Late on the night of June 17, 1992, a formation of armed Zulu men emerged from a migrant labor barracks in the Vaal Triangle, south of Johannesburg. Bearing spears, machetes, clubs, and the odd submachine gun, and fortified by traditional battle magic, the war party descended on the little township of Boipatong and began a house-to-house slaughter. The men were soldiers of the largely Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party, wreaking vengeance on a town loyal to the rival African National Congress. The death toll would reach forty-nine men, women, and children, making it the gravest in a line of modern South African massacres. In The Lion Sleeps Tonight, a selection of his magazine work, Rian Malan says that this horror “altered the trajectory of South African history,” bringing such blame on President F.W. de Klerk and the other leaders of the last white government that it essentially broke their will to hold out for a sizable share of power in the new order.
At the time of the massacre, I was a few days into an assignment as The New York Times’s man in Johannesburg, and I think Malan seriously overstates the part Boipatong played in the end of apartheid. But it is fair to say that the killings marked a kind of turning point in the career of Rian Malan, a turn from being the darling of the public intellectuals to a contrarian outlier—or, to use the word he would probably embrace, heretic.
Until the Boipatong killings, Malan was known for My Traitor’s Heart, his spellbinding 1990 memoir of a young Afrikaner descended from one of his country’s most influential white clans, who flees to America to avoid being conscripted into the white military and returns years later to confront his heritage. The book, his struggle to come to terms with Africa, received (and deserved) ecstatic reviews, and accolades from the likes of Salman Rushdie, John le Carré, and Don DeLillo.
My Traitor’s Heart was hailed as an Afrikaner’s act of contrition, a scorchingly honest examination of conscience by a white South African, and it was that. But it was also a dissent. Malan demonstrated, along with remorse, flashes of scorn for what he saw as white liberal pieties about Africa in general and South Africa in particular. Without in the least overlooking the cruelty and arrogance of his own people—and the absurdity of their great racial engineering project, apartheid—he pointed out that brutality and tribalism were not novelties introduced by the white man. He made the case that his white forebears were misunderstood, that their relationship with the natives was animated less by greed or heartlessness than by blind fear. The white invaders’ frame of mind he summed up in this recurring theme: “You have to put the black man down, plant your foot on his neck, and keep him that…
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