Recently I read Rian Malan’s South African memoir My Traitor’s Heart. That made a distinctly positive impression on me, so I decided to follow it up by reading The Lion Sleeps Tonight.
My Traitor’s Heart is about South Africa at the tail end of apartheid. The Lion Sleeps Tonight is about post-apartheid South Africa.
I actually liked The Lion Sleeps Tonight even more. It’s a true page-turner. Malan is a terrific storyteller, and he has some terrific material to work with in this book.
What I appreciate as much as anything about Malan is that he calls them as he sees them. (Unless he’s just really good at spinning and manipulation and has me fooled.) What you all too often get from people writing for public consumption is strategic expression. They choose what side they’re on, and then they make sure that what they say and how they say it helps that side.
When that’s done from the political left it is usually, but not always, motivated to bring about good ends (alleviation of poverty, avoidance of war, lessening of environmental damage, assistance to the underdogs of society, etc.). When it’s done from the political right it is usually, but not always, motivated to bring about not so appealing ends (increased corporate profit, fundamentalist religious theocracy, etc.). But regardless of the motive, there’s a real sliminess to it.
You could say Malan refuses to abide by political correctness, but while true that’s potentially misleading. Unfortunately, “political correctness” is usually used only for formally and informally enforced bullshit of the left (and worse yet has been broadened by many of its critics to include any leftist statements, bullshit or not), when in actuality there is more pressure from the right to never deviate from certain “accepted” positions.
As it turns out, there probably is indeed more in this book to make people on the left than the right squirm, but my read on Malan is that he’s frank about going where the evidence leads him without concern for who that helps or hurts in whatever ideological debates, so ultimately he’s apt to piss off just about everybody (or at least everybody who has made the ethical compromise to limit their public expression to what they think is strategically effective for their ends, and who cannot abide someone who doesn’t play that game).
Yes, I suppose if there is an ideological or stylistic difference between the two Malan books I have read, he probably has drifted farther rightward as he has aged. In the first book there were more emotional expressions of his love for black South Africans and his conviction that apartheid was an unmitigated evil, to go along with his debunking of the ANC’s supposedly nonviolent and democratic nature and his ridicule of the sometimes silly antics of white liberals. In the second book there’s less reiteration of his liberal bona fides but certainly no lessening of his calling out of foolishness and dissembling on the left when he finds it. (He puts me in mind just a bit of Mike Royko in that regard, whose cynicism and curmudgeonliness grew more conservative and unappealing in his elderly years.)
As someone more of the left than the right myself that perhaps gives me some pause, but I still find myself convinced of his basic honesty. For many of the pieces in The Lion Sleeps Tonight, he’s clearly done a phenomenal amount of research (he has a habit of spending months or years obsessing over some topic, driving the people in his life crazy), and then he tells you what he found out, whether it fits what he hoped to find out (or anticipates will be popular or whatever) or not. That’s what I want from a reporter or commentator: work your ass off to find out the truth and then tell it “without fear or favor” as the New York Times likes to say (leaving aside how well that publication itself lives up to that principle). So until I read a convincing critique that Malan is a dishonest advocate for the right wing—rather than just that he sometimes writes things that are contrary to the strategic rhetorical interests of the left—he still gets a thumbs up from me.
The Lion Sleeps Tonight is a collection of 21 journalistic pieces, most of which have previously appeared in print in various periodicals, though he has altered some of them and added postscripts to many for this collection.
If there’s a general theme to the book, I would say it’s something like: “I was proven right in my cynicism about how corrupt and incompetent the ANC post-apartheid black government of South Africa would be, how phony its supposed nonviolence and respect for human rights and such were, and how its leaders were almost unanimously admirers of Soviet-style dictatorship—or worse—but somehow I’ve consistently been proven wrong about the consequences of that. I would have thought if all that was really as bad as it seemed to me, South Africa would soon be a bloody mess, a hellhole along the lines of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Instead, South Africa continues to stagger along as a frustrating, intriguing, and beautiful hodgepodge of the best and worst humanity has to offer. Somehow it has not collapsed into chaos or a horrific race war.”
