A stomping bestseller is a hard thing to recover from. The author is doomed to see all future works compared and found wanting. Is his new book vivid? Certainly. Funny? Yep. Insightful? Sure — but not as good as that first, cherished work. Readers are loyal creatures.
So it will always be for Rian Malan, whose My Traitor’s Heart came out in the dying days of apartheid, a tortured bellow of racial anguish that immediately found a place on the reading list of any student of modern Africa. An Afrikaner descended from a famous family of Voortrekkers and statesmen, the rebellious young Malan fled to Los Angeles, only to return eight years later, bored and homesick. My Traitor’s Heart was his attempt to come to terms with his hate-filled, colour-obsessed, violent country of birth, and if you haven’t read it, well, you should.
The Lion Sleeps Tonight is a more serene work, and so it should be. It’s fashionable at the moment to shake one’s head at events unfolding in South Africa: the flamboyant corruption of the Zuma administration, the continuing inequality, the trouble at the mines. But when Malan was writing My Traitor’s Heart, a far, far darker future was prophesied, and terror of what looked like an inevitable civil war haunted his every page.
The approaching cataclysm was miraculously averted, thanks to the deal struck between F.W. de Klerk’s exiting administration and Nelson Mandela’s incoming ANC. Showing a generosity doomsayers thought impossible, South Africa’s black majority did not wreak bloody vengeance on its former white oppressors. ‘The gift of 1994 was so huge that I choked on it and couldn’t say thank you,’ Malan movingly admits in ‘The Apocalypse that Wasn’t’, one of the articles in this collection. ‘But I am not too proud to say it now.’
The 21 essays republished here, culled from the pages of the Spectator, Telegraph, Rolling Stone and Observer, are the harvest of this calmer period. While some still possess the manic, driven fury of his youth — Malan’s controversy-courting denunciation of the hyping of HIV and AIDS infection rates in Africa being the most notable example — the rest reveal an author infected by the virus of hope, a less haunted, more impish and forgiving observer than before.
So we get an irreverent account of a Miss World contest at tycoon Sol Kerzner’s surreal Sun City resort, an elegiac trip to northern Tanzania to discover the last descendant of the Afrikaners who trekked there in the 1900s, and a gentle portrait of Angus Buchan, a Bible-thumping potato-grower who taps into the angst felt by tens of thousands of Boer farmers who no longer know their place in the world.
My Traitor’s Heart revealed Malan to be a superb interviewer, his great strength the ability to come at a complex event from myriad perspectives, layering one contrasting vision onto another, like transfers on an original architect’s design. ‘This is what happened,’ he tells you, giving you a white witness’s perspective on a murder. ‘But so did this, and this,’ he adds, looking through the perpetrator’s eyes and those of his sceptical, repelled Zulu family. ‘So what’s the truth?’
But a writer needs space to pull off that trick, room very few magazines offer. So while there is much to savour in these pages, there is also the sense of a talent hobbled and reined in. The essay on Winnie Mandela, for example, is so tantalisingly short it would have been better omitted altogether, and some of the overviews of South African affairs written for this magazine come across, after the passage of the years, as glib and insubstantial.
But there are still plenty of examples of Malan doing what he does best: challenging hypocrisies more cautious writers prefer to leave undisturbed. ‘A Truth of Sorts’ explores a form of apartheid-era censorship largely now forgotten: the massaging of South African reality by liberal Western journalists so determined to paint the ANC as heroic they skimmed over its brutal war on AZAPO (Azanian People’s Organisation), poo-pooed tales of torture in ANC detention camps, and politely ignored the behaviour of Winnie’s squad of Soweto thugs. In this portrayal, ‘there were no communists… no revolutionaries who believed it was acceptable to break eggs in order to achieve the desired Sovietist omelette’.
‘Report from Planet Mbeki’ is another iconoclastic essay, arguing that former president Thabo Mbeki, who will go down in history as an arrogant AIDS-dissident, should instead be remembered with gratitude as the visionary who snuffed out the ANC’s bolshevik sympathies and set the movement firmly on today’s path towards a free-market, bourgeois democracy.
So no, The Lion Sleeps Tonight is not another My Traitor’s Heart. But it’s bracing, cheeky, and a damn good read.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 9 February 2013