Rian Malan’s Afrikaner roots stretch back almost as far as you can go, to a Huguenot arriving in Cape Town in 1688. The Malans have been at the heart of things ever since: at Slagtersnek in 1815, at Blood River in 1838, on Majuba in 1881; bittereinders in 1902, at the head of the first National Party Government in 1948, in Cabinet today. But the family image he makes central to this book is of Dawid the Younger who in 1788 deserted his homestead and ran away with a slave girl, riding across the Great Fish River, out into Africa, where the Xhosas and the Boers first confronted each other and South Africa’s war began – ‘a war without end, a war that just was, and still is, for what started then is still not finished today.’
Dawid Malan is next heard of 27 years later, and he has changed. The black woman has vanished and he is a leader of the Slagtersnek rebels in the first and minor Boer revolt against British authority, ‘All I know,’ writes his descendant, ‘is that he was one man when he crossed the river into Africa and another when he reappeared, and that his transformation paralleled the transformation of his entire tribe, for that is what the Boers had become in their isolation: they had become Afrikaners, the white tribe of Africa, arrogant, xenophobic and “full of blood” as the Zulus say of tyrants. They had their own language, their own customs and traditions, and a myth to light their way, a mystic Christian mission on the Dark Continent. They spoke of themselves as the bearers of the light, but in truth they were dark of heart, and they knew it, and willed it so.’
It is Rian Malan’s fancy, which gives great passion to his argument, that ‘very little had changed between that day and the day I came home to my country ... I didn’t have to dig in the archives for Dawid Malan; I looked in the mirror and there he was.’ And again: ‘In truth I was always one of them. I am a white man born in Africa and all else flows from there.’
Nelson Mandela is free. F. W. de Klerk declares the end of apartheid and the dawn of democracy. Has this book been overtaken? Does it still have relevance in this new age? Can it be helpful to go into these matters again? Or rather, has there ever been a better moment to remind ourselves of the essence of the South African situation, which is fear and hatred, racial fear and racial hatred? The question must be raised, notwithstanding the dramas of recent months, the question a black friend puts to Malan: ‘Can you imagine how many people are going to die in this country?’
Rian Malan is 36. This is his journey of exploration – of his tribe, his family, his own life, himself. So he writes about his childhood in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs and on the family farm in the Free State; he becomes a ‘Communist’ in his teens, goes to school at progressive Woodmead; sleeps with a black woman out of bravado, loves ‘natives’ indiscriminately and insofar as he knows any; he joins the Star as a reporter, smokes pot, grows up. ‘I was fixated on apartheid, to be sure, but I was equally agonised about acne and premature ejaculation ... We all knew disaster was coming, but we didn’t know when.’
Then came the 1976 uprising. That’s when the violence entered his life – and there is a lot of it in this book, because there is a lot of it in South Africa. Malan is by this time a crime reporter and so is familiar with the ‘Blue Hotel’, the police headquarters in Johannesburg otherwise called John Vorster Square.
And then a black man fell out of the sky. He came flying through a fifth floor window, landed at our feet in a spray of glass, and lay there like an upturned tortoise, feebly waving his arms in the air. I ran over and knelt beside him, but I didn’t know what to do; his body was all broken, blood was oozing from his mouth, and I was afraid to touch him. Just then a shiny black boot entered my field of vision. I looked up, and there stood the divisional commissioner himself, Brigadier Visser, his shoulders encrusted with gold braid and a little smile playing about beneath his handsome moustache. He stirred the black man with his toe. ‘Ja,’ he told me, ‘this is the Bantu who was hitting people with an axe. He just dived out the window.’
‘Ja-nee, Brigadier,’ I said. ‘Yes-No.’
The police beat takes him to the essence of South Africa: ‘I ventured forth to study the way South Africans killed each other’ – and not, of course, simply whites killing blacks, because the blacks do their own killing of each other. ‘In my imagination Soweto came to resemble Europe in the Dark Ages, a place where humble people barricaded their doors at darkness and trembled through the night while werewolves howled outside. It was not an entirely fanciful vision. Soweto was a charnel house.’ In 1976, and in this job which had put him in a position ‘to ask the right questions, the questions that cut to the very darkest heart of the matter’, he discovers that catastrophe is just a matter of time, that the whites are awaiting their oblivion; he realises that he hates his own Afrikaners and loves blacks, yet he is an Afrikaner and fears blacks. So he runs away.
He goes to Europe and then the States, where he sings for his supper to Americans who think that South Africa is so simple, a story of white villains and black victims. He moves on from his adolescent Marxism. He is homesick. And at last, in 1985, as violence grows in the Republic, his beloved family maid writes to him: ‘The End of the Earth is coming.’ He goes home.
He travels the country, asking those questions that cut to the heart of the matter. He starts off – how else? – in the steps of Dawid the Younger, across the Great Fish River where the frontier is still frontier (though the girls now daub their faces not with the traditional red clay but with Nescafé) and where, he insists, nothing has been forgotten, nothing forgiven.
He meets a brave white woman in Elandsfontein and hears a terrible tale of murder, a Kafferpak – ‘a completely traditional South African death’. He visits Samuel Mope, an apolitical member of the Zionist Church, whose boy has been killed by a drunk cop: ‘I am black and he is white. I have no power. Ek het vokol.’ (Ending apartheid, Malan observes, is nothing to do with desegregating buses and park benches – the only issue is power.) He goes to investigate the murderous motivations of Simon the Hammerman and discovers a tragedy of ancient Zulu incest. He reports the violent death of Themba Ngwazi, a Xhosa mineworker: a tale that has to do with industrial relations and Johannesburg Consolidated Investments and a riot in a mine compound. And then he comes to the horrors of black-killing-black in Soweto, page after page of atrocity, a crescendo of horrors; there is blood everywhere – on everyone’s hands.