The Last Africaner tells the story of an elderly woman in Tanzania who is descended from the Boers who settled there when they migrated from South Africa in disgust at the conclusion of the Boer War. She’s the last person from that group of families still in the area, and about the only white person the other people living in the area ever see. (Some bring their children to stand and stare at her, to contemplate the novelty she represents.) She has always just barely scraped by, just like everyone else around her. She’s kind of like a liberal antebellum woman of the American South: In a lot of ways she’s very comfortable with blacks and doesn’t conflict with them, yet she also has many attitudes that would be regarded today as blatantly racist. To her, though, these attitudes are based on obvious truths, and when challenged on them she gets annoyed and snaps at the challenger’s pretending that they aren’t obvious truth.
Invictus is Malan’s review of the movie of that name, which he says is not as awful as he’d anticipated but still is seriously flawed in that it sticks to the Western liberal mythology about Nelson Mandela and South Africa.
The movie is about Mandela’s embracing of the South African rugby team. Because the team is wildly popular among whites, this is presented as a very positive symbol of Mandela’s determination to be the president of all South Africans, to reach across the racial divide. Malan points out that Mandela’s support was a temporary respite, as before and after his symbolic gesture his government pressured the rugby team to add more black players.
I don’t know anything about that case, but my thought is that even if things happened as he says, the implication that Mandela’s supportive actions were insincere or that he contradicted them by allowing his underlings to renew their efforts to get the team to integrate does not follow. What if, for instance, the rugby team was unjustly and illegally segregated, the government taking notice of that was justified, Mandela gave them a temporary break to let them do the right thing on their own, despite his gesture and all the supposed racial good will they thumbed their nose at him and did nothing to bring the team into compliance with the law, and so eventually the government resumed action against them?
I’m just saying that for all I know as a reader, the other side might be equally or more guilty of hypocrisy or betrayal.
Season of the Leopard is one of many pieces that addresses the problem of crime in post-apartheid South Africa being out of control in some places and times, a real breakdown of law and order where law enforcement either can’t or won’t provide even the minimum amount of protection of personal safety and property that is the primary justification for having a government in the first place. Season of the Leopard specifically is about a (black) vigilante leader whose movement becomes very powerful and controversial.
Malan is ambivalent about what he finds out in investigating the movement. On the one hand, he is inclined to dismiss concerns about civil liberties, defendants’ rights, innocent until proven guilty, unaccountable vigilantism, etc. as the sorts of things uninformed outsider white liberals focus on because they don’t understand that in a chaotic state where the criminal justice system is barely functioning you have to forego certain luxuries like that and just do what you have to do. On the other hand, he discovers that the very things those liberals warn about as the reasons to insist on the basic human rights of defendants and such are indeed happening in South Africa, that the vigilantes sometimes function as little more than lynch mobs, beating and killing people suspected of crimes, who in some cases probably were informed on deceitfully as a part of some dispute, like wanting someone out of the way so you can try to get with his girlfriend, or getting revenge on someone who got the better of you in some business deal or otherwise disadvantaged you.
Report From Planet Mbeki is a book review of The Dream Deferred by Mark Gevisser. The author is a liberal who acknowledges that twenty-nine of the top thirty ANC leaders in the 1970s were Communists in thrall to the Soviet Union (more even than the twenty-three that the white government of South Africa claimed—a claim that was roundly dismissed as obviously false Cold War propaganda), yet who doesn’t think that this discredits the ANC or establishes that its reputation as a bunch of freedom-loving democrats was unearned.
Malan’s opinion is that as bad as Thabo Mbeki (the second president of post-apartheid South Africa, after Nelson Mandela) is—he was one of the twenty-nine—he’s actually less bad, less of an extremist, than his cohorts in the ANC leadership. He gave up on armed revolution before most of them did, and over time became less of a hardline Communist than most of them. In fact, he stood up to the extremists in his own party in ways that border on the heroic: “He had the courage to confront the Sovietists who controlled the ANC, and the brains to see that negotiation was necessary and inevitable. Once in power, he turned his back on failed socialist nostrums and pursued economic policies he knew would make him unpopular with his own constituency and vulnerable to attacks from the left.”
