Rian Malan Follows His Troubled Heart Home to South Africa

updated 03/26/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/26/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

In 1977, when Rian Malan fled his native South Africa for America, he believed his motives were simple. He was an eighth-generation Afrikaner, but he detested his country's apartheid policies and wanted to avoid the military service that would have made him their enforcer. The truth, Malan says he knows now, was both more complicated and less noble. In fact, he felt torn between his affection for blacks and his inescapable loyalty to "tribe and family." And he was afraid: "I saw grim trouble coming, and I didn't want to be there when it happened."

In My Traitor's Heart, published in January, Malan, 35, tries to come to terms with those paradoxes that define him and with the country that forged them. The book combines history and memoir with a chilling look at the interracial murders he covered as a reporter in the 1970s. The book's flesh-and-blood account of racial strife and its roots has won raves from most American critics, but in South Africa, he says, "there's something in it everyone will object to—Afrikaners, the police, white liberals, black nationalists." Even his parents, he admits, have offered only tentative praise.

Malan's father, Adriaan, is a retired insurance executive whose ancestors arrived from France in 1688; his mother, Vi, is a former teacher of British descent. Although neither has ever supported the more radical Afrikaner extremists, both, says Malan, have been lifelong "believers in the system" of apartheid. Also, Malan's relatives include his great-uncle D.F. Malan, the Prime Minister who was apartheid's architect in the 1940s, and current Defense Minister Magnus A. Malan, who last month became embroiled in accusations about a police hit squad that allegedly murdered scores of apartheid's foes. Malan has never met the defense chief, a distant cousin (who has denied knowledge of the crimes), and he says he is waiting for the facts before passing judgment. But mindful of his family's role in apartheid's birth, he says, "If the accusations against him are true, they make me even more ashamed of the name I bear."

Raised in an affluent Johannesburg suburb, Malan had his own racial views shaped in boyhood by the black servants he came to love. By his teens he was writing angry antiapartheid letters to newspapers (only one was published), and once, with some friends, he painted James Brown's defiant slogan SAY IT OUT LOUD, I'M BLACK AND I'M PROUD on a wall in a white neighborhood.

After a year at Johannesburg's Witwatersrand University, Malan joined the Johannesburg Star, where he worked as a crime reporter. What he saw—the routine torture and murder of blacks by white extremists—reinforced his original convictions. Growing violence from blacks in response began giving murder an ominous air of the commonplace, and so Malan moved to Los Angeles in 1979. He found work as a free-lance journalist (for Esquire, New West and others), but he also found L.A. a pallid substitute for his homeland—"like South Africa without the terror and ecstasy"—and he came to realize that "there was nothing I really wanted to write about in America." Then in 1985 he landed a contract for a book about his family—"a sort of Boer Roots," he says—and returned to his homeland for the research. With political unrest building, his focus gradually shifted. "I'd go to these secret places—inquest offices at magistrates' courts. I would just sit there, going through the files, trying to figure out why people were getting killed, and under what circumstances."

The experience brought him face to face with his old fears and with the old, nagging ambivalence. Finally, says Malan, he concluded that such fears, on both sides, are inevitable and often well-founded—and that one must learn to trust in spite of them. "Trusting is the only thing that allows people the space to trust you back," he says. "Then, if whites give up our claims to power and privilege, and blacks give up the catharsis of revenge and revolution, we might have something to say to each other."

With his own demons at bay, Malan has now decided that it's time for him to trust the future as well. Last month he announced plans to leave L.A. and his girl-friend of three years, neurobiologist Tracey Shors, 32, to return home for good. He doesn't yet know if she will one day join him, but he says the move is necessary. "If you're a South African, you have this feeling of being born into a terrible and violent passion play, and nothing else can quite compare to it. Now is the moment of truth in my country. I'd rather be there than anywhere else."

—Kim Hubbard, Leah Feldon Mitchell in Los Angeles

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