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Anywhere an Exile:
a review of Rian Malan's My Traitor's Heart

April 5, 1999 | In South Africa, the name ‘Malan’ is synonymous with white oppression. Rian a member of this Malan family, equates being related to a Malan in South Africa with being a related to a KKK member in Harlem, or being related to a Nazi member in Israel. From the beginning, he fights against his heritage to become the ‘Just White Man,’ the man who is allied against the blacks in the fight against apartheid. But he finds it increasingly difficult to face the paradoxes of South African life: being an Afrikaner while fighting against them, being an ally of blacks while fearing them, dodging the national military draft while being afraid to take up arms to fight apartheid. In My Traitor’s Heart (Vintage International 1990; 425 pages; $14), Malan tells of how even after these paradoxes force him to become an exile for eight years, his shame forces him to return home and try to resolve the murderous poison of apartheid that is in all South Africans, including himself.

To Malan, the dark that drenches South Africa can be traced back to the acts of his own ancestor, Dawid Malan. According to historical records, Dawid, a wealthy white landowner living in South Africa in the late eighteenth century, gave up everything he owned–his white family, his land, his reputation–to run off with Sara, the black slave of one of his neighbors. They crossed a great river to escape, but it is at this point that the historical records go awry. The records pick up after Dawid emerges from the river, but this time, Dawid is an arrogant, xenophobic, racist married to a white woman. The man that went to cross the river was willing to give up his birthright for the love of a black woman, but the man who comes out of the river is what today would be called a white supremacist who helped to pen some of South Africa’s earliest apartheid legislation. To Rian Malan, Dawid’s act of self-blinding, his turning away from the concepts of Enlightenment that were sweeping the world, reflected all of white South Africa. In their isolation, the Dutch Boers had become tyrannical, irrational xenophobes. Rian Malan says that as much as he tries to fight it, this ‘blind’ man is his ancestor, and there is some of Dawid Malan in him, and in all modern South African whites.

Very few of the seeds of intense doubt are to be found in Malan’s innocuous, Western-oriented childhood. He lived in a prefab suburban neighborhood, the son of a personnel manager and a gym teacher. He was exposed to all kinds of Western culture through the TV and radio, through comic books, and through Time and Life magazine. In one of these issues of Life, Malan discovered a picture of Che Guevara, and was infatuated with the image of the dashing Communist man clothed in combat garb. Malan fancied that it would be fun to be that kind of hero, a sworn foe of racism, fighting against the specter of apartheid. But he wasn’t that different from the whites he was living with, nor did he really understand the black experience. Though he felt a pure, childlike love for his black servants, he failed to really see them as people.

An emerging adult without any real plans or ambition, Malan only had one resolution: to avoid being drafted into the South African army, the army that worked to oppress blacks. At the urging of his parents to find a job, Malan signed on as a beat reporter for The Star, Africa’s largest daily. His job brought two major benefits: it introduced him to journalism, his true calling; and for the first time, he met and befriended blacks whom he respected on an adult level. Eventually, Malan became The Star’s crime reporter. This job exposed him to a side of Africa that few white civilians get to see, a side that forced him to acknowledge the deepest flaws inherent in apartheid. Crime reporting gave Malan waist-deep exposure to countless murders, murders that were often random and without motive aside from the fact that they were based on race. Malan, a man who prided himself on being a liberal and a friend of blacks, began to have sweaty, recurring, shattering nightmares where blacks were the villain.

Malan’s journalistic experiences served to open his mind, but also aided in making his future look very bleak. He was paralyzed by his own shame and self-doubt. South African society was so unforgivably polarized, and Malan felt forced to commit to one of the sides. Though in theory he wanted to go with the blacks, he did not feel that he commit both his body and soul. For instance, his first lover was a black woman. To save face among his friends, he casually went to bed with her. But at the same time, he felt that this encounter was a serious breach of some unspoken laws. Then he mentally whipped himself for thinking such shameful, racist thoughts. This kind of paradoxical thinking permeated his thoughts on friendship, on sex, on his work, and on all of society. The only option that did not paralyze Malan with shame and doubt was to run from his problems, to leave South Africa. So against the protests of his friends, servants, and family, he ran, eventually, ending up in the United States.

