Rian Malan on his position in apartheid South Africa in “My Traitor’s Heart”

Léa Auranche, May 2010


  • South Africa

Rian Malan is a member of a prominent South African Malan family, who has fathered Dawid Malan, one of the first Boers to impose white law in South Africa in the 18th century, and Daniel François Malan, the architect of apartheid in the 1950s. Carrying this heavy family history, Rian Malan describes in My Traitor’s Heart his attempt to escape from it, by fleeing to the United States, and his return at the heart of the mid-1980s riots in the townships.

His job as a reporter allows him to analyse various examples of crimes and injustices, thus forcing him to reflect on interracial relationships in his country and on his place in this society, as he tries to answer the question: “How do I live in this strange place?” (p. 12) . This book not only teaches the foreign reader the harsh reality of South Africa under apartheid, but also the complex relationships between humans and ethnic groups. This story, told through white eyes, is less about conflict and war than about racism and violence, and helps to understand where they stem from.

Cultural violence

Firstly, My Traitor’s Heart deals with the theme of cultural violence. Rian Malan starts his book describing the historical background of the Boers’ settling in South Africa from the arrival of his ancestor Jacques Malan in the 17th century, through the Battle of Blood River in the 19th century, to the imposition of apartheid in 1948. He goes on relating the first confrontations between black natives and white settlers, using his ancestors’ history as a thread.

These events make up the Afrikaners’ collective unconscious and this is where the 20th racism stems from. Indeed, when Whites settled in South Africa, the only balance of power between them and Africans was determined by the rule: “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” (p. 28-29), by Dawid Malan’s words. This maxim, which seemed relevant in the 19th century, is still in force in 20th century South Africa. The rampant racism calls for a separation between Blacks and Whites, which is the first objective of apartheid, imposed by D.F. Malan. Though at first the aim was to create a society where both groups would be “separate but equal” (p. 30), this system revealed too expensive and derived in a division where Whites would rule and Blacks would be kept down and away.

This past history allowed racism to be rooted among Whites. Perceiving Blacks as a primitive, ignorant class seems like a natural fact. Even though there are different scales of racism among Whites, this fear of “the Other” is still present among Liberals, to which the writer likens himself. Rian Malan claims that he loves Blacks, but later on, he realizes that he still fears them, which is a “symptom” of racism.

The origins of the conflict: fear

Moreover, the author of My Traitor’s Heart tries to discover where the conflict comes from. At one point, he is confronted with fear and realizes that it is the explanation. Constant separation between Blacks and Whites has created a mutual ignorance. The lack of knowledge of the other group has led to fear, and thus racism. These feelings are reciprocal as Rian Malan acknowledges: “My fear of Blacks was obscuring my understanding of the fear Blacks felt for my white skin” (p. 275). This mechanism endures because of apartheid, which maintains separation between both sides and thus mutual ignorance. Rian Malan describes it as a “racist conditioning” (p. 290). It started on the first encounters between Blacks and Whites and goes on nowadays. This phenomenon is common in most conflicts and develops into a vicious circle: separation leads to ignorance of the other, which leads to fear, and thus to racism, which reinforces separation.

As the writer says it, Afrikaners live in a state of “blindness” or “lobotomy” (p. 334) which prevents them to see the reality as it is and to open their eyes on Africans (the term Malan uses for natives).

The solution to escape from these fear and racism is not violence, but trust: “We must find a way of trusting” (p. 296). Rian Malan also presents the unique case of Creina Alcock, who, along with her late husband Neil, has found a new way to relate to Blacks: through love. Even though it does not totally protect her from violence and the conflict, it gives her a philosophy of life that allows her to survive during apartheid. These ways of fighting fear and racism find an echo in the 1990s resolution of the apartheid conflict. Nelson Mandela’s building of a “Rainbow Nation” has allowed South Africa to evolve in a multiethnic society. Love and trust between groups enable them to know each other, thus breaking the vicious circle of fear.

Choosing one’s camp

Thirdly, the book deals with the need to choose a side in the conflict. One cannot be in the middle; one needs to take a position, as the no man’s land is a difficult place to be. The conflict forces the population to choose a camp.

