Although not a recent genre in the country, little notice was taken internationally of South African SFF and fantasy until the acclaimed movie District 9 (2009) poked the world in the eye. Filmed in Johannesburg, directed and co-written by South African born Neill Blomkamp, this allegory of racism, apartheid and corporate/government corruption was not without its critics. Nevertheless, it triggered an international sci-fi audience to wake up and turn their attention to what else South Africa had to offer.
Due to the wide diversity of landscape, race, culture, standard of living, and politics, set against the background of a troubled history and a still fragmented society, South African literature contains a kaleidoscope of ingredients. From this melting pot of many spiritualities and identities, a variety of literary dishes are served up. The influence of European and North American SF tropes cannot be denied, yet in recent years, more distinctive voices have emerged.
Born in Soweto, Mohale Mashigo is a musician, writer and NOMMO* award host. She is one of the writers of Kwezi, a South African superhero comic series with dialogue influenced by street slang and pop culture making it more accessible to black South African youth. Her first fantasy short story collection, Intruders(2018), contains uniquely South African, speculative tales influenced by township folklore and peopled with diverse characters and strange creatures. These urban legends explore themes of otherness/belonging, racial profiling and post-colonialism. Mashigo distances herself from the term “Afrofuturism”, considering it more applicable to Africans in the diaspora.
Originally from Johannesburg, Robert S. Malan now lives in Edinburgh where he is senior editor at Luna Press Publishing, though “Africa’s unique and wonderful spirit remains indelibly etched on his psyche”. His graphic novel, Quest & The Sign of the Shining Beast (2016), a dark fantasy marrying storytelling with vivid artwork by John Cockshaw, was shortlisted for a NOMMO award.
Malan’s novella, The Prisoner (2018), also illustrated by Cockshaw and shortlisted for the British Fantasy Awards, is a dark and gripping tale, which uses poetic prose and dream sequences to lead the reader on a mesmerising and nightmarish journey through the minds and relationships of the characters.
He was also longlisted for the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) Awards for “Portrayals of South Africans in Popular Entertainment: Bad Accented Baddies, Prawns and Black Panther” in The Evolution of African Fantasy and SF (2018).
Nikhil Singh is a South African artist, writer and musician who has also collaborated as an illustrator in several publications. His novel Taty Went West (2015) was shortlisted for a NOMMO Award. Taty, a runaway teen, is kidnapped by an imp in the “Outzone”. The intrepid but grouchy heroine must negotiate the dystopian chaos of Singh’s imaginative and surreal world whilst confronting inner demons, Buddhist punks and robot nuns. You can’t say it’s not original.
Singh’s second novel, Club Ded (2020), was shortlisted for a BSFA award and a NOMMO Award. Set in Cape Town, this dark, Afrofuturist, mind-bending tale combines social commentary with culture clash in an engrossing sci-fi mystery that is “complex, ambitious, disturbing and bleakly funny” (The Full Lid, 19 June 2020).
With more than twenty short stories published internationally, Nick Wood is a Zambian born, South African naturalised, clinical psychologist. His young adult novella, The Stone Chameleon, was published in South Africa in 2004. Wood’s stories have since entertained readers around the world, featuring in Interzone, Albedo One, Omenana, and others. Azanian Bridges (2016), his first novel, was shortlisted for four awards, including a NOMMO and a BSFA award.
Wood’s follow up to Azanian Bridges is Water Must Fall, which he describes as “African solar-punk”. It focuses on three characters in the near future, who become part of a global upsurge of community activism seeking new lifestyles in an attempt to cope with climate change and global capitalism, and who aim to take control of the Earth for a more positive, equitable and solar-based future.
His collection, Learning Monkey and Crocodile (2019) combines ancestral wisdom, social commentary and futuristic technology to create profound and moving short stories with reconstructed perspectives and redemption at their heart.
Stephen Embleton was born in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa and is currently the 2022 James Currey Fellow at the African Studies Centre, Oxford University. He has many sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and speculative fiction stories in anthologies and magazines, four of which have been long-listed for the NOMMO awards.
His debut novel, Soul Searching (2020), a sci-fi thriller, was a finalist for a NOMMO award and has been compared to Minority Report and Silence of the Lambs. That’s got to be a winning combo. It tells of a dedicated division of the South African police in a disturbing hunt for a serial killer using a Soul Tracker device.
Embleton’s most recent novel, Bones and Runes (2022), is a YA fantasy adventure heavily influenced by Zulu culture, mixing magic and traditional beliefs with themes of friendship and self-belief.
Lauren Beukes’ books have been published in twenty-four countries. In addition to novels, she also writes graphic novels, comics, and screenplays as well as being a journalist and documentary maker. Zoo City (2010) won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and is described by the New York Times as a “phantasmagorical noir”. This urban fantasy, set in a version of Johannesburg where criminals are cursed with magical animals, was described by Andreas Spath as “unashamedly South African…wildly entertaining, yet richly nuanced”.
The Shining Girls (2013), a psychological, time-twisting thriller about a serial killer’s survivor who reverses the hunt, won the Strand Magazine Critics Choice Award for Best Mystery and the University of Johannesburg Prize.
The tag line for her latest novel Afterland (2020) reads, “Most of the men are dead. Three years after the pandemic known as The Manfall, governments still hold and life continues — but a world run by women isn’t always a better place.” Well, it hooked me…
Poet, artist, D.I.Y.er, human rights activist, editor and prolific author, Christina Engela, hails from Port Elizabeth, South Africa. In addition to her fifteen horror, fantasy and sci-fi novels, she has published novellas, short stories, children’s stories and non-fiction (How does she find the time?). The three-part Galaxii series (2006 – 2019) is an epic sci-fi space opera with pirates, adventurers and rogues. The six-part Quantum series begins with Black Sunrise (2019) which boasts action, adventure, gender dysphoria and a walking, talking alien plant called Fred. How can you resist? Part six, High Steaks (2019) concludes the series on a grand scale in a weird world portrayed with humour, thought-provoking concepts and peopled by strange unforgettable characters.
Panic! Horror in Space (2019 – 2020) is Engela’s series of satirical, parody, horror misadventures.
In addition to two stand-alone novels, she has two short story collections: Space Sucks (2006) and Space Sucks Too (2020)
Of course, there are many others I have not mentioned, but hopefully, by waving these in your face I have shown some of the diverse options available from this “Rainbow Nation.” There are emerging writers too, so it will be worth keeping your eyes open for these new voices as they establish their identities on the international stage. Now South African sci-fi, fantasy and speculative fiction have climbed onto the international stage, they are here to stay.
* The NOMMO Award is a literary award presented by The African Speculative Fiction Society.
Geoff King is a self-published writer and irregular blogger currently studying for an honours degree in Creative Writing at the University of the Highlands and Islands. https://geoffkingwriter.co.uk/