Exclusive Books. File Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL/RUSSEL ROBERTS
Exclusive Books. File Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL/RUSSEL ROBERTS

If you want to know a country, listen to its stories. What is written and what is read by that nation is a reflection of the anxieties and realities of the time. This is not a list of the "best" titles of the decades, rather a selection of stories significant for their popularity or their political heft.

1960s

When the Lion Feeds won Wilbur Smith his place in the sun and he’s never stepped out of it again.

A Walk in the Night by banned activist Alex la Guma was the first to explore the sleaze and desperation on the streets of District Six.

• Lewis Nkosi’s collection of essays Home and Exile was a broadside from a major talent banished from his homeland.

1970s

Die Swerfjare van Poppie Nongena/The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena by Elsa Joubert was the moving epic that woke the average reader to the iniquities of the apartheid laws.

• One of Nadine Gordimer’s greatest works, Burger’s Daughter, was banned in SA but reached a wide audience overseas.

Between Two Worlds by Miriam Tlali is considered to be one of the most important novels of SA under apartheid.

• With The Super-Afrikaners, Ivor Wilkins and Hans Strydom broke open, once and for all, SA’s secret power structures.

• André Brink’s A Dry White Season is just one of four books he wrote in this decade that cemented his reputation as a titan of SA literature.

1980s

• Breyten Breytenbach recalled his seven-year imprisonment for anti-apartheid activities in The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist.

Fiela se Kind/Fiela’s Child by Dalene Matthee was a beloved SA classic.

Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane was subtitled The True Story of a Black Youth’s Coming of Age.

• Christopher Hope is one of our most lethal satirists, as evidenced in A Separate Development.

• Njabulo Ndebele strode onto the scene with his first book, Fools and Other Stories.

Thoughts in a Makeshift Mortuary by Jenny Hobbs was a landmark of the decade.

1990s

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela defined the era and the man himself.

• Deon Meyer published his first crime novel, Dead Before Dying, and there has been no stopping him since.

My Traitor’s Heart by Rian Malan is one of SA’s most famous, and still talked-about, nonfiction works.

Disgrace by JM Coetzee is considered the Nobel laureate’s apogee.

• Marlene van Niekerk shone unsettling light on poor white Afrikaners in Triomf.

• The seminal Country of My Skull by Antjie Krog laid bare the shame and pain of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission.

2000s

• Zakes Mda won both a Commonwealth prize and the inaugural Sunday Times Fiction Prize with The Heart of Redness.

Midlands marked the start of Jonny Steinberg’s astonishing arc of works that minutely scrutinise SA society.

• Lauren Beukes stepped out as one of the most unusual and interesting of the new young writers with Moxyland.

• With its themes of Aids and xenophobia, Welcome to Our Hillbrow by Phaswane Mpe was hailed as one of the first important books post-apartheid.

• Schoolboy story Spud by John van de Ruit was the irrepressible, bestselling sensation of the decade.

• K Sello Duiker was gone too soon. In Thirteen Cents he demonstrated a rare talent.

Dog Eat Dog by Niq Mhlongo was a dazzling debut and a sharp insight into the minds of the youth.

• Kopano Matlwa brilliantly explored culture and identity issues in Coconut.

In Confessions of a Gambler Rayda Jacobs lifted the veil on Muslim women — and their addictions — in Cape Town.

• Patricia Schonstein’s warm, empathetic novel Skyline traced the lives of African refugees in a block of flats in Long Street.

2010s

• Damon Galgut’s sinuous study of EM Forster, Arctic Summer, was a masterpiece.

The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony dominated the bestseller lists, revealing our appetite for heartfelt wildlife stories.

• The publisher couldn’t print enough of The Real Meal Revolution by Tim Noakes et al, and greengrocers ran out of cauliflower.

Good Morning, Mr Mandela endeared us to Zelda la Grange and to Madiba all over again.

• Favourite homeboy Trevor Noah showed us how he did it in Born a Crime.

• Jacques Pauw scandalised the country with his revelations in The President’s Keepers.

• In Endings & Beginnings Redi Tlhabi looked back in anger to her painful childhood in Soweto.

Magwood is the contributing books editor of the Sunday Times