Southern African Crime Fiction


Crime fiction in Southern Africa mainly consists of the detective novel and the crime thriller, however, it can also include political thrillers, such as Red Dust by Gillian Slovo, and the lesser known historical crime novel, such as Andrew Brown’s Coldsleep Lullaby. The detective novel is the most popular subgenre among both authors and readers, however the Southern African detective novel does not follow the archetype of a James Bond or Sherlock Holmes novel. Instead of focusing on bringing one person to justice, authors, such as Roger Smith, rather put the entire nation on trial by pointing to the socio-political problems of the region. Because of this, some are calling the South African crime novel the ‘new political novel’. Scholars Sammantha Naidu and Elizabeth le Roux explain that “crime fiction interrogates every facet of society and critically engages with pertinent themes such as child abuse, political corruption, ecology, and organised crime.” In other words, Southern African detective novels are not the classic “whodunnit” novels, but instead are more like “whydunnit” novels because they focus more on the societal problems that lead so many people to commit crimes than who actually committed the crime. Lastly, since many times the murderer or criminal is not brought to justice in Southern African crime fiction, as in real life, the courtroom drama is not common in this region.

History of Crime Fiction in Southern Africa

Crime fiction in Southern Africa began with the novels of James McClure in the late 1960s. McClure wrote about crime in South Africa through his detective series, Kramer and Zondi. By writing about crime during the Apartheid-era, he began the tradition of commenting on the current sociopolitical state of the region through crime fiction . Wessel Ebersohn was also instrumental in giving crime fiction its start in the region, specifically in South Africa. Complementary to McClure, Ebersohn wrote psychological thrillers which commented on the evil of people and pointed to the “reality of the security police” during the apartheid era. In the post-Apartheid era, Deon Meyer has become the central author of crime fiction novels in South Africa. Similar to McClure and other contemporary crime fiction authors, Meyer’s novels aim to paint a picture of what life is like in South Africa, specifically within the context of crime.

Topics of interest for authors have moved from political issues during the Apartheid era, to serial killers during the transition period to a non-Apartheid state, back to social and political concerns in the post-Apartheid era. Contemporary crime fiction writers are now interested in making the criminal a politician, popular business man, or some other type of public authority figure. Furthermore, instead of solely focusing on serial killings, crimes can now be anything from ritualistic murders to political corruption or international crime, such as drug trade.

Lastly, most of the crime fiction that has come out of Southern Africa has been concentrated in South Africa as authors in neighboring countries have just begun to produce detective or crime novels. For instance, Pepetela, the author of Jaime Bunda Secret Agent, is the only writer in Angola that has ventured into the genre of crime fiction. However, authors such as Unity Dow from Botswana and Alexander McCall Smith from Zimbabwe have been central to the expanding number of crime novels coming out of the region.

Synopsis of Select Novels

The following are brief summaries of a select number of crime fiction novels from Southern Africa.


Jaime Bunda Secret Agent by Pepetela (2006) – This novel is a satire about a detective named Jaime Bunda solving his very first case. He starts out trying to solve a murder but ends up in the middle of a much larger international criminal network. Through the use of satire, Pepetela pokes fun at both popular detective stories, such as James Bond and Sherlock Holmes, as well as the social problems plaguing Angola, such as government and police corruption and lack of government infrastructures.


The Screaming of the Innocent by Unity Dow (2007) – takes place in a small village in Botswana. It is a story about a box of bloodied clothes that reappear five years after a young girl goes missing. This discovery prompts the village to investigate members of their village, the police and the government as a whole as it comes to light that the girl was killed for a ritual murder. Spirituality and corruption are the center themes of the novel, but it also speaks about silence, advocacy and community.

South Africa

Coldsleep Lullaby by Andrew Brown (2005) – Takes place in Stellenbosch, South Africa. One plotline takes place in the modern day, following a mentally unstable coloured detective as he investigates the murder of the daughter of a prominent   white citizen in the community. The other plotline takes place three hundred years ago, and follows how the community was founded by Dutch settlers who used slave labor. Themes include corruption, duty/obligation, race/class in South Africa, and Afrikaan culture.

Red Dust by Gillian Slovo (2000) – Red Dust, published just six short years after the fall of Apartheid, is a political thriller centering around a hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a governmental commission set up to grant amnesty to politically-motivated criminals if they were willing to confess to, and disclose details of, their crimes. Set in the fictional town of Smitsriver, the novel traces the efforts of prosecutor Sarah Barcant, and her mentor Ben Hoffman, as they attempt to uncover the truth of what happened to Steve Sizela, a local ANC activist who went missing a decade earlier. The book examines the questions central to the heart of the TRC, namely, what is truth, and is true reconciliation possible?