One of the two longest pieces in the book, and the source of the book’s title, is In the Jungle, the story of the song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” best known from the 1961 version by the Tokens and from the soundtrack of The Lion King. The song is actually based on an African song—with little in the way of lyrics but mostly just chanting—called “Mbube” by Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds, recorded in South Africa in 1938 in the first recording studio in sub-Saharan Africa.
The song went on to make millions, but that all went to the various record companies and middlemen; Linda received virtually nothing. Though that was probably all legal contractually, Malan regarded it as a great ethical injustice and so investigated the matter and sought some kind of restitution. Linda had long since died, but eventually his surviving descendants did indeed receive a respectable amount of money after all these decades.
In The Beautiful and the Damned, Malan recounts his trip to the site of the 1993 Miss World beauty pageant, an almost unbelievably, spectacularly ritzy hotel and casino in Bophuthatswana (one of the phony “states” the apartheid government set up to create the illusion of black independence), on the eve of the end of apartheid. His tone is one of bemusement and foreboding, watching the people partying and throwing themselves into fits of conspicuous consumption, presumably to distract themselves from the conflagration they had to know was coming.
In the postscript to this piece, he notes: “By the time this piece hit the newsstands, South Africa’s political factions were tearing one another apart in the worst bloodletting we’d ever seen, and the pessimism evident in my cynical asides seemed entirely prescient. Ninety days later, Nelson Mandela came to power in a miraculously peaceful election, and I wound up looking, as was so often the case, like an idiot.”
Great White Hyena is about the very popular South African tabloid the Daily Sun. It sounds like for the most part a garbage newspaper, appealing to the lowest common denominator. Malan doesn’t really claim it’s anything better than that, but he’s tickled by the unapologetic populism of its philosophy of (making money by) giving people what they want. “Intellectual snobs are beside themselves, but I am rather enjoying the spectacle. Missionaries, Marxists, and Great White Masters have always sought to feed South Africa’s natives what they thought was good for them.” I understand the anti-paternalist appeal, but on the other hand I’m not a big fan of furthering personal gain by exploiting the stupidities and weaknesses of people, so I’ll hold my applause.
Jewish Blues in Darkest Africa is a story (actually it’s liner notes from an album) of a Rhodesian blues band (the Otis Waygood Blues Band), and some filthy rich South African music moguls. One thing one gathers from this piece as well as from In the Jungle about “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” is that the producers, investors, middlemen, etc. in the music business make way, way more money than the people who actually create the art and add something positive to the world.
The longest piece in the book, and I assume the one that is best known and has brought the most opprobrium down on Malan, is The Body Count.
Malan was commissioned to write an article for Rolling Stone on the kooky, and deadly, AIDS myths and policies of South African President Thabo Mbeki. He relished the opportunity to ridicule Mbeki, since he regarded the government as incompetent and corrupt, and while Mbeki himself might be less bad than most of his ANC comrades he was bad enough.
The more he dug into the evidence though (and this is maybe the most extreme instance of his tendency to get obsessed about a topic and do a massive amount of research about it), the more he came to believe that not all the “myths” are myths.
It’s not that he ended up skeptical that HIV causes AIDS (he mentions that maverick position and why a minority of researchers believe it, but doesn’t argue for it himself), but more about the magnitude of the epidemic and some of the details about it.
At the time he wrote the piece, the consensus position of world health officials, the mass media, and certainly AIDS activists was that AIDS in Africa was killing an almost unimaginable number of people, and that the death toll would rise even much higher than that as the disease continued to spread. The number of people in Africa believed to have the HIV virus already in their system was shockingly high.
But Malan found many problems with this consensus. To start with, most of the countries in Africa do not have sophisticated and accurate public records of things like deaths and causes of death, which means all the figures people cite can never be more than rough estimates.
