Acts of Treason

Acts of Treason

For Rian Malan, seeking atonement doesn’t necessarily mean one will attain it.


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.

In 1985, in what was potentially the biggest turning point in his life, Malan landed a contract to write the memoir that would become My Traitor’s Heart—or, as he put it, a “multiracial, generational saga…a Boer Roots.” Returning home to research the book, Malan soon realized that he could not deliver what he had promised; in fact, his history of the Malans only constitutes the first third of the book. Having arrived in the midst of the 1984–86 uprisings, one of the most protracted challenges to white rule, Malan made the inspired decision to eschew bipartisan politics and instead use a handful of chilling murder stories to sketch a highly revealing portrait of South African life. Although he had originally presumed that his return from exile would constitute a redemption of sorts, Malan found that “there was no middle anywhere, no refuge from choice, not even in my own mind”:

I had always been two people, you see: A Just White Man appalled by the cruelties Afrikaners inflicted on Africans, and an Afrikaner appalled by the cruelties Africans inflicted on each other, and might one day inflict on us. There were always these two paths open before me, these two forces tugging at my traitor’s heart…. That being the case, there was only one path left for the likes of me—the path that led into Africa, the path of no guarantees…. Strange terrors and ecstasies awaited us in Africa, but that was the choice we faced: Either we stayed as we were, trapped inside our fortress of paranoia, deformed by fear and greed, or we opened the door to Africa and set forth into the unknown.

The Rian Malan of My Traitor’s Heart displays a striking resemblance to some of J.M. Coetzee’s most famous fictional alter egos, namely Michael K in the Life & Times of Michael K (1983), Mrs. Curren in Age of Iron (1990) and David Lurie in Disgrace (1999). Like them, Malan is on a quest to salvage his honor by untethering himself from an ethically bankrupt system and trying to secure some measure of forgiveness. Yet the deeper one delves into these stories, the more one suspects they cannot simply be considered as transcripts of personal moral crises. Instead, these works of literature ultimately testify to what might be the most haunting revelation of all in South Africa’s painful transition from apartheid: that merely seeking atonement doesn’t necessarily mean one will attain it. In fact, quite the opposite: the best that these people can hope for, Coetzee and Malan seem to be saying, is to understand their shame and reconcile themselves to carrying that burden for the remainder of their days.

Although Malan could have rested on his laurels after the phenomenal success of My Traitor’s Heart, he eschewed the role he’d been offered as the South African intelligentsia’s enfant terrible. In the 1980s, Malan had realized he was living in Africa (though he would later relocate to Cape Town, “the last corner of Africa that is immune to chaos and madness,” to go live by the beach), “and that changed everything.”

Those I’d left behind remained obsessed with apartheid. I became obsessed with what replaced it. They thought apartheid was the source of all South Africa’s pain. I thought we were doomed unless we figured out what had gone wrong elsewhere in Africa, and how to avoid a similar fate. I was an atheist in the great revival tent of the new South Africa. The faith on offer was too simple and sentimental, the answers it offered too easy.

* * *

Setting forth into the unknown he’d prophesied at the close of My Traitor’s Heart, Malan challenges his country’s “great, syrupy myth.” In The Lion Sleeps Tonight’s second essay, ostensibly a review of Clint Eastwood’s Invictus (2009), he admits that although the sports biopic left him “deeply moved”—reminding him of a watershed moment in South African politics, its hosting of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, which had largely forged the image of a postracial “Rainbow Nation”—he couldn’t help resenting the fact that the “supernaturally charming” Nelson Mandela had assumed a place, alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Bill Cosby, in “the American pantheon of seriously nice black guys,” while F.W. de Klerk, “the machine politician who led the Afrikaner volk out of its primordial laager,” appeared doomed to languish in “almost total celluloid obscurity,” despite having a claim to being the true architect of the 1994 compromise.

While some may balk at his tone, Malan does Mandela the service of peeling away the saintly robes in order to portray him as the shrewd political operator he was. Malan reminds his readers that Mandela’s ascension to power in the country’s first free elections in 1994 had left a sizable group of right-wing Afrikaners feeling ostracized—and Mandela knew it:

When his own comrades moved to strip the national rugby team of its Springbok emblem (they wanted the Boks to be known as the Proteas, which came dangerously close to pansies), the old man stepped into the fray and ordered them to let rugby be, at least for the time being. Then he transformed himself into the Springboks’ number one fan, memorizing the names of the most famous players, visiting their practice sessions, and urging them to win the 1995 World Cup for a nation that existed only on paper. For many blacks, Mandela’s behavior bordered on race betrayal, but the old man was playing a canny game. Afrikaners hold rugby sacred, and we found his interest in the sport inexplicable but hugely endearing.

