Rian Malan’s one and only meeting with J.M. Coetzee took place in the early 1990s. Malan greatly esteemed his fellow South African writer, and when Coetzee won the Nobel Prize in 2003, he declared that the laureate had “described, more truly than any other, what it was to be white and conscious in the face of apartheid’s stupidities and cruelties.” But what had struck Malan when he came face-to-face with Coetzee was, as he told The New Statesman in 1999, his asceticism. Coetzee was “a man of almost monkish self-discipline and dedication. He does not drink, smoke or eat meat. He cycles vast distances to keep fit and spends at least an hour at his writing-desk each morning, seven days a week. A colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once.”
The writer is always a result of the man. With Coetzee, this intensity of focus and denial of his own ego have allowed him to create characters whose internal conflicts are perfectly attuned to those of white South Africa. From Waiting for the Barbarians to Disgrace, his novels are complex allegories in which psychology is presented not in its messy, everyday incarnation, but under the intense magnification of the author’s microscope. His protagonists are invented for the specific purpose of illustrating a moral crisis.
I’m not saying that Coetzee’s characters are representational stick figures. But they don’t seem like people you would sit down with to drink a beer. Rian Malan, on the other hand, does seem like such a person—you might take a drag from his cigarette, too. Yet his moral crisis was no less acute than Coetzee’s. And in his only book, My Traitor’s Heart, published just as the drama of apartheid’s final demolition was taking place in 1990, Malan’s project was no different from Coetzee’s. He meant to answer the question posed in his epigraph, taken from a Boer reggae song: “How do I live in this strange place?”
My Traitor’s Heart was as much the result of Malan’s character as Coetzee’s work was the result of his. Malan was and still is charismatic and rakishly good-looking, a drinker, loved by women, and obsessive in his intellectual pursuits. He wrote his book at the age of thirty-five, after years of traveling the world and living a hobo’s existence. Not much has changed since then. A recent Guardian profile described him as living on various friends’ couches. In 2005, he released an album of himself singing original folk songs, which the British paper described as a “part Tom Waits, part Serge Gainsbourg, all in Afrikaans.”
But Malan hasn’t produced another book. Since the publication of My Traitor’s Heart, he has mostly attached himself to crusades. In 2000, he wrote an investigative piece about Solomon Linda, the Zulu singer who composed the original version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (“Mbube”), only to be shortchanged of royalties when the song became an international classic. Malan’s most recent obsession—disputing the official tally of people living with aids in South Africa—even cost him his marriage.
Yet, after all these years, My Traitor’s Heart has lost none of its emotional power. Whereas Coetzee’s novels have always felt like finished products, Malan’s memoir was one of process: the book embodied his own struggle to see his country and its people as they actually were, and not as he wished them to be. To read it now is to experience the bravery of a young writer determined to stare unblinkingly at the ambiguity and complexity of what he found around him—including his own racism.
Born in 1954, Malan grew up in the liberal, northern, white suburbs of Johannesburg, where opposition to apartheid rule was taken for granted. He was quick to absorb the values of this milieu. After reading a Life magazine article about Che Guevara in Bolivia, he decided that he, too, wanted to be a Communist and help the persecuted blacks, though he never actually came into contact with any beyond the servants in his home. When he lost his virginity to a black woman whose name he never learned, it was a point of pride, to be bragged about at school. He even had a blues band and sang about black oppression.
“Isn’t that absurd?” Malan writes in My Traitor’s Heart. “Nobody laughed. We were utterly oblivious to the irony of it, which says something significant about those English-speaking, bourgeois, northern suburbs. They were in South Africa, but somehow not really of it. The rest of the country was a racist Calvinist despotism, but the northern suburbs were liberal, permissive, governed by the ruling philosophical orthodoxies of the West.”
