My Traitor’s Heart is white South African Rian Malan’s reflections on the final years of the apartheid era in his country. Due to his working as a crime reporter for much of this time, and just his keen interest in better understanding his country, its past, and its prospects, he saw and thought about a great deal that was of political and sociological importance concerning South Africa.
This is a very personal book. We see South Africa not from the perspective of some omniscient narrator, but filtered through the life experiences of Malan.
Malan is from a family of politically prominent Boers, so he feels even more connection with, and guilt for, the racially oppressive hierarchy of his nation than do most whites. In spite of—or perhaps because of—his family history, he developed what he refers to as a love for the black people of South Africa from a very young age.
White liberals and radicals who opposed apartheid were apparently very common during this time, especially among young people. It sounds like if anything it was de rigueur to be anti-apartheid in some circles, such as on college campuses.
But although he is himself one of these anti-apartheid whites, his portrayal of them is frankly far from flattering. The liberals come off as mostly just mouthing the platitudes of the popular dogma. The radicals go more fully over to the black side, craving a revolution that puts the blacks on top rather than a transition to some sort of racially equal democratic society, but advocating that violent dead end is scary and delusional enough when the blacks do it; if anything it’s even more pathetic when the whites bandwagon onto the cause and cheerlead for it.
What the liberal and radical whites have in common is that they’re all talk and little action. Malan observes that when the townships explode in rage and violence, you rarely if ever see a white face in the mob.
He himself left the country for a number of years, unwilling to do his mandatory military service in defense of the apartheid regime, and unwilling to accept imprisonment or whatever other consequences might ensue for refusing.
Though there tends to be something of a self-deprecatory feel to his reflections on his own life choices, really he’s not nearly the coward that he sometimes seems to imply. His work as a journalist routinely puts him in situations of high risk, where he is pretty much at the mercy of potentially murderous folks. His return to the country was itself not without significant risks, as while he hoped the situation was changed or chaotic enough for his having fled conscription not to get him in trouble, he certainly didn’t know for a fact that it was.
But while he’s tortured by his uncertainty and by his deviations from ideal courage and principled behavior, his fellow anti-apartheid whites generally seem even more flawed, and unable or unwilling to see and acknowledge those flaws.
A prime example is an ex-girlfriend of his who was always calling attention to her greater political correctness and purity on the race issue. One day they are driving out in the boondocks and see a severely disabled black man hitchhiking while he awkwardly hobbles down the dirt road on crutches. The girlfriend disgustedly tells Malan that declining to pick up the hitchhiker is just what she’d expect of him.
He basically calls her bluff by giving the hitchhiker a ride. He has serious misgivings about it, and is scared that the decision will get them killed, but, as I say, he takes many risks like that in this book.
In spite of the fact that the hitchhiker seems to be (it’s hard to say for sure, since they don’t speak the same language) a harmless, rather jolly fellow who is simply grateful for the ride, it’s the girlfriend who freaks out and shows herself a hypocrite. In a panic, she insists that they not take the man all the way into the (all black and very dangerous) township where he lives, telling Malan to make up some lie like that they don’t have enough gas.
But that’s a common theme of the book, that Malan has a genuine fondness for black people but admittedly at times can’t overcome an instinctive fear and discomfort around them, while the whites that are more or less his allies are worse.
In reading about the white liberals, I was reminded of something I was told while I was a prison volunteer some years ago. Sometimes when guards are more humane toward the prisoners than is the norm, it’s motivated by a desire to put a certain amount of gratitude in the bank. They know there’s a realistic chance that one day they’ll be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time in a prison riot, hostage situation, etc., and they want to be able to say, “Hey now fellahs, you remember I wasn’t like the others, right? I always treated you OK, didn’t I? Remember?”
To say there is a foreboding in the South Africa described by Malan is an understatement. The whites almost unanimously take it for granted that the whole thing is going to blow up sooner rather than later, and that the end will bring with it horrific violence. So naturally some want to be on the “right side” when that day comes.
The problem is—and this is largely true of the utterly chaotic and irrational phenomenon of a prison riot for that matter—a lot of the racial violence in South Africa is random, or at least non-individualized, and so does not adhere to principles of justice that only the “bad” people be targeted. The whites who are trying to do the right thing (both those acting from principle and those sucking up for pragmatic reasons) are almost as likely to be attacked as anyone else. Or as Malan puts it, “How did you fight apartheid and build a just society if the people you were doing it for stoned you because your skin was white?”
The defenders of apartheid justify their brutality in keeping the system in place by claiming that if they ever take their boot off the neck of the black people, the blacks will rise up and slit the throats of the whites. Some of them even acknowledge that the system of racial inequality was unjust and inhumane to begin with, but say that in effect it’s too late to undo it now, that whether the blacks were beasts all along or have been turned into beasts by ill treatment, any loosening of the apartheid system will result in their running amuck and avenging themselves on white people.
