Sara-Maria Sorentino's Reviews > My Traitor's Heart: A South African Exile Returns to Face His Country, His Tribe, and His Conscience

My Traitor's Heart by Rian Malan
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Jun 01, 08

Read in May, 2008

Malan set out to write a book about his ancestors, about the whole lineage of Malans, who, after setting foot on the continent since the 17th century, fostered the bloody conditions and architected the policies for apartheid South Africa. During this genealogy, he swiftly moves into his childhood love for blacks that extended into his adult guilt and anti-apartheid activism, which make him in some ways the black sheep of the Malan clan and in many ways a variation on the same racist theme. The purity of his rejection of apartheid was far from just that, as we learn how the love for everything black was intimately associated with the secret fear of a black uprising that held the "white tribe" together. In this, he explores the contradictions that eat at his soul, that led him to self-exile and return, detailing the moments in which his racism exposed itself, where his body revealed cowardice, fear, revulsion in the precise situations that his moral righteousness would call for steadfast bravery and unyielding compassion. The bulk of the book moves into a long journalistic section, diverging only slightly from memoir, that chronicles one after another, with much intensity, stories of the many south africas that erupt in violence. And in his search, he found one white person that wasn't completely blind and that man was eventually murdered. I don't know if that's much to go off of, as far as reconciliation efforts are concerned.

From Malan's telling, I came to realize that far more whites considered themselves anti-apartheid then I previously thought, but, as goes liberalism, this formal rejection actually most often entailed the justification for its continuation. I had also underestimated the conflicts between the UDF-ANC (followers of Mandela and Tutu, called wararas in Soweto) and Black Consciousness/AZAPO (followers of Steve Biko, called zim-zims), which is a confounding relationship that can't be thoroughly explained as an outbreak provoked by a white strategy of divide and conquer.

His writing is far from perfect, and there is much theoretical quibbling one could do, but that is not what this book, in its confessional anger, is calling for. This is perhaps the only book to be written in such a bind. An urgent, groping, messy cry of the sheer impossibility of living in this world.

Here is a quote from a page in which Malan collects the quotes from his journeys that most express the hearts of the matter: "I wandered from grave to grave, but the stories I gathered revealed meanings that ultimately annihilated one another.
'A mouth that talks like yours is asking for a hiding,' said Augie de Koker.
'Eh het vokol,' said Samuel Mope. 'I am black, and I have fuck-all.'
'A white is a white against the black,' said Shibogang, drinking in a Soweto shebeen. 'Every white man we see is an enemy to us.'
'There is no fairness on this earth,' said Simon the Hammerman.
'Oh baby,' said Allen Pizzey of CBS News, 'when the day comes you'll still be whitey.'
'Frikkie hated the kaffirs,' said the stepfather of a slain white policeman.
'Themba was hating the whites,' said Blackie Mshotshiza, trade unionist.
'Those in the middle are the most dangerous,' said Tiger, juggling empty beer bottles in Zululand. 'Those in the middle must die.'
'If you go into their stronghold you will surely be killed,' said George Wauchope, in the midst of Soweto's other civil war. 'There is no middle of the road.'
In the end there was no middle anywhere, no refuge from choice, not even in my own mind. I had always been two people, you see: A Just White Man appalled by the cruelties Afrikaners inflicted on Africans, and an Afrikaner appalled by the cruelties Africans inflicted on each other and might one say inflict on us. There were always these two paths open before me, these two forces tugging at my traitor’s heart" (346).

Aside from Nadine Gordimer's fiction, the most impassioned, earnest white voice I've heard from South Africa is Krog's Country of My Skull. Does anyone know of any other powerful South African writing?
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Naeem (new)

Naeem review please?


message 2: by Naeem (new)

Naeem Very compelling review. thank you.


message 3: by Sandra D (new)

Sandra D The only book I can think of to recommend is The Bang Bang Club by South African photojournalists Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva. It was pretty powerful. Well, actually, it kind of blew me away.


Sara-Maria Sorentino sandra- thank you, i plan on checking this out.


message 5: by Paul (new) - added it

Paul As a South African I feel the works of JM Coetzee reverberate into the soul, leaving you crave more. All his books are enthralling, but you might consider starting with 'Disgrace'


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