But Malan could not so easily escape the Afrikaner legacy. It was embedded in his name. A Malan, he wrote, “has been present at all the great dramas and turning points in the history of the Afrikaner tribe.” His great uncle, Daniel François Malan, was a major architect of apartheid during his tenure as prime minister, which ended the same year Rian was born. And even while the author was growing up, a Malan was the minister of defense. The family name was frequently and angrily evoked in the streets of the townships: “Voetsek, Malan!” (“Fuck off, Malan!”)
The first hundred pages of My Traitor’s Heart are pure memoir, gliding down the straits between the Boer history of Malan’s name and his own constructed identity as a “Communist.” Straight out of high school, he got a job working the crime beat for The Star, which at the time was the largest daily in South Africa. Being a journalist for one of the liberal, big-city papers was as close as one could get to being a revolutionary without actually manning the barricades.
“Almost every day, I tucked my spiral notebook in my pocket and ventured forth to study the way South Africans killed each other,” Malan recalls. It took him out of the bubble in which he had grown up and introduced him to his own country—to all its people, to black men he was able to respect and see as equals, but also to men he feared. When the Soweto riots erupted in the summer of 1976, Malan was overwhelmed by the violence of the black response. It forced him to confront his own allegiances. He was against apartheid and for black freedom, but he was also terrified of joining in their fight, and terrified of the hatred directed at him from even his new black friends.
Just then he was conscripted into the army. The two-year dispensation from mandatory military service he had received from the newspaper had run out. Malan decided that he had to leave. In My Traitor’s Heart, he could have passed off this decision as a brave act, a rejection of the regime, but instead he writes:
I ran because I wouldn’t carry a gun for apartheid, and because I wouldn’t carry a gun against it. I ran away because I hated Afrikaners and loved blacks. I ran away because I was an Afrikaner and feared blacks. You could say, I suppose, that I ran away from the paradox.
Malan spent the next few years in exile, traveling around Europe and eventually the United States, where he worked odd jobs and usually presented himself as a banished Afrikaner dissident. But he could not escape the paradox of his relationship to South Africa. It troubled him and would not let him become someone else.
Meanwhile, in 1984, P.W. Botha’s parliamentary reforms—which gave the vote to “coloreds” (those of mixed race) and Asians, but still not to blacks—ignited violent protests all over South Africa, which would continue intermittently for the next several years. Malan could no longer stay on the sidelines. So he did what any aspiring writer would do: he wrote a book proposal and shopped it around. The book would be a family history of the Malan clan, or as he described it later in a Washington Post profile, a “multiracial, generational saga a Boer Roots.”
The exile returned with his book deal. But he soon felt an “increasing sense of dismay that what I was writing about really wasn’t relevant to this terrible drama.” He needed to confront the country in all its complexity; he needed to confront himself. And the best way he knew to do that was to venture out as a crime reporter again, to “seek a resolution of the paradox of my South African life in the stories of the way we killed one another.”
The second part of My Traitor’s Heart, the bulk of the book, is a compilation of these tales. And it is here that Malan’s reporting is instructive for any writer trying to find a way to capture the truth of a conflict without simply pitting one side’s narrative against the other’s.
Take the story of the Hammerman. In the early 1980s, the white residents of Zululand were terrorized by a series of murders that seemed to have emerged out of their darkest nightmares. Someone was sneaking into their homes late at night and bludgeoning them to death in their beds. The murderer, when he was finally caught, turned out to be thirty-five-year-old Simon Mpungose, a Zulu.
Malan was present at his trial, and like many others, initially viewed him as a clear-cut victim of apartheid. Declaring himself ready to die for his sins, Mpungose took the stand and, as Malan writes, gave “as moving and powerful an indictment of South Africa as had ever been spoken.” Denied a chance at an education or a steady job, the accused had spent his life in and out of jail for petty theft, including a stint in the infamously brutal Barberton prison. Before his most recent parole, he had a dream telling him that it was his duty to smash the heads of white men—that this was his fate. So frightened was Mpungose by this vision that he asked the warden to deport him from South Africa, or even to keep him in prison. His request was ignored, and when he was released, he began his killing spree. The narrative seemed clear to Malan at first. A man made insane by the oppressive environment had been transformed into a murderer.
