There was a telling moment during Nelson Mandela’s conquering-hero tour of the United States in 1990: President Bush, standing together with Mandela on the White House lawn, called on him to follow Dr. Martin Luther King’s example of pursuing change through nonviolent means. Mandela coolly replied that the President did not understand the situation in South Africa. It was a remarkable incident: the leader of black South Africa telling the President of the United States that as far as South Africa was concerned, he did not know what he was talking about. Rian Malan’s compelling and harrowing book, My Traitor’s Heart: A South African Exile Returns to Face His Country, His Tribe, and His Conscience, tends to confirm what that moment on the White House lawn implied: Only a South African can understand South Africa—and then only after much soul-searching and ruthlessly honest thinking. Malan is well suited to the task. He possesses a relentless introspection reminiscent of Leo Tolstoy; he writes with a novelist’s storytelling skill; and he pursues his inquiries with the dogged persistence of an investigative reporter. His anger—the anger of a decent, moral, and intelligent man forced to contemplate a horrible situation in which he is inextricably bound up—is sometimes barely under control. My Traitor’s Heart is the kind of book which leaves the reader feeling drained: shocked, horrified, yet also humble. It also gives brilliant insight into the dilemma which faces white South Africans today.
Rian Malan is a member of a prominent Afrikaner family which has played a significant role in the last three centuries of South Africa’s turbulent history. His ancestor was Jacques Malan, a Huguenot refugee who in the seventeenth century was deported to the Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope. The Malans were present at all the most critical moments in South African history: They fought in the Zulu wars, and in both wars against the British. Rian Malan is related to Daniel Francois Malan, who became one of the chief architects of apartheid when the Afrikaner National Party came to power in 1948. Another relative, General Magnus Malan, was South African Minister of Defense during the black uprising in 1976.
Even as a young boy, however, Rian Malan never embraced the Afrikaner attitude that (as he puts it) the blacks must be kept down lest they rise up and slit white throats: “I was never much of a Boer,” he comments. He describes growing up in a wealthy white suburban home in Johannesburg in the 1950’s and 1960’s. As a teenager, much of his life was not greatly different from that of his counterparts in the United States: drugs, alcohol, long hair, rock music, left-wing politics. Rebellion against the harsh and narrow-minded ideology of Afrikanerdom came easily to him. At the age of thirteen, he became, in his own eyes, the Just White Man, champion of the oppressed. He found that he spontaneously loved blacks (who were still known as natives in those days), and he embraced African culture, organizing fund drives for black education.
In the early 1970’s, during the heyday of what Malan calls the “imperial Calvinist tyranny” of South Africa, Malan secured a job on The Star, a liberal English-language newspaper in Johannesburg. As a magistrates’-court reporter, and later a crime reporter during the Soweto uprising in 1976, he received firsthand insight into the muggings, murder, and violent rebellion that became part of everyday life in the township. Armageddon seemed to be hovering in the air, and Malan came face-to-face with so many horrific crimes, including voodoo killings, that in his mind Soweto came to resemble Europe in the Dark Ages. Although he wrote a number of op-ed pieces attributing the crime to bad social conditions, he realized, in opposition to some white assumptions about innate black criminality, that the matter was not as simple as that.
One of the great merits of My Traitor’s Heart is that Malan has the honesty and intelligence to look deep inside his own heart, and to confess that the picture he liked to present of himself as the Just White Man was not the entire truth. In examining his own “secret racist heart” he succeeds in illuminating the complexity of race relations in South Africa, the frightening collision of two alien cultures. At the core of the book lies a paradox, which Malan identifies but can never fully resolve. During his years as a reporter, he began to realize that although he had always loved blacks, he had always been scared of them as well; he hated the injustices which had been done to them, but was horrified by the violence they were capable of both against whites and against themselves. Fear gripped him whenever he ventured into Soweto, and he began to question whether he was really on the side of the blacks. Seeing only nihilism and rage in the Soweto uprising, he feared that the violence might eventually swallow him up too, simply because his skin was white. Civil war broke out in his own brain.
In 1977 Malan left South Africa, partly to avoid the military draft (he decided he was not going to carry a gun for apartheid), but mainly because he was afraid of what the future held for South Africa. Unable to choose one side or the other, and aware that there seemed to be no middle ground, he ran away from the paradox....
(The entire section is 2184 words.)