Saturday, March 15, 2014

Book review: My Traitor's Heart: A South African Exile Returns to Face His Country, His Tribe, and His Conscience

My Traitor's Heart: A South African Exile Returns to Face His Country, His Tribe, and His Conscience

This book was one of several recommended to me by Peter, a native of South Africa, a few months back when I posed some questions to him about South Africa. My own knowledge of South Africa comes from historical study and pretty much ends with the defeat of the Boers by the British in the Second Boer War (1899–1902).

But after 1902, what happened next? I didn't know. I'd never looked at South Africa in the 20th Century, but some things that Peter alluded to when talking about the death of Nelson Mandela made me wonder just what the hell was going on over there today.

I got this book, and was soon introduced to it's author, Rian Malan, a white South African who fled the country to avoid his National Service commitment but later returned as a journalist to write about the Apartheid system and it's failings. Admittedly, I found Malan hard to like at first, him being a draft-dodger and a dope-smoker and a supporter of Communism and Socialism, at least in his younger days. I was also puzzled by his oft-stated hatred for white society and his desire to associate and identify almost exclusively with blacks in a country where most blacks wanted nothing to do with him or any other white person. This bias of Malan's colors the book a bit as he seems to blame almost everything but the weather in South Africa on one race of people (white), but his writings also shed light on a lot of the race-based violence and attitudes on both sides of the color and poverty lines that perpetuate it. He does get into the tribal conflicts between various groups of the native majority however, and you come to understand that the violence in this country spreads out in all directions, from white on black, to black on white and black on black. After a while, you wonder if anyone is safe in that country today and why anyone who could leave stays, especially as it seems that no one has any real ideas about fixing the problems. Malan tells some compelling stories that, if nothing else, make you think and wonder about where SA is going and what might have been had things been done differently. And by then end of the book, I see where he's going and why. I may not like his politics but I understand how he got to where he was when he wrote this book.

The book is a bit dated, being written back in the 1980s when the Botha government was still in power, and if the wheels were falling off for South Africa in the 1980s, they're laying on the ground now. Yet the problems still exist as the country continues to produce a lion's share of the gold and diamonds that the rest of the world needs today via transnational corporations that operate in defiance of the socialism advocated by so many in that part of the word today. But even if it is dated, this book does what good books must do--it makes you think and it makes you feel and it makes you ask questions. If nothing else, it's got me wanting to know more and I'm gad that I bought it.


  1. Books like this DO tend to show the underbelly that most countries DON'T want to get out...

  2. I'm glad you found it interesting. I have the same reactions to the author as yours, but he's brutally honest - with himself and with his readers - and he paints an unvarnished picture of South Africa as it was (and, in some ways, still is).

    I've said for years - decades! - that South Africa won't find healing until those who grew up under apartheid have passed on, and a new generation without the memories of bitterness, bloodshed and death can rebuild. I've maintained it'll take two generations before that can happen. Starting in 1994 with South Africa's first democratic elections, it's been four-fifths of a generation so far. I've yet to see any reason to revise my timetable.