Not that it’s inappropriate to make estimates in the absence of hard data, but Malan claims that the methodology used to come up with the estimates was very shaky. And when he went to the trouble of looking in depth at other available evidence, he found far more to disconfirm than confirm the common estimates.
This other evidence included things like blood tests from a prison—one of the few populations where everyone is tested for HIV—and even inquiries with coffin makers. (The prisoners—a subgroup you would expect to have a disproportionately high incidence of HIV—were HIV positive in much smaller numbers than the estimates for the general population, and the coffin makers reported that they certainly had not seen any upsurge in business in recent years.)
He looked long and hard and all he found either clearly contradicted the common estimates or failed to support or refute them. He did finally come across some records in South Africa itself that indicated a modest increase in deaths that could most plausibly be attributed to AIDS, but even that fell well short of supporting the magnitude of the estimates.
He’s really quite tentative and modest in his conclusions. Certainly he never says AIDS isn’t killing a lot of people, that resources need not be allocated to addressing AIDS, that the denialists are right about HIV not causing AIDS, etc.
What he says is that the kind of evidence you would expect to see if people really were dying of AIDS in anything like the numbers they supposedly are simply isn’t there, but he acknowledges that given the grossly inadequate public health records in Africa there’s still a chance things are at least somewhat close to as dire as everyone says, and that therefore he’s always open to new evidence.
But if the numbers really are exaggerated to anything like the degree they appear to be, the question is why. Malan notes that many relevant parties have incentives to exaggerate, whether consciously or unconsciously.
AIDS activists want AIDS to be perceived as the greatest and most urgent threat possible so that more action is taken against it. African countries more likely to receive aid if they are believed to be going through a horrific humanitarian crisis want to keep those aid dollars flowing. All else being equal, the media prefer a more extreme, more sensational, story.
I read The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS by Michael Fumento many years ago, and found it largely convincing, as I find this Malan piece largely convincing. Most people probably don’t remember it now, but at the time of the greatest AIDS panic there were constant reiterations of the message that AIDS was no longer a disease of the well-known “risk groups” (male homosexuals and bisexuals, IV drug users, hemophiliacs, etc.), but that it had broken out into the general population and that now everyone was dying in almost as great numbers as the risk group folks, or at least soon would be. (Oprah Winfrey estimated that by 1990, one-fifth of heterosexuals would be dead of AIDS.)
None of that happened, or came close to happening. HIV simply isn’t transmitted easily via heterosexual sex, and it never became more than a very rare killer outside the risk groups, despite the alarmist predictions.
Again, the question is why people—even acknowledged experts—were saying what they were saying if it wasn’t justified by the evidence. I think the single biggest reason is that there was an urgency about changing the perception of AIDS as being overwhelmingly a disease of “unpopular” groups. AIDS was really a nightmare situation—a disease that targets people who already suffer discrimination and already receive fewer resources for their problems. If it could be recast as an equal opportunity killer, then a lot more people would be sympathetic toward AIDS sufferers, and a lot more money would be allocated to treatment and seeking a cure and such.
Probably 90% of the people doing the exaggerating and spreading the myths about heterosexual AIDS were benevolently motivated, so it’s not like it was some evil conspiracy. But a lot of what was being said was simply untrue.
I’m inclined to think Malan is right about African AIDS just as the doubters were right about American heterosexual AIDS.
By the way, something analogous to this would be the only sense in which I’m even minimally sympathetic to the arguments of climate change denialists. That the Earth is getting hotter as a result of human actions like using massive amounts of fossil fuels, and that this heating up will have bad consequences I have very, very little doubt about. It certainly seems like the overwhelming majority of those in a far better position to know such things than I agree on that much.
But as far as some of the specific details and specific predictions, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of it is the same kind of benevolent “We need to say whatever we need to say to wake people up and get them to act!” as with AIDS.
Imagine you know that the local fire department has very limited resources or will to respond to fires and that they pick and choose which they send a fire truck out to. If your shed is burning down you might phone it in as your house burning down instead, or if there is a hazardous situation that has a 30% chance of turning into a catastrophic fire you might report it as having a 90% chance. You do what you think you need to do to get people to respond adequately, if you think that telling the truth will result in their responding inadequately.