Realizing he’s starting to sound a bit too curmudgeonly, Malan adds that “including such details would have spoiled the plot, and you can’t have that in a Hollywood movie.”

Turning to South Africa’s 1990s crime epidemic, Malan introduces us to John Montle Magolego, a self-made businessman turned chief vigilante, and paints a picture of his life circa 1996:

Tribal authority has been weakened by the freedom struggle. The police are slack and demoralized. Little boys are running wild, terrorizing their high school teachers, drinking and raping all night. You can barely sleep at night for worrying about your wife and six children, and hardly a week goes by without a burglary at one of your businesses. This being a semirural community where everyone knows everyone else, people come to you with tip-offs. You take the information to the police, but they seldom act decisively, and you can’t quite understand why.

Magolego’s response was to set up Mapogo a Mathamaga—“Colors of the Leopard” in the local Sepedi language—an organization tasked with openly rounding up suspects and inflicting corporal punishments on them, including whippings and the occasional murder. (Magolego summarized his approach this way: “Human rights for criminals is a whip on the buttocks.”) Three years later, Mapogo claimed 35,000 members, “ranging from African peasants and Catholic missionaries to white farmers and corporations with fleets of delivery trucks to protect.” Although the source of much controversy, vigilante organizations—including the more radical Cape Town–based PAGAD (or People Against Gangsterism and Drugs)—retain a large measure of public support: PAGAD recently won the backing of Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters, which became the third-largest party in the South African Parliament following the May 2014 elections. Malan believes that Magolego “has raised the existential African question: What’s the point of having a state if it’s too weak and disorganized to protect anyone?” Meeting with Magolego in a restaurant, he poses a question of his own:

If you genuinely believe a nation can flog its way to paradise, what will it look like once we get there?… “If we can just stop crime,” he says, “with the passage of time, good things will flow…. We will protect one another, love one another, feel for one another….” Pardon me, but I was touched. John Magolego may be a charlatan in some respects, riddled with vanity and hubris, but he has a dream, and dreams are in short supply on this troubled continent. But his idealism has a dark side, and it, too, must be considered.

A master of the iconoclastic essay, Malan is at his finest when addressing aspects of South African history that have been massaged from the public consciousness, often leading to distorted but widely held beliefs. A case in point is “Report From Planet Mbeki,” in which he demonstrates that although Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, has often been portrayed as authoritarian and aloof, the record shows that he displayed great courage in the 1970s and ’80s, when, as a member of the party’s central committee, he opposed “the quasi-religious doctrines of the South African Communist Party”—which could have gotten him shot as a traitor—so as to “drag the ANC into the modern era.” While Malan acknowledges that he is no fan of Mbeki’s, he is resolved to give him his just due: Mbeki’s course of action helped steer the ANC away from a violent revolution that might have killed millions, Malan argues, and toward a settlement that paved the way for the “emerging trappings of an African welfare state, with twelve million of the poorest poor receiving grants from the state.” Given that Mbeki is likely to be remembered for his HIV/AIDS denialism, this is a useful reminder of something rather too important to forget.

Often pigeonholed as a rabid contrarian (probably owing to the abrasive rush of his prose), Malan appears doggedly devoted to evenhandedness throughout the twenty-one essays on offer in The Lion Sleeps Tonight. Whereas stories about Africa seem to oscillate perpetually between reductively optimistic and pessimistic poles (one example being The Economist’s decision to upgrade Africa from “hopeless” to “hopeful” between May 2000 and December 2011), Malan asks the questions that every sensible person should ask—even at the risk of sounding like an idiot, a chance that Malan is happy to take when the occasion calls for it. Nowhere is this more evident than in “The Body Count” and “Among the AIDS Fanatics,” arguably the most controversial pieces in the collection. As he writes in “Among the AIDS Fanatics”:

Back in 1999, when Thabo Mbeki first rose in parliament to question the veracity of HIV science, UNAIDS was claiming that we were already living through an apocalypse, with AIDS killing a quarter million that year alone…. Hindsight reveals that the real AIDS death toll in 1999 was closer to sixty thousand…. Put yourself in Mbeki’s shoes. The highest scientific authorities on the planet were telling him that South Africa was passing through the worst catastrophe in its history…. But when he looked around, there was a yodeling chasm between the UNAIDS’s claims and the reality we were all then experiencing. It’s much to Mbeki’s credit that he refused to crook the knee and praise the naked emperor’s glorious raiments…. Mbeki was right to ask questions. His mistake was to accept the first answer given—AIDS could be a hoax—and proceed accordingly. Once he’d taken that position, he was too proud to back down, and a terrible price was exacted.

