South African history is represented in rich veins of both academic and popular writing, each shaped by conflicting political traditions, nationalist (Afrikaner and African), liberal, and Marxist, as well as more recent 'postmodern' and feminist approaches. Two useful surveys that combine balance, accessibility, and sophistication are Robert Ross's Concise History of South Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) and William Beinart's Twentieth Century South Africa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). The historical background to Mandela's childhood can be explored in Noel Mostert's Frontiers: The epic of South Africa's creation and the tragedy of the Xhosa people (London: Jonathan Cape, 1993). The most comprehensive overview of South African history during the apartheid era is Dan O'Meara's Forty Lost Years (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1996). The later chapters of Herman Giliomee's The Afrikaners (London: Hurst & Co., 2003) represent the best published account of apartheid's development.
Each biography of Mandela has its strengths. When researching his authorised biography, Mandela, Anthony Sampson obtained access to South African official records and in consequence his treatment of the prison period is particularly illuminating. Martin Meredith's Nelson Mandela contains compelling insights about Mandela's politics during the 1950s and especially well-informed commentary on the transition to democracy, between 1990 and 1994. Fatima Meer's affectionate earlier tribute, Higher than Hope, reproduces a well-chosen selection of Mandela's letters. A fascinating portrayal of Winnie Madikizela Mandela's life is in Emma Gilbey's The Lady (London: Vintage Books, 1994); Gilbey's treatment is highly critical and draws partly upon police sources.
Saul Dubow supplies a succinct review of the ANC's development since its foundation in 1912 in African National Congress (Stroud: Sutton Publishing Inc., 2000). More detail—perhaps more than most readers would wish for—is available in my own Black Politics in South Africa since 1945 (London: Longman, 1983), and the ANC's chronology is documented most authoritatively in the five-volume From Protest to Challenge Series, edited by Thomas Karis, Gwendolen Carter, and Gail Gerhart, published between 1972 and 1997 (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press and Pretoria: University of South Africa Press). For up-to-date treatments of the ANC's first decade of armed insurgent politics, see the essays in the South African Democracy Education