It’s a point that brings to mind many analogous situations.
Having recently read the David Brion Davis trilogy on slavery, I know that this was a major worry about the proposed ending of slavery in the United States. Maybe slavery should only be slowly and carefully phased out, some speculated, or maybe the slaves had to be encouraged or compelled to return to Africa, since it could well be that they would behave in savage, uncivilized ways if released all at once into society. Again, this wasn’t just a concern for conservatives who believed in inherent black inferiority, but some liberals who were outraged at how blacks had been brutalized into possibly being unable to function independently and “play well with others.”
Think about this also in relation to Israel and the troubles in the Middle East. Some people critical of Israel denounce the apartheid-like way that Palestinians are treated in Israel and the occupied territories, while some people supportive of Israel argue that if the Palestinians had more freedom and autonomy they would use it to escalate the violence and terrorism and attempt to wipe Israel off the map. Might they both be right? Has Israel treated the Palestinians atrociously, and will ceasing the atrocious treatment lead to a bloodbath?
My Traitor’s Heart doesn’t provide much evidence for optimism about post-apartheid South Africa (and not being an expert on post-apartheid South Africa, I won’t venture an opinion here on how well that lack of optimism fit how events actually have played out). The descriptions of the blacks are mostly supportive of this notion that they are ill-prepared to govern such a nation in any way that is consistent with democracy and basic human rights. They are nearly unanimous, as are their radical white supporters, that what is called for is a Soviet-style communist society with blacks on top, and that the United States and capitalism in general are pure evil.
Not that I’m a jingoistic pro-American type or any fan of unbridled capitalism, but surely there’s some middle ground between Ted Cruz or Dick Cheney on the one hand and the likes of Mao and Qaddafi that these folks lionize on the other.
I’m reminded of Bertrand Russell’s remark that one of the most common fallacies in political commentary is to assume that oppressed people are a bunch of innocents who are above criticism and who will prove through their meritorious behavior that their oppression was unjustified once it is removed. When in fact, they’re still imperfect human beings, if anything even more imperfect as a result of being oppressed.
Yes, there are instances in My Traitor’s Heart of black South Africans behaving in praiseworthy ways. But there are also many instances of wanton violence against white people, and even if you excuse that on the grounds that white people are all collectively responsible for apartheid and all deserve to be violently punished for that, black-on-black violence is far more common. The African National Congress (ANC) and the Azanian People’s Organization (AZAPO), though they are virtually identical in their tactics and goals according to Malan (about the only difference is that the ANC is slightly more apt to tone down the rhetoric so as not to scare away international supporters), spend more time torturing and slaughtering each other’s members than fighting against the whites and apartheid.
In addition to routinely setting fire to each other and such, the black South Africans are mostly ignorant folks who take a lot of creepy superstitions very seriously, though on this issue Malan is apt to be forgiving, pointing out that it’s the unfamiliarity of these superstitions that will make them seem especially bad to most readers, while really many people all over the world have their own versions of such idiocy: “After eight years in Los Angeles, a city infested with chanters, channelers, crystal gazers, tarot readers, televangelists, and flotation tankers, all superstitions and religions seemed pretty equal to me.”
I’m sure that because I’m pointing out some of the more unappealing things about the blacks, some will infer that I must be pro-apartheid or racist against blacks or whatever (or that Malan must be, if I’m relaying what he says in his book accurately), but that would be committing exactly the Russell fallacy alluded to above. You don’t have to be in favor of oppression in order to see that oppressed people have flaws (some perhaps caused or worsened by that very oppression).
But a reader might also be thinking, wasn’t the South African resistance to apartheid a nonviolent struggle led by the Gandhi-like figures of Bishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela?
If Malan is to be believed, that’s about 80% myth and 20% fact. People, including journalists, were tempted to see it that way, because, again, they found it more agreeable to root for oppressed people when they perceived them as noble folks who only wanted to end their oppression so that they could build a peaceful, nonviolent, just society. It didn’t fit the preferred narrative to dwell on how disproportionately their leaders praised the Soviets and Qaddafi and such. The ANC and others in the resistance to apartheid facilitated and manipulated the misconceptions to some extent, but then again it’s not like the violent extremist elements were all that well hidden. Most (liberal and moderate) outside observers just didn’t want to see them.
I remember that time. There was some limited reporting of black-on-black violence and other things embarrassing to the resistance to apartheid, but it was typically treated as some kind of fluky, uncommon thing that didn’t reflect what the movement was all about. Like when there were allegations about murders of rivals conducted in Winnie Mandela’s own home, they were treated as controversial rumors that may or may not be true, and even if they were true, they were regarded as rare exceptions to an otherwise nonviolent struggle, and it was doubted if Winnie Mandela herself would really have had any involvement in them or awareness of them.