Wake Up Dead by Roger Smith (2010) – Wake Up Dead Is an unconventional thriller set in Cape Town. The wife of a corrupt man shoots her husband and blames it on two criminals. This sets off a series of violent crimes that interweave multiple characters together. Each character is mixed up in some sort of criminal activity and all their crimes come to fruition in a bloody climax at the end. Racial tension is shown throughout the novel, as well as, corruption within the police force and prison systems.

General Themes


One major theme found throughout Southern African crime novels is corruption, specifically within the police force and the government. Anneke Rautenbach explains that contemporary authors, such as Deon Meyer and Roger Smith have “begun to add their voices to political commentary, writing about a nation in flux, widespread corruption within the political and business sectors amidst rampant decentralisation and deregulation, and the struggle of a new nation for normative control with the inherited infrastructure of an immoral regime”. In other words, in addition to the focus on rampant corruption in the countries, authors also illustrate the consequences of this corruption, such as lacking infrastructure. Rautenbach also alludes to the point that often times this corruption in both reality and in crime novels stems from long periods of instability in the country. Additionally, because many of the government infrastructures are not in place, the characters in the novels have to take matters into their own hands.

Wake Up Dead is just one example of how corruption combs its way through Southern African crime fiction. In Wake Up Dead, corruption can be seen within the author’s vivid description of a flawed criminal justice system. Also he depicts a vivid critique of the conditions of the prisons. Corruption is shown multiple time within the police force. Cops involved are either being paid off or planting evidence in the pursuit of fame. Justice is never really given to any of the characters. The possible moments of justice is committed by citizens and almost always the law is broken in the process.

Pepetela’s satire, Jaime Bunda Secret Agent, is another example of how corruption takes center stage in crime fiction from this region. At the end of the novel Jaime Bunda finds out that a top official in the government’s secret police task force is involved in an international trade of counterfeit currency and is friends with a known criminal who has been deported from Angola and is now in the country illegally. Furthermore, the person who rapes and murders a girl at the beginning of the novel turns out to be the son of a government official, and because of this he is not likely to actually have to go to jail or stand trial for his crime. Lastly, Pepetela implies that there is a lack of government infrastructure because at the beginning of the novel Jaime does not have his own gun or car to be able to solve his first case.

Corruption is also seen in Coldsleep Lullaby. In this book, it is tied into race. In the book, a white professor goes into the jail where the black immigrant suspect is being held for murdering his daughter. He murders the suspect even though there is no evidence yet that he committed the murder. The professor, who is a very powerful person in the community, easily makes bail, and claims that the suspect attacked him from the jail cell and he looks to be found not guilty at his trial. Racism against black South Africans seems to be a motive for why he was so quick to go after the suspect.

Racial/Cultural Differences in South Africa

Because of the context of the Apartheid, race and cultural difference tends to weave its way through South African crime fiction. Many times racial differences are brought up in the context of how to move on from the Apartheid era. As Leon de Kock points out, J.M. Coetze’s novel, Disgrace, demonstrates how both white and black South Africans question how to get along in the post-Apartheid era. Though Disgrace is not considered a genre novel, it is a great example of how racial differences and crime coincide in present day South Africa. De Kock further elaborates that the question of how to dissolve racial and cultural differences leads to ambiguity on what is wrong and what is right, and furthermore, what is legal and illegal. Thus, the blurred racial and cultural differences actually lead to more crime in both reality and in South African crime fiction.

For example, questions of race and cultural harmony are central to Red Dust. As a novel that deals with the fallout of Apartheid, it questions the ability of a people to come together and heal from institutions as bitter and contentious as Apartheid. Racial animus is still prevalent in the South Africa of Red Dust, and the trial opens old wounds as it interrogates the white police officer accused of killing a black activist.

Race and culture play a big role in Coldsleep Lullaby. The girl who is murdered is white, and is the daughter of a professor who is a powerful figure in the community. He is head of a committee that tries to preserve Afrikaan culture in the community, which is basically white African culture who are descended from the Dutch. At the beginning of the novel, a black police officer tells her partner that she is not offended by the professor, and does not consider it racist of him to try to preserve his culture. However, as the novel goes on, we see how the professor’s racism against black South Africans and immigrants unveils itself, and plays a big role in the events of the novel. In the other plotline, that takes place in the same town three hundred years ago, we see how race and culture played a big role in the foundation of the town as Dutch settlers founded the community using African slave labor. We see that the professor is actually descended from a black slave and a white slave master.

