Etienne van Heerden was born in 1954, six years after the official advent of apartheid. His mother was an English speaking mathematics teacher. His father, an Afrikaans speaking merino stud breeder, farmed the family farms in the Karoo. Van Heerden was reared Afrikaans, with English reserved for use at home on Tuesdays, and learned from comics ordered from London.

Visiting the ancestral grounds, 1984.
Visiting the ancestral grounds, 1984.

He matriculated at Paul Roos Gymnasium in Stellenbosch, and studied at the Universities of Stellenbosch, Rhodes and the Witwatersrand. He obtained a BA Law (Stellenbosch), LLB (Stellenbosch), Honours in Afrikaans and Netherlandic Studies (cum laude, Stellenbosch), MA in literature (cum laude, Wits) and a PhD at the University of Rhodes. He received a D.Litt. honorary doctorate from the University of the Free State during the reign of vice-chancellor Jonathan Jansen.

Van Heerden was admitted to the South African Sidebar as attorney. During his articles of clerkship, he freelanced as assistant Deputy Sheriff for the Civil Court and moved about in the townships around Cape Town, dispensing civil summonses and learning a great deal about life in these suppressed communities. Working for a Cape firm of attorneys, his clients were mostly from the black and coloured communities around Cape Town.

Van Heerden lectured Legal Practice part-time at the Peninsula Technikon and spent two years in advertising. At age thirty, with the birth of his eldest daughter, Van Heerden left the routine of a budding Cape Town advertising agency. He and his family relocated to northern Natal where he began his academic career in Literature at the University of Zululand. His PhD (Rhodes University) was a study on engagement and postmodernism.

Read what traveller William Burchell wrote in 1812 about the Van Heerden homestead on Doornbosch Farm.

He has published 28 books, some edited, and contributed to more than 65 anthologies worldwide. His books are published in 12 languages, namely Afrikaans, Russian, Greek , Hebrew, French, Norwegian, Finnish, Swedish, Danish, English, Dutch and German. Apart from books, his writing includes essays and journalism on culture and politics published worldwide in journals, magazines, leading newspapers and other publications.

He has won all the major South African literary awards, some more than once, e.g. the Hertzog Prize (twice), the CNA Literary Award (twice), the ATKV Award (five times), the Nadine Gordimer Short Story Award, the WA Hofmeyr Prize for Afrikaans Fiction (five times) the M-Net Literary Award (twice), the Eugène Marais Prize, the Rapport Prize for Fiction, the University of Johannesburg Prize for Literature and others. He also received the Klein Karoo National Arts Festival Pioneer Award as recognition for his work on language, literature and the electronic media, as well as the Financial Mail J&B Young Achievers Award. He received the Insig Afrikaans Unlimited Award in 2000.

With his elder brother, Johann, his father, Gerrie, and his mother, Doreen, at the Doornbosch homestead.

Several TV documentaries about his life and work have been produced and aired. He has delivered keynote speeches at many conferences and has also read papers at conferences in different countries.

His literary cabarets have, through the years, been performed at venues such as the Nico Malan (now Artscape/Kunstekaap) Arena, the Oude Libertas Amphitheatre in Stellenbosch, the Windhoek Theatre in Namibia and at major arts festivals. It made the festival lists of top ten productions at the KKNK in Oudtshoorn and Aardklop Arts Festival in Potchefstroom.

Van Heerden regularly teaches at universities in Europe and has been writer-in-residence at the Leiden University in the Netherlands (first from Africa) and the University of Antwerp in Belgium. He was a member of the University of Iowa’s prestigious International Writing Program in 1990, and has been back on visits to this university, of which he is an Honorary Fellow. He has read his fiction at events such as the Edinburgh International Festival in Scotland, the Winternights Festival in The Hague, Netherlands, the Time of the Writer Festival in Berlin, Germany, the Zimbabwe International Book Fair (Harare) and other festivals and events internationally.

Van Heerden is seen as member of a generation of Afrikaans artists who contributed significantly to opening up the Afrikaner psyche to change. During the 1980s he was a member of a group of Afrikaans writers secretly meeting the banned ANC of Mandela and exiled writers at the (now famous) Victoria Falls Writers’ Conference, held in Zimbabwe.

As an academic, he was attached to the University of Zululand (1985–1987), Rhodes University (1987–1997) and the University of Cape Town (1997–2017).  He is currently professor emeritus at UCT.

The “Murderer’s Karoo”, Van Heerden’s “Landscape of the Mind”, and the background to many of his novels.

During his academic career, he offered master classes to MA Creative Writing students writing in both English and Afrikaans, as part of arguably the leading creative writing programme in Africa. Writers like Yewande Omotoso, Lien Botha, Nicole Strauss, Tom Dreyer and  Sam Wilson sat in his classes.

His activities at the University of Cape Town furthermore included the individual supervision of developing MA Creative Writing dissertations, where he has led a generation of young English and Afrikaans authors to published status, amongst others Debbie Loots, Michael Rands, Sonja Loots, Terry Westby-Nunn and Tom Dreyer. Nineteen of his individually supervised students published their dissertations as books with leading South African publishers, some winning major national awards. Of the books developed under his supervision, Tom Dreyer’s Stinkafrikaners won the Eugène Marais Prize of the South African Academy for Science and Arts and Nini Bennett’s Stoornis won the RAU (now UJ) Award for New Fiction. Nicole Strauss won the University of Johannesburg Prize for the best debut in Afrikaans in 2011, as well as the 2011 Eugène Marais Award of the South African Academy for Science and Arts, followed by Terry Westby-Nunn winning the same award in 2012 for best literary debut in English. Debbie Loots won the ATKV Award for her novel Split, and Lien Botha won the Eugène Marais Prize and the Jan Rabie-Rapport Prize for Best Debut Novel for Wonderboom. Many other students from his masters classes in Creative Writing  have also emerged as published writers.

