What could fiction and cultural debate bring to readers of the magazine Africa South? In the late 1950s this magazine published political, economic, legal and other analyses of social life in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as polemics and journalism by writers variously but militantly opposed to the apartheid government’s policies in South Africa. The purpose of its editor, Ronald Segal, was to foster a broad front of opposition to racism at home and to connect with international intellectual movements opposing colonialism and racism. This article argues from Bakhtin’s observations about the radical instability of the sign in fiction, that fiction requires a different kind of reading from factual report. It demonstrates how the short stories in Africa South could enjoin on readers a conscious responsibility for sense-making and interpretation. This awareness created a questioning relation to text and thence to external realities that was in itself fundamentally oppositional and hospitable to the subject of socio-political change, for which the magazine as a whole argued. The writers considered here include both the famous and the forgotten: Ezekiel Mphahlele, Alan Paton, Tony O’Dowd and Noel Frieslich. Attention is on the semiotics of reading rather than on the contents of the short stories discussed. Because expectations of fiction change with the times, my question is necessarily an historical one. The article goes on to compare the climate of the 1950s with that of the more revolutionary 1980s, and with the present. For the present era Njabulo S Ndebele’s The Cry of Winnie Mandela stands as a possibly representative text.