The study takes an in-depth look at eight novels by white South African authors in which the main characters are black. The novels that were studied fell into two main categories, those that highlight (although not always to the same extent) the differences between white and black people and those in which the author takes care to depict the black main character as ‘a person just like any other’, or in which the emphasis is on the similarities between people regardless of race. The novels in the first category can be divided into purely fictional works on the one hand (Toiings (1934), Cry, the Beloved Country (1948) and Swart Pelgrim (1952)) and novels based on historical facts (Die Swerfjare van Poppie Nongena (1978) and Bidsprinkaan (2005)) on the other. In the fictional novels in this category, which are also the oldest/earliest of the selected novels, the narrator patronises the black main character, who is seen as naïve and in some cases at the mercy of baser urges. The researcher shows, however, that the intent of the authors was to gain the reader’s empathy for and understanding of the plight of the black character and, by implication, of black people in general. This applies regardless of whether the novel had an explicit political theme (e.g. Cry, the Beloved Country) or not (e.g. Toiings). The novels in the second category, i.e. those in which black characters are portrayed as not substantively different from white characters (Kennis van die Aand (1973), Proteus (2002) and Lerato (unpublished, 2011) also include novels in which the main theme is a political one (Kennis van die Aand) and those in which political issues are not central to the plot (Proteus) or in which there is hardly any reference to political issues at all (Lerato). The outcomes of the study show that the intention of the authors of the studied novels in the pre-apartheid era was to promote understanding and reconciliation and not to strengthen divisive stereotypes. While this cannot be measured in empirical terms, anecdotal evidence suggests that literature does contribute to social change, albeit in an indirect manner. Despite the harsh criticism (particularly from black authors and scholars) of the practice by white authors to make use of black main characters, it can be argued that, within the South African context, such novels have played a role in achieving mutual understanding and reconciliation. There is a notable shift in the post-apartheid novels. Rather than pleading the case of the black main character with the white audience, Meyer (2002) and Homann (2011) portray their black main characters as equal players in a diverse society. If literature is seen as a reflection of society, this is an encouraging sign that South Africa has substantively moved on from apartheid.