Book Review: Rian Malan’s ‘My Traitor’s Heart’

My Traitor’s Heart lays bare the anxiety and fear created by ‘otherness.’ Malan wrestles with the primitive instinct that categorises people into ‘us’ and ‘them.’ He finds himself, defined by his race, ethnicity and name, on the wrong side in the fight against oppression and injustice, yet unable to shake off his given identity in order to change sides.

The book covers an extremely turbulent period in South Africa’s history, a time when the country seemed destined for civil war and revolution. The scale of violence, and the accumulated damage of hundreds of years of institutionalised racism, appeared to preclude the prospect of peaceful transition to majority rule.

In this context, Malan delves into his prejudices and fears, with candour and blunt honesty. He examines conflicts within his soul that are likely to be shared by many, but admitted by few. He aspires to be on the side of right and justice, “a Just White Man, appalled by apartheid and the cruelties committed in its name.” But a secret, shameful part of him is scared of being the victim of black anger, scared that his white skin will define him as the enemy, scared that the schism between the Afrikaner and the African is too deep and ancient to reconcile. His paradox is how to step behind the barricades, when in doing so he risks making himself the target of those he wishes to fight alongside. The “disease of the soul” tells him to shut his eyes to injustice and bind himself to his tribe, because the colour of his skin defines as the enemy of black South Africans, no matter how noble and good his intentions might be.

Malan’s Tales of ordinary murder strip away any attempt to develop simplistic characterisations of right and wrong, heroes and martyrs. They’re harrowing and gruesome, and eat away at one’s sense of hope. But they amply demonstrate the twisted reality of apartheid South Africa, the layers of horror and hatred, and the extent to which people will resort to violence when other options have been stripped from them.

Malan finds redemption amidst the horror, in Neil and Creina Alcock, a white couple who have turned their back on privilege and possessions, and “really live in Africa.” They demonstrate the fundamental importance of trust, as the only alternative to suspicion and fear. The Alcock’s story persuades Malan that the disease of his soul can be transcended, and that South Africans can learn to trust one another despite the brutality of their history.

My Traitor’s Heart was written in a very specific time and place. Twenty years have passed, but the relevance and impact of the book are undiminished. The temptation to divide people into ‘us’ and ‘them’ is universal, particularly when there is advantage to be had in doing so. My Traitor’s Heart delves into the human psyche, acknowledges the disconnect between the ideal and the actual self, and challenges each of us to transcend our suspicion and fear, in pursuit of trust and hope.

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