So while it would surprise me a great deal if climate change were an out-and-out myth or lie (to a comparable degree that it would surprise me if it is proven that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS), I would be surprised less if at all if some of the specifics turn out to have been exaggerated to rouse people to action, like if the amount of warming over the next x number of years turns out to be only half or a quarter as much as the most common estimates, or if the year in which such-and-such coastal city is submerged if we don’t change our ways is 2075 rather than the 2035 that is the most common estimate, or if the death toll of doing such-and-such (or not doing such-and-such) turns out to be 2% of the world’s population rather than 15%, etc.
The next piece is Among the AIDS Fanatics, which I won’t say a lot about because it’s very much on this same topic. But here is how Malan concludes it:
Put yourself in Mbeki’s shoes. The highest scientific authorities on the planet were telling him that South Africa was passing through the worst catastrophe in its history, that AIDS had in a single year killed more South Africans than all the wars we ever fought among ourselves and against Britain and Germany. But when he looked around, there was a yodeling chasm between the UNAIDS’s claim and the reality we were all then experiencing.
It’s much to Mbeki’s credit that he refused to crook the knee and praise the naked emperor’s glorious raiments. It was not he who lost his head; it was the army of hysterics who believed every word uttered by the High Priests of HIV in Geneva. Mbeki was right to ask questions. His mistake was to accept the first answer given—AIDS could be a hoax—and proceed accordingly. Once he’d taken that position, he was too proud to back down, and a terrible price was exacted.
In A Truth of Sorts, Malan argues that pragmatic and ideological lying and attempts to mandate certain opinions and stifle others existed on both sides in the apartheid years in South Africa, that while the government practiced ham-handed censorship there were plenty of institutions, including much of the press, who refused to criticize or report inconvenient truths about the ANC and opponents of apartheid and who sought to enforce that version of political correctness to help their side in the struggle.
The Queen is a critical piece about Winnie Mandela, whom Malan admits even he finds strangely charming in person, but whom he regards as a demagogue implicated in some horrific crimes.
In A Question of Spin, Malan again takes on the tolerance of people for lies and mythmaking as long as it favors their side. He argues that one of the incidents that most turned world opinion against the apartheid government of South Africa—the Boipatong massacre—was not what it seemed to be, that rather than the murdering of blacks by the police it was a black-on-black attack by Inkatha members on ANC members.
He acknowledges that there is evidence that the police were derelict in stopping the slaughter, but he attributes this more to unprofessionalism or a lack of courage than to their favoring the killing.
I don’t know anything about the incident itself so I can only speak speculatively, but it seems like Malan is ignoring the context here. He’s concerned with whether the police actively carried out the massacre—he says the evidence is pretty clear they did not—but is that the only way the government could bear any of the responsibility?
Governments in a situation like the one the South African government was in always practice a “divide and rule” strategy. The apartheid government actively supported Inkatha and any group that could muck up the efforts of apartheid’s opponents to join in a united front. It’s not that the police and government officials were somehow too incompetent to do anything about black groups fighting and killing each other; it was in their interest that the fighting continue.
Regardless of whether the police pulled the triggers in Boipatong or directly encouraged or cooperated in the massacre in an Israeli Sabra and Shatila manner, surely they deserve some of the responsibility for fostering a climate in which such an attack could occur.
The Apocalypse that Wasn’t, written for the tenth anniversary of South African democracy, is Malan’s public admission that as much as there is to criticize about post-apartheid South Africa, nothing like the Kosovo-style bloodletting that he and many others feared and predicted ever came to pass.
Yeoville is a suburb of Johannesburg. In The People’s Republic of Yeoville, Malan describes how in the apartheid days it was a community of hippies, artists, and various alternative types, and how after the end of apartheid it gradually fell into squalor and became a rundown, high crime area. Virtually all the white people fled. One of the very few exceptions was his artist friend Reshada, who stayed and showed that if you didn’t let fear defeat you, Yeoville could still be a good and interesting area in which to live and raise a family, a community where neighbors all know and rely on each other.