Van Heerden’s research interests in literature include literary theory, the novel as genre, Caribbean Dutch literature, hypertext, narratology, Afrikaans prose since the early 1980s, and specific areas such as historiography and fiction. As an academic, Van Heerden published in accredited academic journals and supervised postgraduate academic dissertations.

With Maurice Jorissen in Amsterdam

As Hofmeyr Professor he was head of the Department of Afrikaans and Netherlandic Studies at UCT and acted as Director of the Centre for Creative Writing. He also served on the board of directors of NB Publishers, which included, amongst others, the imprints Kwela, Tafelberg, Best Books, Pharos, Van Schaik and Human & Rousseau.

Van Heerden is founder-editor (since January 1999) of the LitNet web community ( He is editor and manager of this large and dynamic online community and managing director of the non-profit company LitNet Akademies.

Van Heerden initiated the outreach project in 1999 as an online journal for new writing, books and culture. It has since grown to a multilingual (Afrikaans, Dutch, Xhosa and English) sponsorship-driven virtual community with approximately 153 000 unique monthly users (May 2017 statistics), downloading approximately 400 000 pages per month (May 2017 statistics), with new material added seven days per week on different platforms. All contributions are archived, with the result that LitNet has grown into a valuable archive for academic and cultural research, and is frequently cited.

The LitNet node LitNet Akademies acts as home for accredited academic research in a variety of disciplines. LitNet Akademies is regarded as a highly dynamic online academic journal within the Open Access Movement, with nodes for the Humanities, Law, Natural Sciences, Religious Studies and Education. Top academics act as editors of the different disciplines and approximately seventy accredited academic articles are published per year.  This journal is part of the hypertext environment LitNet and published academic research is promoted on other LitNet nodes by means of online seminars, interviews with researchers and other methods.

The website itself has become an object of study. In addition to this research on LitNet as a project, conducted by researchers in several fields (information sciences, new media, journalism and language planning), Van Heerden’s own belletristic work is regularly included in academic programmes at universities in Africa, the USA, Europe and the UK. His oeuvre is the focus of dissertations internationally and academic articles in peer-reviewed journals and papers read at international and local conferences.

Stellenbosch is surrounded by vineyards and mountains, with occasional snowfall.

Although he lives in the Western Cape, Van Heerden returns, in his writing, to the Karoo of his childhood. He describes this arid and mythological part of South Africa’s deep interior as his own “landscape of the mind”.

Van Heerden is married to Kaia, a practising doctor, and lives in Stellenbosch. The couple has two daughters, Imke and Menán.




  • Obiter dictum (Perskor 1981)
  • Die laaste kreef (Tafelberg 1987)

Short stories

  • My Kubaan (Tafelberg 1983)
  • Liegfabriek (Tafelberg 1988)
  • Haai Karoo (Tafelberg 2012)
  • Gifkaroo/Poison Karoo (Houtstraat 2012)


  • Toorberg (Tafelberg 1986)
  • Casspirs en Campari’s (Tafelberg 1991)
  • Die stoetmeester (Tafelberg 1993)
  • Kikoejoe (Tafelberg 1996)
  • Die swye van Mario Salviati (Tafelberg 2000)
  • In stede van die liefde (Tafelberg 2005)
  • Asbesmiddag (Tafelberg 2007)
  • 30 Nagte in Amsterdam (Tafelberg 2008)
  • Klimtol (Tafelberg 2013)
  • Die wêreld van Charlie Oeng (Tafelberg 2017)
  • Die biblioteek aan die einde van die wêreld (Tafelberg 2019)


  • Matoli (Perskor 1978)
  • Om te awol (Tafelberg 1984)
  • Die gas in Rondawel Wilhelmina (Kairos 1995)
    (This novella was commissioned by an anti-apartheid working group Kairos, Utrecht, Netherlands to celebrate their 25th year and was handed to activist Beyers Naudé at the celebrations in Utrecht, Netherlands.)

Edited editions

  • Brekfis met vier (Skoppensboer 1981)
  • Miskien moet ek die wingerd prys (Tafelberg 1989)
  • Die rooi roman (Human and Rousseau 1999)
    (This is the paper form of the interactive novel Van Heerden wrote on the web in collaboration with his Creative Writing students at UCT and other writers.)
  • Die mooiste liefde is verby (Tafelberg 1999)
    (Short stories by his brightest Creative Writing students – holders of the M-Net scholarship for Creative Writing over the years)
  • Briewe deur die lug (Tafelberg 2001)
    (Contains collected papers of the LitNet Online Writers’ Conference, which Van Heerden organized in conjunction with UWC’s Ilwimi Centre for Multilingualism, the Taalsekretariaat from Stellenbosch and UCT’s Department of Southern African Languages)
  • Die omstrede God (African Sun Publishers 2004)*
    (Contains contributions to the debate on LitNet.)

Literary cabaret

  • Lied van die Boeings (Tafelberg 1998)
    (Collection of his best cabaret songs.)


  • Postmodernisme en prosa (Tafelberg 1997)


  • Die stilte na die boek (Tafelberg 2004)


Books published in twelve languages: Russian, Greek, French, Hebrew, Dutch, German, Afrikaans, English, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish and Danish.

With Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela (author of A Human Being Died that Night), Albie Sachs, and Robi Damelin, International Relations Director, The Parents Circle (Bereaved Parents), Israel and Palestine, from Tel Aviv.