Lack of Religion

As Karen Ferreria-Meyers discusses in her article “Crime doesn’t pray in local fiction”, religion does not play a central role in Southern African crime fiction. The lack of religion in these novels is mainly because, as Ferreira-Meyers puts it, “the author emphasises the ineffectiveness of due process and the search for moral justice”. This connects back to the idea of corruption in Southern African crime fiction and the concept behind the TRC, which is brought up in Red Dust. Thus, because authors are so focused on illustrating the corruption in the country, there is no room for religion. For example, in Jaime Bunda Secret Agent, there are only references to religion, such as one of the characters being Muslim or Jaime’s family going to church on Sunday. However, as Ferreria-Meyers points out in her novel, some crime novels do include ritualistic killings or the concept of ritualistic power, such as in Roger Smith’s Wake Up Dead, or in Unity Dow’s novel, The Screaming of the Innocent.

In Wake Up Dead, the character Doc, an ex-doctor turned arms dealer shows us an example of religion in modern day Cape Town. He was disbarred from the hospital for selling body parts on the side. There is one chapter we get from Doc’s point of view he explains the value of these body parts for people who believe in ritualistic power. He explains in detail the preparation of a severed limb. He also speaks to the fact that some of these rituals are not sinister just simply for good luck or wealth. A portion of the earnings he gives to the cops to keep them happy. This is another part where corruption can be seen within the police force.

In The Screaming of the Innocent, a young girl is killed as a ritual murder, which involves killing a young pre-pubescent girl in order to receive good luck in your business. Furthermore, religion plays a part in the novel because the young girl was conceived from rape when her mother visits a spiritual healer about her marriage. Instead, the man rapes her. Finally, there is an example of religious spirituality when there is a mentally disabled man in the village, and the village ties him up in a religious ceremony to free him from his disability. The village was dismayed when the next day the villager was the same, and there was no cure.

Writing Style


Southern African crime fiction authors, such as Pepetela and Brown, often use different narrators in their novels. In Jaime Bunda Secret Agent, Pepetela chooses to use four different narrators. Not only does he switch from one narration style to the next, he actually distances himself from the narrators by critiquing them. For example, after the first narrator, the author steps in and comments, “Okay, this narrator is as monotonous as a quisssonde army passing by…By the absolute power I possess, I hereby fire this narrator once and for all.” While the way in which Pepetela plays with narration adds to the satirical nature of the book, the different narrators allow the reader to understand more fully what is going in on the investigation. Furthermore crime fiction authors often choose to focus on the narration of their stories in order to add an extra element to the novel for the reader, such as in Coldsleep Lullaby.

Coldsleep Lullaby has two interweaving plotlines going. One takes place in the modern day, and is written like a whodunnit detective story where a police officer must navigate various twists and turns to solve a murder. The other plotline, taking place three hundred years earlier, provides context to the foundation of the community where the modern murder takes place. This helps add another layer to the significance of the case the detective tries to solve. It is not until the end of the novel that we see how these two plotlines relate more directly.

Graphic Descriptions of Violence

Many crime fiction authors from Southern Africa use graphic descriptions when writing about crimes that take place in their novels. For example, in Wake Up Dead, there was plenty of horrific deeds being committed in every chapter. The author not only writes about these events he writes in an extremely graphic style using very descriptive words. As a reader I questioned if the author used these graphic situations only for the sake of the shock value it produces from the reader. Further research revealed that the author had spent time with gangs and tried to stay as true as he could to the reality of these horrific prevalent crimes.

The Screaming of the Innocent had a particularly graphic description when a villager who was forced to be a part of the ritualistic murder describes the murder to the advocates and lawyers before committing suicide. During the recount, the villager speaks about how the men cut up the girl piece by piece (while she was still alive), while the girl was begging him to help her. This use of graphic imagery is used to finally give the reader the true account of what happened to the girl after reading for so long mixed messages from the corrupt government. Dow portrays this graphic scene because it is a way into the truth from years of silence.


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Dow, Unity. The Screaming of the Innocent. Spinifex Press, 2002.

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Smith, Roger. Wake Up Dead. Henry Holt & Co., 2010.

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