In House for Sale in Doomed Country, Malan recounts some of the ways post-apartheid South Africa is falling apart, one of the causes being an inept racial transition at the top. When the blacks came to power, they booted most or all of the whites out of the civil service and such. This was understandable from the standpoint of wanting to give the oppressed classes opportunities at jobs that had always been unjustly denied to them, but on a pragmatic level it meant eliminating almost everyone who had advanced to a decent level of competence, had any idea how the system worked, and knew how to get things done.
In Ugly Scenes in Boer Provence, Malan describes what a hellhole Zimbabwe is under Robert Mugabe, and how disturbing it is that all he has to do is strike a heroic anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist, anti-white pose in order for leftists around the world, including the ANC South African government, to applaud him and overlook all his monstrous flaws. He notes that the blacks in Mugabe’s own country have largely turned against him, and if you were really pro-black, pro-poor, pro-underdog, as a leftist, you certainly wouldn’t consider Mugabe an ally.
Nemesis tells a long and complex story about a mystery man named Paul O’Sullivan bent on exposing South African corruption, especially in the person of Jackie Selebi, the national commissioner of the South African Police Service, not to mention president of Interpol, the international police organization. O’Sullivan tells Malan—or hints about—all kinds of cloak and dagger stuff, and claims to be largely responsible for certain anti-corruption consequences, while more official sources laugh O’Sullivan off to Malan as a fantasist and self-promoter who never had more than a minimal role in the things he takes credit for. Malan admits he can’t come to any confident conclusions about the matter, nor about O’Sullivan himself. “O’Sullivan’s problem, from a writer’s point of view, was that he had no psychological interior, or at least none that he was willing to share.”
Messiah of the Potato Fields is the story of Angus Buchan, a wildly popular white South African country evangelist. Wildly popular in the bubble that is fundamentalist Christianity, that is. Malan notes that that is like a whole parallel world: “There are world-famous Christian rock bands the secular world has never heard of. Famous Christian movies and novels likewise. It turns out that South Africa is awash in Bible colleges whose names ring no bells, and miracles that pass unnoticed by the mainstream media.”
Nonbeliever Malan finds himself growing more and more curious about Buchan. Everyone he talks to (outside that bubble) dismisses him, but the criticisms are all the generic ones about his “type” (e.g., that he’s exploiting the rubes for money), which Malan finds unsatisfying because the people offering these opinions don’t consider it necessary to find out more about Buchan as an individual.
In most respects, Buchan does indeed sound like the creepy kind of fundamentalists that America is plagued with—anti-gay, anti-abortion, in general the folks who insist God is on the side of the most hateful elements of the right wing.
When Malan investigates, he finds that while that much is true, Buchan himself to all appearances is totally sincere, is not benefiting financial from his preaching, is a simple, compassionate man who believes in Christian love, and is strict about avoiding anything that implicitly could be seen as supportive of white supremacy or racial politics. Plus on a personal level when Malan gets to speak with him one-to-one, he turns out to be a likable guy.
But Malan ends up vaguely disappointed. While he probably found out more good than bad about Buchan—and even the bad (the right wing moral and cultural stuff) he insists he doesn’t have a problem with the way everyone in his circle seemed to assume he would—it’s like he was really hoping there was something more there, something that would enable him too to feel the same uplift and inspiration that Buchan’s followers do, maybe even something to persuade him to become more of a religious believer. Buchan’s being sincere, personable, and not a crook turned out not to be enough to do that.
In Did You Hear the One About Apartheid?, Malan sees it as a good sign that in spite of post-apartheid South Africa’s depressing, restrictive political correctness, and the fact that so many of its leaders are more comfortable with Communist totalitarianism than democracy and human rights, some comedians have been able to get away with poking fun at the country and its dogmas, and some of the leaders themselves have shown a willingness to take being lampooned with good grace. (One of the comedians he singles out for praise is Trevor Noah, who American readers will recognize as the new host of The Daily Show, taking over from Jon Stewart.)