To South African journalists, Americans are despised. But in America, Malan acquired a patronizing fondness for the people that occupied this country. But even has he learned to like Americans, and even change his manner to become a kind of American himself, Malan was deeply dissatisfied with the triviality of American life. In South Africa, everyone seemed to have a sense of society’s grand scale; in America, "there was nothing to do but get drunk, get laid, and make money, and no hope that there would ever be more to it than that" (p. 96). Malan soon grew tired of his self-imposed exile, realizing that in making no choice at all, he was betraying his sense of honor and of self. Eight years after running to America, Malan left to return home to South Africa.

Even after coming home, Malan still did not feel prepared to make his choice. He decided to draw on his journalistic background, travel Africa, and interview those who had made their choices. From all of this, Malan hoped to find a way to finally decide which side he was on. He discovered uplifting stories of selfless giving, but he encountered even more horrendous tales of murder and violence caused by both blacks and whites. He met Merle Beetge, a spoiled white woman who eventually became a makeshift ambulance driver for blacks when she discovered that no white ambulance would come to help. But Merle’s story was connected to the story of Augie de Koker, an indescriminately violent white man who had no hesitations in beating a black man to death in front of his own friends and their children. The same day that de Koker went to court for his crime, a black member of the African National Congress was put on trial for possessing literature explaining the aims of his organization. The real crime in all of this is that while the black man got ten years in prison, de Koker was sentenced to only seven years.

Malan interviewed Samuel Mope, a true patriarch of a black man who had worked hard, lived quietly, and provided a decent life for his family and children. His youngest son, thirteen year-old Moses, was walking one night, in his choir uniform, to sing at church. On the way, the white police apprehended him and mistook his uniform for that of the rebellion organization. The police refused to believe Moses’s protests of innocence; instead, they beat him almost to death. Moses was taken to the hospital, but all black hospitals are notoriously understaffed and overcrowded. He died a few hours later.

Amongst all of this carnage, Malan couldn’t bear to be associated with the white establishment. But there was no compromise; unless Malan came fully to the side of the blacks and fought with them and for them in their rebellion, the blacks refused to take him seriously. But a total body-and-soul defection was impossible, for Malan also witnessed black rebels inflicting indiscriminate violence on whites. He saw throngs of blacks stone innocent white diplomats, and journalists to death. Black thugs would stealthily club white adults to death in their own homes. Malan could not bear to take part in this kind of battle, either. He understood apartheid a little better, but had come no closer to making his decision.

Even the most hopeful of Malan’s stories end in frustrating ambivalence. Malan went to talk to Creina Alcock, widow of Neil Alcock. Together, this white couple went to live amongst Zulus in order to really understand their suffering. In Neil’s lifetime, the pair made quite a headway–they taught the Zulus to successfully use pumps and pulleys to irrigate their farms, and helped the Zulus to sell their beads and art for a great profit. The Alcocks drew philanthropists and liberals from all over the world. But after Neil’s death, all of this progress fell apart, and Creina found herself besieged by petty robberies and crimes–committed by her own neighbors, by some of the children that she had helped to raise.

Creina was becoming desperate just to live her life in peace, so desperate that she began to retaliate against the blacks whom she had come to help. But this story has a tentatively happy ending. Creina was ready to give up, but then the Zulus showed another side of themselves, revealing that even with their crude lifestyles, they were truly a multilayered, complex people. They came to Creina, saying that Neil’s death needed to properly be celebrated. This wasn’t a funeral they were talking about; to the Zulus, Neil had become a brother, a member of the tribe. And when a member of the tribe dies, he becomes an ancestor that watches out for the tribe. In other words, he becomes a god. "Neil Alcock had become the first white god in Africa… Aeons after our ancestors walked away, the first white man had come home to Africa to stay" (p 425).

My Traitor’s Heart was the first book all winter that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. Rian Malan, for all of his pragmatic journalism, understands the power of prose, not just to inform, but enthrall. Malan becomes new kind of hero for South Africa, the kind that South Africa needs if it is to have any hope of survival–the kind that understands that before a solution can be reached, the problem must be probed starkly and honestly. You could tell that Malan’s admission of self-doubt and genetic complicity did nothing to gain the esteem of his father, his black friends, or himself. But in doing so, Malan was free. Free to find a truly honest solution to his problem. Malan didn’t find any definitive solutions, but on a larger scale, it doesn’t seem like that should be only his job. It is now up to the leaders of South Africa to enlighten themselves, learn what they really need to fight against, and work with a willing public to slowly solve problems that have been ingrained in South African culture for more than two centuries.

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