There’s a touch of Don Quixote in Malan, which is nevertheless present in all great writers, especially the incendiary ones: their unforgivable delusion is an unmitigated desire to catch us in the act of not caring about what matters most, mainly out of convenience. In “A Truth of Sorts,” Malan takes the ANC and the Western media to task for papering over the ANC’s brutal feud with AZAPO (the Azanian People’s Organization, inspired by Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement), which resulted in the death of many AZAPO activists. He further criticizes how, despite being billed as the “selfless Mother of the Nation” in gushing puff pieces across the world, Winnie Mandela headed a gang of thugs who terrorized parts of Soweto during the mid- to late ’80s, some of whom were accused of “etching struggle slogans into the flesh of suspected informers” as well as raping a schoolgirl. This turn of events led an angry mob to burn down Winnie Mandela’s house in retaliation, though she continued to enjoy “almost total immunity from criticism” until a faction of the ANC decided she had become an embarrassment to the cause:

Asked about such lapses, American hacks made lame excuses about “confusion” and the “complexity” of South African politics, but the truth is simpler: they didn’t want to spoil the plot. Apartheid South Africa was supposed to be the one place on the planet where everything was simple, the one hard rock in a global swamp of relativistic equivocation. There were no communists in the American portrayal, no revolutionaries who believed it was acceptable to break eggs in order to achieve the desired Sovietist omelette.

Malan sees the broken eggs but always asks after the omelette, usually discovering that it never existed in the first place.

* * *

Readers looking for easy answers will not be satisfied by The Lion Sleeps Tonight, but I suspect they will at least come away amused: Malan’s humor is savagely caustic and infectious, and his method of portraiture is Dickensian. In “Great White Hyena,” he introduces us to Deon Du Plessis, the founding publisher of South Africa’s popular Daily Sun tabloid, who ran it from 2002 until his sudden death in 2011:

Du Plessis is the sort of Boer that the English have been caricaturing for centuries: a jovial giant with thighs like tree trunks and a great raw slab of a face. He likes guns and big game hunting. He eats and drinks to excess, tells dirty jokes, swears. His car license plates read, “Beast1,” and his business philosophy comes from Conan the Barbarian: “Find the enemy, crush him, and hear the lamentations of the women.”

Rollicking lines of this sort are in evidence throughout The Lion Sleeps Tonight, regardless of whether Malan is visiting Sun City (South Africa’s answer to Vegas) during a Miss World contest; road-tripping through northern Tanzania to discover the last descendants of Afrikaner settlers; or following the trail of Angus Buchan, the “messiah of the potato fields,” whose lame but cheerful televangelism now draws huge crowds on the veldt, and whose videos are played nonstop on Intercape coaches.

Still, an inveterate sleuth like Malan requires room to breathe, and it’s perhaps not surprising that the collection’s title essay is his finest, or at least his most epic: “Once upon a time,” he begins, “a long time ago, a small miracle took place in the brain of a man named Solomon Linda. It was 1939, and he was standing in front of a microphone in the only recording studio in black Africa when it happened.” The next thirty pages of “In the Jungle” find Malan fighting past spurious denials and unanswered voicemail messages in pursuit of the greedy showbiz men who endlessly adapted Linda’s “Mbube”—Zulu for “lion”—until it became “Wimoweh” and, eventually, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” finally landing on the soundtrack of The Lion King. Of course, Linda never saw a penny in royalties (he got 10 shillings for the original recording), and “died so poor that his widow couldn’t afford a stone for his grave.”

Although the story might have ended there, Malan wisely chose to follow the royalties, eventually bringing the scandal to the attention of Disney, which predictably pressured the company from which it had licensed the rights to the song to settle out of court to avoid public humiliation, ensuring that Linda’s children got a small slice of the $15 million their father’s tune had generated along the way. I mention this to draw attention to what I believe to be the most under-discussed facet of Malan’s writing—his optimism. Contemplating the future in the last pages of his book, he writes:

Johannesburg as we know it will vanish, and something new will arise in its place. Many centuries hence, visitors to this New Jerusalem will encounter something presently inconceivable—Africans wearing safari suits and struggling to decipher the crumbling texts of a race that once lived here, planting cornfields that stretched farther than the eye could see, splitting atoms, and making the trains run on time. That race will be gone, of course, but the new order will preserve and venerate its ruins, in much the way that Europeans preserve Roman roads and aqueducts. Outside universities, Afrikaans will be a ghost that rattles its chains in the depths of some new African tongue, and white and black skins will have given way to something closer to golden. The issues that divide us now will seem absurd in retrospect. The good that white men did will be acknowledged, the evil forgotten. The wounds of history will be healed. Would that I could live to see it.

Malan’s daring and dedication have ensured that every word he writes is eagerly anticipated and energetically debated. To his admirers and detractors alike, My Traitor’s Heart and The Lion Sleeps Tonight are an eloquent and irreplaceable education on South African history—one for which we should be suitably grateful.

Ad Policy