Malan closed My Traitor’s Heart with the inspirational story of Neil and Creina Alcock, the white couple who chose to live among the poorest of rural blacks and to become equal members of their community, seeking to help them in whatever non-paternalistic ways they could.
The final piece in The Lion Sleeps Tonight—Those Fabulous Alcock Boys—is a kind of follow-up to that, the story of Neil and Creina’s two sons, now grown. I see it as an attempt to close the book in the same way as My Traitor’s Heart, with a portrait of inspiring people, but to me the sons don’t seem nearly as admirable as the parents.
I suspect they do reflect the changes in Malan, though. What he admires most about the sons is when they behave in Wild West “take the law into your own hands to do good” behavior, and the way they do that with such supreme confidence and lack of moral doubt. Not that they aren’t idealistic in their way, and indeed doing some good, but they don’t have that simple, Gandhian, think-outside-the-box, encourage-a-new-lifestyle-by-living-it-and-being-role-models, ethic of their parents. They’re more the never-mind-about-that-unrealistic-liberal-claptrap-just-be-men-of-action-and-do-what-needs-to-be-done-if-you-want-to-change-the-world type.
In a brief postscript, Malan notes that he had every intention of including in this book a piece summing up what it all means, how he sees South Africa and its future, but that as hard as he tried he just didn’t have it in him.
But then he does offer an assessment, albeit a much more modest one than he had intended.
He still finds that there’s just too much evidence of the incompetence and corruption of the post-apartheid rulers of South Africa not to expect the worst, in spite of the fact that thus far total disaster has been averted. “They are buggering it up, for the most part, but I can’t stand myself when I slip into that mode of virtuous outrage.”
He speculates that things will indeed get worse, that the anti-white sentiment will overpower all else and the good and the bad that European culture brought will be largely suppressed in Africa, in the short term anyway.
He compares it to the extension of the Roman Empire into Britain. The Romans were vicious, arrogant conquerors and they dominated the locals in a bloody fashion, while at the same time bringing with them advanced, life-improving, ideas and technology that the locals had not themselves developed. Eventually their empire crumbled, what they had imposed on the conquerors was largely eliminated, and what followed was a long “Dark Ages” period where the locals were back in charge of their own affairs and took significant steps backwards as far as being civilized. But then over the long run, the progress and the good that the Roman Empire had brought was gradually remembered, reconstituted, and embraced, the locals saw themselves as in part the spiritual descendants of the conquerors, and the crimes and the evil of the Romans were largely forgotten or deemphasized.
So as I understand him, what South Africa, and the whole of Africa, should do is insist on their freedom from white domination while embracing all the best of all cultures—indigenous as well as those imposed by the Europeans. And that’s what they may well do over the long term, but in the short term they will overreact from anger and the desire for revenge and let their anti-white rage (not to mention their lack of experience running their own affairs) steer them into increased bloodshed and backwardness.
As I look back on The Lion Sleeps Tonight and think through the individual writings, I’m struck by how much more right wing it seems than it did while I was reading it. It’s as if the trees feel as if they are more of that ideology than does the forest. It may be that as I think about the pieces and write about them it’s the more anti-left or anti-black or whatever elements that come to mind as worth noting or commenting on, but throughout the book I had the sense of Malan as a vaguely leftist “good guy” who mostly objected to just the silliest or most dangerous aspects of left wing ideology, and who favored truth over ideology regardless.
Ironically, I generally despise the attitude of conservatives who insist they’re only pointing out the supposed excesses of the left (and being courageously politically incorrect in doing so), because it routinely strikes me as a disingenuous, rhetorical pose coming from people who are totally on the side of the oppressors. I don’t know why I think it’s more sincere on Malan’s part, why I am at least somewhat sympathetic toward most of what he has to say, especially since I gather that many, many folks—from human rights activists to those fighting for racial justice to certainly AIDS activists—see him as a nasty, possibly insane, right winger. But my impression of him and his writings remains, guardedly, favorable.