of their works and sought to navigate the cultural landscape that would underpin the Afrikaner identity in a reformed, democratic South Africa.

Writers such as Adam Small, writing in Afrikaans, and Alex La Guma, writing in English, have offered compelling narratives about the impact of racial discrimination and the intricate, often tumultuous, realities of life in South Africa. The literary contributions of both Black and white South African writers on these and other subjects have garnered international acclaim. Esteemed authors like J.M. Coetzee, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003, Sipho Sepamla, and Mongane Wally Serote, alongside luminaries such as Mphahlele, Paton, Brink, and Leroux, have significantly elevated the profile of South African literature on the global stage.

In the post-apartheid era, South African writers have approached their craft with varying perspectives. Some have ventured to explore themes beyond the scope of apartheid, while others continue to find the subject inescapable in their work.


These innovative theatrical forms not only reflected the diverse linguistic and cultural tapestry of South Africa but also helped to bridge the gap between different communities within the country. The support from nonracial institutions like the Market Theatre played a crucial role in nurturing and promoting these emerging talents, providing them with a platform to showcase their work to audiences from all walks of life. The international success of playwrights like Athol Fugard, Mbongeni Ngema, and others has not only put South African theatre on the map but has also helped to shine a spotlight on the country’s rich cultural heritage. Their works, which often tackle complex and controversial issues such as apartheid, identity, and social justice, have resonated with audiences around the world, sparking important conversations and raising awareness about the challenges faced by South Africans. As South African dramatists continue to push the boundaries of traditional theatre and experiment with new forms and styles, the global impact of their work is likely to grow even further. By embracing multilingual productions and exploring themes that are universal yet rooted in the country’s unique history and experiences, these playwrights are helping to shape the future of theatre not just in South Africa but on a global scale. Ultimately, their contributions to the world of drama serve as a testament to the power of storytelling in bringing people together and fostering understanding and empathy across cultures.

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