Rian Malan is by now searching for a way to live in South Africa: searching for an alternative to Dawid the Younger’s choices. He walks through Soweto at night: ‘I was out of my mind with terror and in that moment it came to me: this was it – the unseen force that obliterated reason in South Africa; the force that held the White Tribe together, and kept our sweating white fists locked in a death grip on the levers of power ... After that night I had to purge the black fear from my white heart ... We must find a way of trusting, but who is there to trust?’
And so, Malan goes to Msinga and ventures into the most difficult, the most important and, it must be noted, the least coherent section of his journey. Msinga is an agricultural co-operative deep in a rural slum on the Tugela River in Zululand. It had been set up by a remarkable South African liberal called Neil Alcock and his younger wife Creina. This chapter is ‘a story about two whites who loved Africa’, at a place not far from Weenen (which in Afrikaans means ‘weeping’) where the Voortrekkers were massacred by the Zulus: Weenen is called Nobamba by the locals (‘The Place Where We Caught The Whites’). The problem for the Alcocks was not just that it was an ecological disaster zone, nor the unending black-white frontier hostilities – still! – but the desperate, incomprehensible and insoluble Zulu clan warfare. Neil was eventually killed; Creina stayed on, in danger and deprivation. She gives Malan her story and her trust and, out of her experience of Africa, she gives him the beginnings of an answer to his original question: how can we live in this strange place? Trusting is dangerous, but without trust there is no hope. He concludes:
There was only one path left for the likes of me – the path that led into Africa, the path of no guarantees. There were no guarantees of safety for Dawid Malan in 1788 and there were none for White South Africans in 1986 ... Either we stayed as we were, trapped inside our fortress of paranoia, deformed by fear and greed, or we opened the door to Africa and set forth into the unknown ... Creina and Neil Alcock were pioneers in the country South Africa will one day become – a truly African country, where whites have no guarantees. They arrived in Africa years ahead of the rest of us, and I have told you what befell them there. It was a tale of appalling violence and betrayal – and yet, and yet, and yet: it was not entirely bereft of hope.
This is – you will have gathered – a magnificent book, an explosion of truth-telling at a time when we are being given so much half-informed and over-optimistic simplification. Malan belongs in a line of Afrikaner breast-beating. Another recent example was White Tribe Dreaming by Marq de Villiers, a very similar figure (distinguished family, same sort of age, self-exile in America, anguished and appalled): but de Villiers is more impressed by the significance of the liberal Afrikaner strain and more alert to the varieties of Afrikanerdom, including what he describes as the ‘traditions of accommodation’, ‘traditions of despair’ (e.g. the hendsoppers who acknowledged defeat in the Boer War), chronic tendencies to schism and, most dangerously, the tradition of the bittereinders in the Boer War, a tendency which could lead to an Afrikaner Masada.De Villiers shares Malan’s perception of the irony that the Afrikaners will soon have to put their trust in the blacks’ good will after having spent generations doing their best-worst to alienate them for ever, but he claims to see a ‘deep reservoir of interracial good will still existing, incredibly, in South Africa’. (It’s interesting how many white South Africans believe in that.) Well, as Malan would say, Ja-nee. There is a lot of anger and not so much good will in Malan’s South Africa: Creina Alcock, he offers, is the white future; it is surely not a prospect that would earn him the thanks of more than a tiny fraction of the five million whites who today enjoy the good life.
One is reminded of another distinguished Afrikaner liberal, this time a Liberal, Patrick van Rensburg, who more than a generation ago enraged his fellow South Africans by saying that in the first years of black rule the whites who remained would have to accept a life as disadvantaged as the lives their new rulers had for centuries suffered at the hands of the whites. Van Rensburg has spent the rest of his life across the border in Botswana.
It is pointless to guess at the future when events press so hard and when, within a year or so, we may know whether Malan’s vision is true. Twenty years ago – it is also relevant to recall – the sociologist Heribert Adam put up the theory that the Afrikaners had an unacknowledged genius for pragmatic flexibility: far from being ideological dogmatists, they were able to shift their ground when the pressure reached danger point. It is possible to see the lurching retreat from classic apartheid of recent years in this light; it is also possible to understand F. W. de Klerk’s decision to release Nelson Mandela as the most dramatic instance of Afrikaner flexibility. But can De Klerk continue sufficiently flexible? Will his own tribe permit him? The brilliance of releasing Mandela has less to do with the impact the event has had on international opinion than with the fact that he offers himself as a figure who might just conceivably attract the whites’ trust. That must have been De Klerk’s calculation. But how far can this elderly black leader – a Xhosa chief from beyond the Great Fish River – be seen to justify such trust without risking the (no doubt unfair) accusation from younger and less wise comrades that he is becoming an Uncle Tom.
Ja-nee? Consider, if you will, Alan Paton’s most famous line, spoken by a Christian black: ‘One day, when they turn to loving they will find we are turned to hating.’ De Klerk has only offered negotiation, which is a long way short of love, but perhaps true negotiation is at least a search for mutual trust. As Paton added in the same book forty years ago: ‘Cry, the beloved country. These things are not yet at an end.’