Society expects people to choose a position: “For some Whites, the myth of white supremacy, and for others, the myth of brave and noble Africans in heroic struggle against unspeakable evil. If you were white, you had to embrace one of those two myths, and let it guide your way” (p. 334). At first, when witnessing the atrocities committed by his fellow countrymen to black people, the author suffers an identity crisis. He does not recognize himself among Afrikaners and refuses to engage in the army and be an instrument of apartheid. He thus flees to the United States. However, on his return, the escalation of violence he witnesses makes it worst. The writer starts supporting black rioters, but after noticing many acts of violence inside and between communities, thanks to his job as a reporter, he does not know who to support anymore and gets stuck. He describes his feeling as a “paradox [that] fractured your skull and buried its poisonous claws in your brain” (p. 334). Life in the no man’s land is thus untenable and Rian Malan wishes he were “blind” as his compatriots.

The polarization also exists within the black community, which is divided between African National Congress, Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness and Buthelezi’s Inkatha followers. Neither there is the no man’s land a safe place to be: “You are either on this side, or you are on that side. If you’re in the middle you’re the worst. The people in the middle are the most dangerous, and they must be killed” (p. 284). The same thing is true for the Zulu people in Msinga, where Neil and Creina Alcock live: the population is divided by internecine wars opposing Mhlangaan versus Ndlela, and Mashunka versus Ngubo (p. 390).

Definition of the conflict: race vs. class

Additionally, throughout his analysis of apartheid, Rian Malan is confronted with the difficulty to define the conflict and to classify it in a category: is it a class conflict or a race conflict?

As a young man attracted by Marxist theories in the 1970s, the author is prone to perceive the confrontation between Blacks and Whites as a class struggle, assimilating the black population to the proletarian class and the white South Africans to the ruling class. Indeed, this analysis makes sense since black people are underprivileged and sell their workforce to the Whites, who, on the other hand, rule the country, control the economy and the capital. The apartheid confrontation is seen as the majority “proletarian” Blacks’ struggle to overthrow the minority “bourgeois” Whites. This view is also conveyed by the South African government since they often categorize African revolutionary movements (such as the African National Congress) as communist organisations. The historical background of the Cold War, opposing the capitalist “good” to the communist “evil”, explains this classification.

Even after acknowledging the racial (and not merely economic) aspect of apartheid, Rian Malan goes on making a parallel between the race and the class struggles: “The Botha government’s race struggle was the ANC’s class struggle. […] It revealed the white state for what it truly was: a ruling racial class” (p. 271). The race issue adds up to the class/economic issue because of the conflict’s historic roots. At first, the confrontation between black natives and white settlers had no economic stake, but was a territory and colonization issue.

The end of the conflict

Finally, the book deals with the looming end of the apartheid system. Even if the biggest part of the story takes place in the mid-1980s, thus before its official abolition, we can feel the beginning of the end in the different measures taken by Botha and De Klerk’s governments as well as in the final confrontations in the townships.

In 1986, President Pieter Botha decides to ease some apartheid laws: “In the end, he even scrapped the hated pass laws, a move that heralded the end of the deranged Boer fantasy of a pure white South Africa” (p. 268). Indeed, this measure puts an end to the final objective of apartheid, which is to separate Blacks from Whites, so that the latter may control the country. Consequently, the system is doomed and it is logical that it should end a few years later.

Additionally, the township riots that tear the country apart prove that no solution would be viable for apartheid. The writer brushes aside the military solution: “a race war [the Whites] cannot possibly win. We all know that. Our generals have been saying so since 1973. There is no military solution because the enemy is within. […] Moral questions aside, we cannot defeat such an enemy without destroying ourselves” (p. 296).

The book closes on Frederik de Klerk’s accession to power in 1989, as he tries to ease even more the apartheid laws. The reader who knows the subsequent events realizes that a viable solution had to include a Black leadership and not only the end of segregation. Empowering the majority is the only way for a real South African democracy to survive. The liberation of Nelson Mandela augurs his future role in the peace process.

At the same time, De Klerk is confronted with disapprovals inside the white community, as some extremist Afrikaners perceive his actions as a betrayal toward his tribe: “All across the country, the white right is on the rise […] plotting to assassinate the traitor De Klerk” (p. 421).

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Rian Malan’s book is a precious tool to understand the dynamics that lie behind the apartheid conflict, digging up the roots of a racist system which seems inconceivable and incomprehensible for a 21st century reader.

The writer is rather pessimistic about the reconciliation of the South African society (“I wish I could say this will end well, but I find it hard to have faith” p. 421). The 1990s have proved him wrong, for Nelson Mandela made a good attempt at healing the wounds of apartheid through peace and not violence. However, nowadays the South African society remains divided since some economic issues have not been resolved.