The name Malan stands as one of the strongest pillars of Afrikanerdom. Back in 1688 when Rian Malan’s ancestor, Jacques, fled France’s persecution of Huguenots, he found himself forced by the Dutch to the “Dark Continent” where his family proceeded to make a new life for themselves, radically changing the lives of the people already there.
Malan started My Traitor’s Heart as a history of the “great and detested” (Salman Rushdie’s word choice) Malan family. Rian’s journalistic instincts and persevering research brought instead this book of conscience, pain, and incessant questioning. Subtitled “Blood and Bad Dreams: a South African explores the madness in his country, his tribe and himself” the book reveals three dominant themes: blood spilling, madness and tribes.
Malan tried to write a history of his family and ended up writing of the atrocity in his own heart. As a young, privileged, white Afrikaner, he rebelled against the mechanism of apartheid which dominated and terrorized the majority of the population. Without close friends among blacks, he became a leftist, white liberal, choosing music as a medium of resistance. In the end, he ran away to America where he wouldn’t have to live with the haunting reality of apartheid that he had seen too well as a police reporter. This job enabled him to ask “the questions that cut to the very heart of the matter” but he was afraid to find the answers, so he fled.
His return to South Africa eight years later (to research and write this book) was practically inevitable as he describes: “South Africa holds the souls of its sons and daughters in an almost inescapable grasp. History casts all of us in a strange and gripping drama, but I had deserted the stage. I had no idea what my role was, and felt I would never be whole unless I found out.” (p. 102) The journey of that discovery is Rian’s gift to his generation: My Traitor’s Heart.
Published in 1990, before apartheid’s story ended, this book is another touchstone of life in apartheid’s pathway of death wreaked on many of the sons and daughters of Africa. Malan opted for an explosion of truth-telling rather than half-informed oversimplification which so much of journalism indulged in when apartheid was the focus. Of course, his goal to “undo the harm of years of fear, hatred, and violence” could not possibly be met through the writing of a book, but it is a creditable start and one which would help many hearts of genuine patriots attempt to see more clearly where South Africa has come from so that she may continue in an upward, redemptive path rather than meander back to bloody detours she wandered in those fifty years.
My Traitor’s Heart is divided into three smaller books. The first, Life in this Strange Place, starts the Malan family history with fascinating research uncovered in the Cape’s historical archives. Besides being a journalist of integrity, Malan is a superb story teller and his compelling narrative blends story after story into a unified whole.
This element is particularly strong and unnerving in the second part of the book, Tales of Ordinary Murder, where Malan seeks “a resolution of the paradox of my South African life in tales of the way we killed one another.” Hardly ordinary, a relentless litany of murders make up this fascinating account of Malan traversing the country, following leads, and uncovering things done in darkness. Atrocities of white on black, black on white, and black on black smear the pages with unremittant bloodletting. Names like Simon the Hammerman, Spiderman, Halftime, de Koker, and Moshweshwe become familiar as the stories weave in and out and people are brutalized and humanity becomes so frayed as to be unrecognizable.
Eventually, Malan acknowledges: “in this war, as in all wars, there were no innocent parties and no innocent bystanders. . .” He touches on Winnie Mandela’s thuggery and the media’s reluctance to finger her as the “first lady” of resistance. Ultimately, Malan suggests we walk a fine line between two myths: that of white supremacy and that of brave and noble Africans in epic struggle. Myths is what he finds them to be. Hence his discovery of the atrocity within his own heart, and the question: how do I live in this strange place?
The third section, the sad tale of Msinga, entitled A Root in Arid Ground, gives the the closest thing to hope we can expect in this tragedy; and it is tragedy in an of itself. This is a tribute to Neil and Creina Alcock. This white couple, with eyes wide open to the exploitation and injustice perpetuated by the apartheid system: creating the “independent homelands”, enforcing “bantu education", and destruction of excess food rather than feed those starving in the homelands, chose to align themselves with the oppressed. Previously a highly successful farmer, Alcock fought the system and attempted, with his education and remaining resources (having lost his farm), to alleviate the plight of people overcrowded on land unable to support them. It reads like a developmental success story, until drought and man’s inhumanity triumph.
Although not people of faith in God, and with evidence that there was little enough to have faith in humanity for, the Alcocks gave themselves unstintingly to the African people among whom they lived. It was a virtual no-win situation, ecologically and socially. The Zulus they served were divided between the Black Consciousness and Wararas, or the Ndlelas and Mhlangaans, or whatever other rift could be dredged up from the distant past. Heartbreaking as their story is, it is a story of love that would not turn from ubuntu to self-preservation.
Creina, Neil’s widow, taped at length for Malan and he shares this highlight of her insights: “Love is worth nothing till it has been tested by its own defeat. ... Love is to enable you to transcend defeat.” Creina spoke from her own personal crucible of testing and over-coming.
As Malan turns the realities in South Africa over and over, looking at them from as many sides as possible--more multi-faceted than diamonds, he recognizes that “there is no military solution because the enemy is within.” This is hauntingly similar to Nelson Mandela’s insight that the oppressor is in truth more a victim of his brutality than the person he tortures because he is defined by what come from within his heart.
In the process of writing this book, Malan was seeking a freedom from his family’s history, his own running away, and the stain his white tribe had brought to their adopted land. His integrity allowed him to ask the hard questions, then brought him back to look for the answers. As a result, he gained much more and learned the intrinsic truth of liberty:
“Being free is not about casting off chains, but living in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” Nelson Mandela.