As the South African writer Rian Malan freely admits in the foreword to his essay collection The Lion Sleeps Tonight, some of the more interesting charges leveled against him have been “incest, homosexual tendencies, heterosexual debauchery, incompetence, deceit, murder, sissiness, ‘carbuncular’ practices, a secret alliance with the diabolical President Mbeki, spying for the Zulu nationalists, drinking too much, taking drugs, and smelling bad.” Malan then throws his arms up and concludes: “What can I say? My name is Rian Malan and I called it as I saw it.” It is a rather stoical turn from a writer who once lived in Hollywood, “under the D in the famous hillside sign,” worrying that he’d die there “and be buried under a tombstone that read, ‘He Ran Away.’”
A scion of one of the oldest Afrikaner families, whose progenitor, Jacques Malan, a French Huguenot fleeing religious persecution, landed in the “rude Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope” in 1688, Malan grew up in the affluent northern suburbs of Johannesburg at the height of apartheid, a system largely engineered by his great-uncle, D.F. Malan (1874–1959), who served as South Africa’s prime minister from 1948 to 1954. It was a shameful legacy, and one that Rian Malan would find difficult to escape. As he wrote in My Traitor’s Heart (1990), a bestselling memoir now rightly considered a classic, “a Malan [had] been present at all the great dramas and turning points in the history of the Afrikaner tribe.” Which might not have been such a problem had they not spent most of their time “spreading like a plague, eating up landscapes, mowing down game, subjugating everyone they came across.”
After high school, Malan joined Johannesburg’s The Star as a crime reporter (the gory details of which are exhumed in his memoir). But when it looked like he might be called to arms to defend the very system he loathed, he abruptly left the country and “roamed Europe for a few years,” eventually washing up in the United States as an illegal alien—scrubbing pots, picking vegetables, and writing music reviews under the alias “Nelson Mandela,” long before that name meant anything to most people outside South Africa. Although Malan spared his father the ignominy of applying for political asylum, he “never stopped yearning for South Africa, or wrestling with the question of exactly whom I had betrayed.” Before long, the answer presented itself: “I had betrayed my tribe, whose cause I understood in my blood, and I had betrayed my Afrikaner father. And finally, I had betrayed myself.” Nevertheless, Malan’s most stunning act of treason was his unabashed disclosure of the role that white fear had played in the creation of a brutal regime that kept blacks down “lest they leap up and slit [our] throats”:
Whites were clinging to power because they were apprehensive about blacks’ intentions toward them…. Most whites were so afraid of Africans that they never went anywhere near the townships, not even in peacetime. They crossed the road when they saw Africans coming, or locked the doors of their cars. They were so scared that they wouldn’t even attend professional soccer matches in the secure heart of white Johannesburg because they knew blacks would be present in large numbers. White Charterists mocked and scorned such backward people, but when it came down to it they weren’t that different themselves. They stayed away from the burning barricades because they were frightened, too.