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The Heretic

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Ryk Hattingh
The South African journalist Rian Malan

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 way forever, lest he spring up and slit your white throat.” He was contemptuous of the naive view that the liberation movement was a collection of saints and pacifists. Two decades later, now that some of the magic has rubbed off the South African fairy tale, his admonitions feel prescient.

In My Traitor’s Heart Malan’s disdain for the optimistic narrative of liberation was peripheral to his unsparing argument with himself about collective guilt, racial consciousness, and the possibility of reconciliation. His account of Boipatong marked his full-blown debut as a scourge of liberal mythology about Africa.

As reporters and foreign diplomats descended on the bereaved township the morning after the bloody night, the ANC steered us to residents who claimed to have seen the Zulu assailants delivered to their dirty work in police vehicles. The conspiratorial accounts were sketchy, but not entirely implausible. (Two years later the Goldstone Commission would confirm widespread suspicions that senior officials of the South African police had armed and assisted Zulu nationalists in a range of murderous activities, although not at Boipatong.)

At the multiparty negotiations in which South Africa’s many factions were then negotiating the shape of a new democracy, the accusations of white complicity led to a new wave of brinksmanship. Talks collapsed. Recriminations flew. But the credibility of the ANC’s Boipatong conspiracy claims began to evaporate a month later when British experts, brought in for an impartial investigation, concluded that the police had been indifferent to the threat of violence and incompetent in the aftermath, but had not participated in the killings. The negotiations resumed, broke down again following another massacre in the Bantustan capital of Bisho, resumed again, broke down again following the murder of South African Communist leader Chris Hani, and finally produced an interim constitution in November 1993.

Malan’s first contrarian report on the massacre, in the Johannesburg Saturday Star, was a view from the killers’ side, recounting recent attacks on Inkatha hostel-dwellers and describing their “heavy load of resentment.” It stopped short of saying the Boipatong victims asked for it, but not by much. Later, in a rambling, Hunter Thompsonesque letter to his editors at Esquire magazine’s British edition, and in a long essay published by the (liberal) Institute of Race Relations seven years after the killing and included in this collection, he directed his rage at the opportunism of the African National Congress, which had turned the massacre into potent propaganda, and at the credulousness of some reporters, who clung to the assumption of white complicity after the evidence showed otherwise. Malan presented the false claims about Boipatong as revealing a dissembling, “Stalinist” anti-apartheid alliance and its sympathizers in the press. He admits that his fact-checking was “a cold-blooded exercise” but, he writes, “the ANC’s propaganda campaign was based on the equally offensive assumption that the death of forty-nine black people was of no consequence unless it could be shown that their blood was on white hands.” I don’t think you have to defend the ANC’s exploitation of the tragedy to find Malan’s indignation off-kilter. The essay published in this collection is called “A Question of Spin,” but what he wanted to call it was “South Africa’s Reichstag Fire.”

From Boipatong on, the contrarian impulse that had flickered in My Traitor’s Heart became more pronounced. The Lion Sleeps Tonight (a repackaging of a collection published in 2009 as Resident Alien) includes a line of work Malan would proudly describe as politically incorrect and less sympathetic readers might describe as overkill. For this work, Malan was cast by critics as a kind of South African neoconservative, and he chose to wear his outcast status as a badge of honor—flaunting his “heresies” and finding his outlets in such conservative publications as The Spectator, the Telegraph, and The Wall Street Journal.

The Lion Sleeps Tonight, which gathers twenty-one pieces written between 1994 and 2010, is more than a collection of screeds. Malan is an obsessive reporter and a master storyteller, with a gift for conjuring a sense of place and an ear for engaging dialogue. Like some of his peers in literary journalism, he has a quality my English wife describes as being “up his own arse,” meaning that in a Rian Malan story, there is a lot of Rian Malan, often flexing before the mirror. “My truths strike some South African writers as counterrevolutionary ravings,” he announces in the introduction to this collection. “Theirs strike me as distortions calculated to appeal to gormless liberals in the outside world.” The book contains a lot of that kind of thing.

His best stories take you places you have never been and introduce you to characters who in lesser hands would be caricatures. This is true of his black subjects (see the unforgettable killer called “Hammerman” in My Traitor’s Heart, or the vigilante crime-fighter John Magolego in this collection) but he is most acute on whites who have crossed cultural and psychological borders and adapted to Africa on its own terms. He calls these people, admiringly, “mutants.”

The new collection opens strong with a piece on the Afrikaner diaspora that, dislodged by the Anglo-Boer war of 1899–1902, set off up the continent to East Africa in search of pastoral homesteads. A half-century later they were uprooted again, this time by anticolonial uprisings. Malan locates the last remnant of the white tribe in Tanzania, a hardy Afrikaner woman who fell in love, and into disgrace, with a handsome young African, and stayed behind when the other Afrikaners fled. When Malan shows up he encounters “a living fossil, armed with survival strategies from an earlier century,” dandling black grandchildren on her lap while marveling at the strange ways of the natives (whom she innocently calls by the offensive term “kaffir”). In the story of Tannie Katrien, Malan captures the whole mad arc of his people.

The book ends with another pair of mutants, the Alcock brothers. They are the fully assimilated sons of a white do-gooder whose attempts to introduce soil conservation to a decimated patch of Zululand—and whose murder—made up the final tour de force of My Traitor’s Heart. One of these Zulus in white skin has made a fortune marketing products to the new black middle class, the other has followed in his father’s footsteps as a land reformer, but each in his way represents for Malan a promising trend: “A century hence, historians might look back and identify the Alcock boys as primitive incarnations of a new African life-form.” In the stories of Tannie Katrien and the Alcock brothers, Malan gets under the superficial rendering of South Africa’s happy rainbow nation and recaptures the wrenching ambivalence that animated My Traitor’s Heart.

The book also contains pieces that are just good yarns, mercifully free of polemical ambition. The story that gives the book its title traces a few bars of infectious melody from the mouth of a Zulu musician named Solomon Linda through the hands of music industry wheeler-dealers to the American pop charts, to Disney’s The Lion King, to scores of recordings and five TV commercials. Malan first tracks the tune that became “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and then follows the riches it begat, little of which redounded to Solomon Linda. But the story is not a howl of injustice (Linda was actually quite content with the adulation and a trickle of royalties) and it is more effective for Malan’s uncharacteristic restraint. The article, originally published in Rolling Stone, helped generate a pile of residuals for Linda’s heirs.

Malan’s more polemical pieces read like bar fights. In what he calls his “struggle against suffocating political rectitude,” he is constantly confronting “intellectual snobs,” “left-wingers,” the power-mad Bolsheviks of the African National Congress, the dispensers of “easy truths and glib pieties,” and, especially, the “useful idiots” of the foreign press, in whose accounts “the ANC was almost always portrayed as an army of hymn-singing moderates in the sentimental American civil rights tradition.” He is affronted by foreigners passing “lofty moral judgments on situations that struck me as howlingly ambiguous.” He sneers at writers he regards as insufficiently skeptical of South Africa’s liberators, particularly foreign journalists like John Carlin and Joseph Lelyveld (both of whom I consider friends and first-rate journalists). The best that can be said of these jibes is that at least he aims high.

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