Two men, born and bred in Africa, of the white tribe known as Afrikaner into the chaos:
“As a tribe, a nation, we are all immured inside a fortress of racial paranoia, jealously hoarding our gold and getting deeper and deeper into a race war we cannot possibly win. We all know that. Our generals have been saying that since 1973.” (Malan p. 296)
Max du Preez and Rian Malan, born shortly after the initial apartheid laws were installed, never experienced life outside of apartheid during their growing up years. Something in each of them recoiled and made them uneasy. Both opted to resist the system, or at least not go along with it. Both were journalists. But they were profoundly different men.
Max du Preez (pictured left) is a rowdy, activist, risking all, striking out, viciously fighting. Rian Malan is a reserved contemplative (by comparison), looking inward and running away from the horror of the truth he uncovered. Both men found themselves on the wrong side of the establishment, the Nationalist Party. Both saw themselves as native sons of Africa, both from strong Afrikaner roots: Malan’s name tells his story, du Preez comes from Kruger stock. Both are intriguing story-tellers. Max spins a dramatic adventure with hair-raising thrill. Rian recalls personal encounters of thought-provoking and agonizing depth.
The titles of their books reveal much about their heart compulsions: Max calls himself the Pale Native claiming the right of inheritance and love of the land. His insistence on his validation as part of a tribal group on the African continent contrasts with Rian’s more complex response in My Traitor’s Heart. Malan knows his heart is African and in Africa, but realizes that by not aligning himself with his tribe, he becomes a reluctant Judas. (See review of both these books in the two previous blog posts.)
Both men were “kaffirboeties”, the derogatory term meaning “black-brothers.” Malan (pictured right) wrote his book before the end of apartheid and his angst is reflected in the as-yet-uncertainty of the outcome. He confesses, “I had been running for eight years and I had to run to the far side of the planet, but I hadn’t outrun the paradox. It still had its claws in my brain. I had been running all my life, and each flight left me weaker, more diminished, more deeply dishonored. Each time I opened myself to speak about South Africa, I betrayed myself again.” (p. 102) This book was his attempt to restore his honor as a human being.
Du Preez’s book came out nearly a decade after apartheid toppled and focused on the difficulties of being the whistle-blower, the renegade, the maverick. Escape was not a consideration: “It wasn’t even a patriotism or a sense of duty or responsibility that prevented me from ever considering leaving South Africa. It was just unthinkable. If you transplant a fifty-year-old kameeldoring tree, it will wither and die. Its root system goes too deep to dig out.”(p. 3)
Du Preez took giant risks: he was in Soweto during the youth uprising June 16, 1976; he interviewed Dirk Coetzee and published his confession; he visited Vlakplaas and almost did not escape alive. He exposed the lie of the “we did not know” refrain often used in the wake of the TRC because he had already publicized what was being spoken in daylight.
Malan did not follow such a flamboyant route: he chose remote research and greater depth. He traveled to distant places and met people in grassroots struggles. He heard their hearts and told their stories passionately. His book is less autobiographical and more about the Afrikaner tribal group responsibility. He wrestles with guilt by association, recognizing that when the barriers in the townships go up, there are no whites on the other side.
Max begins his book recounting the difficulty of his job search in “the new South Africa” because despite his qualifications in journalism and his track record of anti-apartheid activity, he could not resume his unfettered writing career. “History is against you, my brother,” is what he was told. The Big Picture had changed. Color still determined employment, but now it was a different color. This view of history as cyclical and huge and the people in it as small grains or specks in the grand scheme contrasts with Malan’s deeper, soul-searching heart perspective. He saw himself as an individual white man who had to “purge the black fear from my white heart” (p.293), but this was something each member of the tribe had to do personally. The healing would not come collectively. Just as the implementation of apartheid was the act of individual people in concert, so the recuperation and restoration would only come through individuals processing the reality and aftermath in their hearts.
Both Malan and Du Preez are important reading in the story of how far South Africa has come. Their voices bring out the breadth and depth of the fifty years that need to be understood. Every revolution needs activist sand contemplatives: without their record, history will fade and lessons will be lost.