Whereas the impression one gets from My Traitor’s Heart is that such blood spilling was depressingly common.
As far as Tutu and Nelson Mandela themselves, they’re barely mentioned by Malan, indicating how little role they played in the years he’s writing about.
He doesn’t express doubt about Tutu’s sincerity, but dismisses him as basically a figurehead whose role was to make the ANC more palatable to Americans and other outsiders. He says even less about Mandela than Tutu, but Mandela was in prison throughout the period covered by the book and so even more limited to the status of a symbol.
Being a huge Gandhi fan myself, certainly I’m not immune to the temptation to see movements as reflecting Gandhian values, and as succeeding when they do so. But that doesn’t mean I disagree with Malan’s account. About the most I’ll say is that perhaps the nonviolence represented by Tutu and to a lesser extent by Mandela (who never even claimed to believe in nonviolence as a principle, but only that in certain circumstances it was more effective than violence) was a slightly bigger part of the revolt against apartheid than he implies.
I don’t know that you can realistically hope for much more than that. I’ve done a great deal of reading about Gandhi, and frankly even Gandhi himself had only quite limited influence over the unfolding of events in India. I’ve not become disillusioned about Gandhi himself, but I do think the idea that he led this nearly pure nonviolent resistance to British rule and that Indians were united behind him is wildly exaggerated.
Gandhi strained every nerve for decades to make the movement for Indian independence a moral one of truth and nonviolence, but the messy reality is that he only succeeded to a quite modest degree.
But the world is a better place due to that modest degree of success. Tutu appears to me to have had significantly less impact even than that, but still a nonzero impact and still a beneficial impact.
Gandhian nonviolence is in its infancy compared to war and the usual ways we settle disputes and treat each other in the public and international sphere. I’m convinced that if we are to avoid extinction, that’s the path we need to more fully explore. We need countless more Gandhis to build on what he did. Of course they’ll be imperfect, like Tutu and Mandela—or Gandhi himself for that matter—and of course the success of any one of them will be very minimal, but they’re our only hope.
Actually I’m sure we’ve had many Gandhis, but the overwhelming majority of them operate in anonymity or get slaughtered early by those who would be most disadvantaged by the success of what they represent. But each one of them in whatever small way makes things better, and gives us a slightly better chance of finding our way.
In fact, My Traitor’s Heart, which is such a sad and pessimistic book in so many ways about a tragic and violent society, ends with a long account of two such inspirational figures: Neil and Creina Alcock.
I don’t know how accurate it is to call them Gandhian, except in the broadest sense of principled people willing to work and suffer almost unimaginably in order to live in a loving way toward their fellow man and make the world a better place.
They are a white couple who move to an area of backward, rural blacks mired in extreme poverty. They implement various farming projects to improve the lives of their neighbors and to serve as an example for what could be done elsewhere in South Africa and the world. The projects show considerable progress early, and clearly produce some benefits, but in the process the Alcocks draw the ire of their white neighbors, the police and political establishment, and not least the rival black groups bent on tearing each other apart. The whole thing comes crashing down. Neil is murdered.
Malan looks up Creina and goes to visit her years later. She is still doing the best she can to carry on their life’s work. On the surface at least, their whole story is far more failure than success, but like I say that’s pretty much all you can hope for. Outside of Hollywood that’s how good people make the world a better place. They give everything they’ve got, and the world chews them up and spits them out, but in the process they touch enough lives in a positive way and provide enough of an example and an inspiration that things move in some infinitesimal increment in the right direction.
I’ll close with Creina’s remarkably moving and insightful observations:
I felt utterly betrayed by loving. All the things I had ever been told about love just weren’t true. It was all full of false promises. I understood that love was a safety and a protection, and that if you loved you would be rewarded by someone loving you back, or at least not wanting to damage you. But it wasn’t true, any of it. I knew that if I stayed, this was how it was going to be: It would never get any better; it would stay the same or get worse. I thought, If you’re really going to live in Africa, you have to be able to look at it and say, This is the way of love, down this road: Look at it hard. This is where it is going to lead you.
I think you will know what I mean if I tell you love is worth nothing until it has been tested by its own defeat. I felt I was being asked to try to love enough not to be afraid of the consequences. I realized that love, even if it ends in defeat, gives you a kind of honor; but without love, you have no honor at all. I think that is what I had misunderstood all my life. Love is to enable you to transcend defeat.
You said one could be deformed by this country, and yet it seems to me one can only be deformed by the things one does to oneself. It’s not the outside things that deform you, it’s the choices you make. To live anywhere in the world, you must know how to live in Africa. The only thing you can do is love, because it is the only thing that leaves light inside you, instead of the total, obliterating darkness.