Rian Malan

March 14 2005 / New Statesman

On a recent visit to South Africa, I asked friends—academics, writers, journalists—to recommend one book, if one existed, that attempts to tell the truth about how it feels as a privileged white South African to have lived through the apartheid years and the anguished transition to democracy. As it happens, I had already read the book that they all, without exception, recommended: My Traitor’s Heart by Rian Malan. First published in 1990, but many years in the writing, it is the story of South Africa as told through the tortured history of Malan’s own family.

The first Malan, Jacques, a Huguenot fleeing persecution in Catholic France, arrived at the Cape of Good Hope in 1688. “Jacques tamed the Cape and planted vineyards,” Malan writes. “His sons built gracious gabled homesteads in the lee of Table Mountain.” In time, the Malans became one of the most distinguished and influential of all Afrikaner families—Daniel Francois Malan, the country’s first nationalist prime minister, was one of the architects of apartheid.

Rian Malan, who was born in 1954, grew up in revolt against his ancestral inheritance. An enraged, restless sensualist as well as an instinctive liberal, he felt part of South Africa yet drastically estranged from it. He longed to empathise with the persecuted black majority, yet remained disturbed by the violence, chauvinism and superstition he encountered whenever he left the family home, with its black servants living in the basement, and travelled into the townships.

In the late 1970s, reluctant to be drafted into the South African army, he moved to America where, knowing no one, he struggled to remake himself through journalism. “I ran away,” he writes, “because I was scared of the coming changes, and scared of the consequences of not changing. 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 was an Afrikaner and loved blacks. I ran away because I was an Afrikaner and feared blacks. You could say, I suppose, that I ran from the paradox.”

In 1985, he returned to South Africa, took a job as a crime reporter in Johannesburg and embraced the turmoil of a country that seemed to be moving inexorably towards civil war. Much of what Malan witnessed as a reporter, described so urgently in the book, was horrific: the torture and murder of blacks by white supremacists; the murder of whites in their heavily fortified homes by a lone black man, whom the newspapers delighted in calling the Hammerman; the murder of poor blacks by other poor blacks in the townships and homelands. The killing seldom stops, nor does the self-questioning: Malan, this hard-drinking, dope-smoking, self-divided Afrikaner adrift in a land of flames, asks himself again and again what it means to write from a position of such absurd privilege.

On further investigation by Malan, the story of the Hammerman, whose name was Simon Mpungose, turns out to be exceptionally poignant. A Zulu cursed from birth because of a crime committed by one of his forefathers, Mpungose was illiterate, his mother died young and he was tormented by spirit voices reminding him of his fate. In desperation, he turned to violent crime as a means of escaping his doomed inheritance. Malan was present at the trial where Mpungose was convicted of four counts of murder and sentenced to hang.

“The remorseless exercise of a reporter’s anguished conscience gives us a South Africa we thought we knew about: but we knew nothing,” wrote John le Carre of My Traitor’s Heart. “Here is truth-telling at its most exemplary and courageous.” Le Carre was not alone among major writers in admiring Malan’s book: Salman Rushdie and Don DeLillo were also thrilled by its anger, idealism, bitterness and candour. “A great swirling devil of a book,” wrote DeLillo, “and it is equal in every way to its vast subject—the black and white country of the heart.”

Malan never published another book. But he is still out there, a working journalist, and occasionally you read something worthwhile by him in one of the glossy supplements. In South Africa, I met several people who knew him well. They smiled knowingly when I asked about him, like members of a secret society. He is now living near Cape Town, in the bohemian coastal town of Kalk Bay. He has become, it was suggested, something of a monomaniac, convinced that the truth about sub-Saharan Africa’s Aids pandemic has been wildly exaggerated. Certainly the last article of any length by him that I read was on this very subject. “Perhaps he’s been smoking too much zol [dope],” one acquaintance joked.

Whatever he has been doing, and even if he never writes another book, Malan has made a contribution. The remarkable My Traitor’s Heart will continue to be read and remembered by anyone interested in attempting to understand the European colonial encounter with Africa, why it failed, and why its legacy remains so bitter for so many.