The Malans of South Africa

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If you read one of the recent obituaries of Magnus Malan, former defense minister of South Africa, you might have marveled at his evil. In defense of apartheid, said the New York Times, Malan:

"approved counterinsurgencies in Mozambique and Angola; set up a covert agency responsible for disinformation and assassination; sent troops to control unrest in so-called townships, areas designated for blacks; and declared that political rights were not a relevant concern for blacks. He and his aides regularly used terms like 'annihilate' and 'exterminate.' He approved a biological warfare program."

Testifying before his country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997, Malan "accepted responsibility for the cross-border counterinsurgencies and for setting up the secret police agency, and for the deaths they caused. But he characterized the actions as 'legal acts of state.'”

The Malan family name is old and central to South African history. Daniel Malan, former editor of the important Afrikaner newspaper Die Burger, became prime minister in 1948 and is remembered as the father of apartheid. The laws that underpinned it were enacted during his six years in office.

But it's yet another Malan I want to get to. Rian Malan was a writer who fled the country for the U.S. in 1977, but couldn't stay away. In 1990 he published a tormented book, My Traitor's Heart: A South African Exile Returns to Face His Country. "I am a Malan, descendent of Jacques Malan, a Huguenot who fled the France of Louis XIV to escape being put to the sword for his Protestant faith," Malan begins. "He sought refuge among the Dutch, only to be put aboard ship in 1688 and sent to the Dark Continent, to the rude Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope...

"Jacques tamed the Cape and planted vineyards. His sons built gracious gabled homesteads in the lee of Table Mountain. His grandson Dawid the younger ran off to the wild frontier in 1788, where he fought the save Xhosa and took part in Slagtersnek, the first Afrikaner rebellion against the British."

Hercules, a son of Dawid, led Trekkers into the country's heart, where they encounter a Zulu army led by king Dingaan. "Dingaan cried, 'Kill the wizards.' and Hercules and his seventy companions were murdered—stakes driven up their anuses, skulls smashed with stones, and their bodies left on a hill for the vultures."

But miraculously, the brother of Hercules, Jacob Jacobus Malan, and John Jacobus's sons Jacob and Hercules would lead the Trekkers to ultimate victory over the Zulus; and there on the conquered high plain "they established Boer republics, where white men were free to rule blacks in accord with their stern Jehovistic covenant."

After this beginning, My Traitor's Heart goes off in a surprising direction, into crime reporting. Malan has his reasons. In his family history Malan found the roots of the crimes he examines — berserk, jaw-dropping killings that go far to reveal a social order whose premises are insane.

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