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The Twenty in 20 Final List: the Best Short Stories of South Africa’s Democracy

20 Years of Democracy

Alert! Today, Books LIVE unveils the final list of short stories for the Twenty in 20 project, a Twenty Years of Freedom initiative whose aim is to identify the best South African short fiction published in English during the past two decades of democracy.

The project comprises a collaboration between Books LIVE, Short Story Day Africa and the Department of Arts and Culture.

Earlier this month, the four Twenty in 20 judges met to debate the longlist of fifty stories – generated by over 200 submissions from Books LIVE readers – and whittle it down to the final list of the twenty works of fiction that will stand as South Africa’s best since 1994. Over three hours, there was robust conversation and a bit of horsetrading, but it never came to fisticuffs (although at one point Queensbury rules were invoked!).

The result is a list that will serve as a baseline for future writers to aspire to; that will provide pleasure to readers for generations to come; and that will serve as a longstanding reference for South African literary posterity.

The chair of the judges, Mandla Langa, said, “This collection of short stories reflects the diversity that enriches our young democracy. It’s a smorgasbord of ideas to cater for any appetite.”

The Minister for Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa, sent the following statement on the Twenty in 20 project to Books LIVE:

The Twenty in 20 project is one of our efforts to ensure that all sectors of our society are part of the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of our freedom and democracy.

We are making this announcement shortly after the passing of one of the most prolific short story writers who ever lived — Nadine Gordimer, South Africa’s first Nobel laureate in Literature. When the news of her passing started spreading like wildfire, I was reminded of the famous saying that, “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes.” Indeed, the sound of this giant’s fall reverberated across the globe.

South Africa has a rich tradition of short story writing. Over the years, we produced some of the most outstanding short story writers, including the likes of Gordimer, Bloke Modisane, Casey Motsisi, Bessie Head, Njabulo Ndebele, and many other notable literary voices. These are the giants on whose shoulders aspiring writers should stand. As we celebrate the solid foundation that these pathfinders have laid, we simultaneously try to cultivate a new generation of writers to continue with this glorious tradition while confronting the new challenges of our society.

The wide-ranging Twenty in 20 stories explore varied themes but have one thing in common: they are truly South African stories. Each one makes a unique contribution to our literary landscape.

Here then, without further ado, are the top twenty English short stories of South Africa’s democracy (note you can scroll within the document – also available here – to see the complete list details), organised alphabetically by the author’s surname:


Congratulations to the judges on creating a fine, final Twenty in 20 list.

As project convener, Your Correspondent would like to extend heartfelt thanks to Short Story Day Africa for its untiring work in creating the formal longlist, which has already caused an appropriate degree of literary commotion. I’d also like to thank Mandla Langa for his steady chairmanship during the awards process; and to doubly thank him, Karabo Kgoleng, Mtutuzeli Matshoba and Fiona Snyckers for paying such considered attention to such a diverse body of work.

Project process and timeline

Here is the remaining key date of the Twenty in 20 short story project:

September: The Twenty in 20 compilation of short stories is launched as a new compilation at National Book Week.

About the Twenty in 20 judges


Mandla Langa (Chair) was born in Durban and studied at the University of Fort Hare in Alice, Eastern Cape province. He left Fort Hare after playing an active role in student uprisings in 1972. He went into exile in 1976, and lived in countries such as Lesotho, Mozambique, Angola, Zambia, Hungary and the United Kingdom. In 1980 he won the Pan African DRUM Magazine story contest and in 1991 he was awarded the Arts Council of England bursary. His latest book, The Lost Colours of the Chameleon (2010) was shortlisted for the prestigious Sunday Times Fiction Prize and won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book – Africa Region. In 2007 he was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver.



Karabo Kgoleng is a South African arts journalist and broadcaster with a decade’s experience in the fields of print and radio. She is currently producing a television documentary on post revolution identities while expanding into multimedia arts journalism and community arts. She is a recipient of the South African Literary Award for journalism, previously featured in the Mail & Guardian Book of South African Women for promoting the arts in the media and is a former Mail & Guardian 200 Young South Africans honoree. Karabo is on the board of the Trevor Huddleston Memorial Centre. She is based in Johannesburg.

Mtutuzeli Matshoba is a founder member of the Staffrider literary and arts journal, short story writer, film script writer and script editor. Matshoba is among South Africa’s select literary activists who through their writing – and despite the draconian censorship system of the 70 and 80s – were able to address social problems caused by racial discrimination in all areas of South African life. His collection of short stories on urban black experiences in the 70s, Call Me Not A Man was published in 1978 and followed by Seeds of War, a novella on forced removals that won the Southern African English Academy Award for Creative Writing in 1980.

Fiona Snyckers studied English Literature at Rhodes University and the University of the Witwatersrand. She is the author of the Trinity series of novels, and the Sisterz series of mobile novels. She has published numerous short stories in magazines and collections. She reviews books for The Times and blogs on the Mail & Guardian‘s Thought Leader and Women platforms. She lives in Johannesburg with her family.

About the project partners

Department of Arts and CultureBooks LIVESSDALogo


The Department of Arts and Culture was established to support, develop and protect the arts, culture and heritage of South Africa. It is a key driver of the South Africa government’s Twenty Years of Freedom programme of activities.

Books LIVE was founded in 2006 and has grown into South Africa’s top web portal for local book and publishing news. It is part of the Times Media LIVE group of websites, which comprise a division of Times Media (Pty) Ltd.

Short Story Day Africa is a non-profit organisation dedicated to bringing together writers, readers, booksellers, publishers, teachers and school children to write, read, workshop and discuss stories – and foster the love of reading and writing African fiction. Its debut publication of short stories, Feast, Famine or Potluck saw two stories shortlisted for the prestigious Caine Prize for African Literature.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Rachel Zadok</a>
    Rachel Zadok
    July 22nd, 2014 @10:13 #

    Congratulations to all the authors of the shorts that made it onto the #Twentyin20.

    To all who didn't, I have only one word: subjectivity.

    In closing: SA Shorts Rule!

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    July 22nd, 2014 @10:14 #

    Now...who has read them all? ;)

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    July 22nd, 2014 @11:56 #

    We hope to make it possible to allow everyone to read them all, with a printed book that will go into libraries, etc. Working on that project from today - will keep everyone posted!

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    July 22nd, 2014 @12:07 #

    I almost replied, 'Great!' But then I got suspicious, which led to my current debate over changing my contact details. ;)

  • Maire
    July 22nd, 2014 @12:10 #

    I wish I could say I've read them all: all the more reason for buying the anthology. Will it become a Kindle read too? Congrats to everyone: those long- and short-listed, those finally selected, and, of course, the hardworking team behind it all!

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    July 22nd, 2014 @13:34 #

    Congratulations to all involved. Looks like a wonderful list of stories. I've read many of the stories, and the ones I've read I've loved. Am also, of course, pleased to see that Modjaji author, Makhosazana Xaba's story Running is one of the 20, and that Mawumi Mbao's story "The Bath", from Queer Africa is another.


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