In his formidable essay collection The Lion Sleeps Tonight and Other Stories of Africa, Rian Malan offers a remarkable chronicle of contemporary South Africa as it navigates the post-apartheid transition and beyond, says LSE alumna Francesca Washtell.
The collection is Malan’s first book since he published his frank and caustic memoir, My Traitor’s Heart, in 1990, on his return from exile in the United States. It became an instant classic, venerated by authors such as Salman Rushdie and John le Carre, and is still a stalwart on the reading lists of Africanists and scholars who want to understand more about the lived experience of apartheid. While some labelled him a racist, most praised his honesty in his portrayal of race relations and the anxieties of his own tribe, the Afrikaner.
The Lion Sleeps Tonight, then, has a lot to live up to. It brings together his journalistic writings, published and unpublished, that have appeared over the years in the likes of Rolling Stone, The Spectator, The Observer and Esquire, some of which were previously published in South Africa under the title Resident Alien.
Malan is often compared to Christopher Hitchens, and is written off by many as simply a polemicist and contrarian. Indeed, he makes it clear early on that he was “an atheist in the great revival tent of the new South Africa. The faith on offer was too simple and sentimental, the answers it offered too easy”. The blanket hope and joy that people expressed as South Africa transitioned from democracy seems to have instantly made him squirm, making him worried that in the political correctness he saw unfolding mistakes would fall by the wayside and the realities of South Africa’s politics, economy and society would go unscrutinised, and that he would have to make up the shortfall.
However, instead of just being a contrarian, what stands out in these essays is his dogged sense of fairness. He thrives in holding mixed feelings about a situation, leading to a critical but ultimately fair assessment of all the stories he investigates.
He can admit that he wept with pride when watching the film Invictus, while simultaneously criticising Nelson Mandela’s shortcomings and arguing the case for elevating F.W. de Klerk’s role in ending apartheid. His criticisms of Winnie Mandela and, in an essay about the ANC’s communist sympathies, his singling out of Thabo Mbeki as the figure who led the ANC away from hardline communism (a man who he can otherwise endlessly take down) present layered, considered portraits that err away from making any story reductively all-good or all-bad, as he fears happens all too often in the “new” South Africa.
This persistence to be balanced has also led him into controversy, most obviously in an essay originally commissioned by Rolling Stone in which he was supposed to be investigating Thabo Mbeki’s AIDS denialism. As he began his research, it soon became clear that the AIDS statistics and actual country death rates didn’t add up, so he began to raise his own questions about the statistical modelling that originated from the UN in Geneva. He was shot down and vehemently criticised by AIDS campaigners but held his ground, and was ultimately proven right- the statistics had indeed been overestimated, and the years of his life he had been obsessively researching the death-gap had not in fact been a waste. Although many daubed this as contrarianism for the sake of it, it seemed throughout that he would happily have been proven wrong- had the numbers backed it up he would have stepped down and written the original story. But when they didn’t, he could not ignore it.
The title essay is another investigative piece which follows the winding fight for justice of the melody sung by the South African musician Solomon Linda in 1939, recorded as the song “Mbube” (“lion”), which rose to meteoric fame as the hit song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. Malan follows the royalties trail from Linda, who died so penniless in 1962 his wife couldn’t even afford a gravestone, to a time when the American music industry had far more fluid ideas of intellectual property rights and, eventually, to the $15 million the song had supposedly generated.
Throughout his essays Malan has been brave enough to dabble in forecasting, usually making gloomy predictions about the state of his nation, but he is also bold enough to admit when he’s been mistaken. His mistakes stand in contrast to his constant search for truth and objectivity, but his candour about being wrong and sometimes looking idiotic should be cherished in a writer who is willing to risk his stakes on strong opinions.
Overall, this is a brilliant selection of writings. From sprawling thrillers such as Nemesis, where he pieces together the facts about foreigner Paul O’Sullivan’s successful quest to take down the then-President of Interpol and head of South Africa’s police service, Jackie Selebi, on corruption charges, to a lyrical account of the Johannesburg district Yeoville’s descent from a vibrant, multiracial neighbourhood at the end of apartheid to one of the city’s most lost and crime-ridden pockets, Malan gives his unique, punchy and acerbic take as a narrator to twenty-one wholly different and rigorously engaging stories.