But then Malan ventured into Zululand to find out if there was a deeper truth to Mpungose—and discovered a dark and twisted family history that started with an act of incest. The murderer was undoubtedly oppressed by apartheid, but he was equally haunted by this transgression, which to the Zulu was a stain that could never be washed away. Mpungose, writes Malan, was “an abomination in the eyes of his own people: the son of a man who should have been strangled at birth. In short, there was far more to this story than what the white magistrate and jury could see in the courtroom. This is how Malan sums up the Hammerman:
As I read the Hammerman’s moving courtroom testimony, Simon sprang to life in my imagination, fully fleshed and three dimensional, a victim and a martyr, a potentially good man made monster by apartheid. And then I went into the hills, and ducked into the huts of Simon’s kin and found myself in a parallel world, a kingdom of unconquered consciousness that had somehow proved invulnerable to the white man’s guns, his corruptive culture, and his truculent missionary faith .Who was the Hammerman? In the end, I could not say.
What could possibly conclude this sad but passionate book? The third and final section of My Traitor’s Heart is a parable: the story of Neil and Creina Alcock, white South Africans who decided that they would live in Africa on Africa’s terms, making a home in a parched region of Zululand called Msinga. There they devoted their lives to creating a cooperative farm and revitalizing the arid landscape.
By the time Malan went to visit, looking for answers, Neil had already been killed while trying to broker a truce between two local warring tribes. All the farm work had come to naught. Malan found the thin, weathered widow living in a mud hut, persisting in spite of all these setbacks. And Creina’s life offered a sliver of a solution to Malan’s paradox. He was forced to see that he had always been two people, “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.” The example of Creina Alcock, who had taken “the path that led into Africa, the path of no guarantees,” did not seem easy or even desirable. But Malan came to the conclusion that it was the only real path open to him.
In the end, it is Creina’s words that serve as a fitting coda for the book, and anticipate the relative stability of post-apartheid South Africa, which nobody could have imagined during the turmoil of 1986: “Trust can never be a fortress, a safe enclosure against life. Trusting is dangerous. But without trust there is no hope for love, and love is all we have to hold against the dark.”
My Traitor’s Heart angered many people in South Africa, both black and white. The author spared no one. He was seen as both a self-hating Afrikaner and a self-admitted racist. For Malan, this was the only way to come to terms with his country and with himself: to find a way to live in that strange place. What his book still provides today is an example of how to write about the strange places, those that cannot be easily represented, that are too often perceived as one thing or another, but are really both. My Traitor’s Heart was most definitely the work of a young man. Malan ranted and raged in its pages. But he never abandoned the idea that there was a paradox in South Africa’s history, and that truth resided in wrestling that paradox to the ground and staring it in the face.
Is there a stranger place for Western eyes than Africa? Even those writers and journalists who don’t have the tortured connection to the continent that Malan has—or especially those who don’t—tend to describe it in simple terms. It is a place of goodness, of noble savages, or one of darkness, disease, and war. In neither case is the continent seen for what it is. Too often, it acts as little more than a backdrop against which the Westerner finds or loses himself. Malan understood the problem and tried desperately to cut through this self-imposed blindness. His insight about the Mpungose trial could be applied to most people writing about Africa:
This is the trouble with white people in my country. Our eyes are sealed by cataracts against which our white brains project their chosen preconceptions of Africa and Africans. Some whites see danger, some see savagery, some see victims, and some see revolutionary heroes. Very few of us see clearly.
Very few of us see clearly. Malan tried, and his book is an expression of just how painful the attempt can be. This might be why he has never written another one, nor attempted anything quite as ambitious or personal as My Traitor’s Heart. Unlike Coetzee or Nadine Gordimer, who have also written with honesty about the white person’s place in Africa, Malan declined to don a fictional mask: he put himself on the examination table, let it get messy, scrutinized his conscience just as he did those many corpses. After all that, and after discovering that he must remain attached to a place that will forever try to spit him out, what more could he say?