Rian Malan is an author, journalist, songwriter and musician.
Siener (see-er, or fortune-teller), an Afrikaans poem by Rian Malan, in which he argues with his 'brak' (mongrel dog) about what the future holds for South Africa (Brak suggests things will all work out in the end)
Malan was born in the middle class Johannesburg suburb of Blairgowrie, in 1954. His father defined himself as an Afrikaner, supported the apartheid policies of the National Party, and had been strongly anti-British in his student days. His mother was English speaking – making their match a rare one in 1940s South Africa. Rian and his older brother Neil grew up bilingual, speaking Afrikaans at home, and attending English speaking schools.
Malan’s family made annual pilgrimages into the heart of Afrikanerdom in his youth, to visit relatives in quiet, dusty towns, where his cousins played ‘Boer War,’ stalking imaginary British invaders, and his uncles were members of the Broederbond, a right wing Afrikaner secret society. Despite these periodic trips into a rough and rustic world, for the most part Malan’s childhood was, in his own words, ‘more or less generically Western… unfolding in generic white suburbs.’
In his teens, his family moved to Linden, a predominantly Afrikaans Johannesburg suburb. He attended the local school for a while, before persuading his father to send him to a progressive school in the northern suburbs, where ‘almost everyone’s parents were rich and left-liberal’ (and where male pupils were allowed to have long hair – quite revolutionary in pre-democratic South Africa). When Malan was 13, he discovered the blues, got a part-time job to pay for an electric guitar, and started a blues band with school friends, ‘hollerin’ about Negro trouble and sufferin’ at garage parties in the segregated white suburbs” (oblivious at the time to the irony).
After school, Malan attended Wits University for a year, did some odd jobs, and played in a rock and roll band. In 1975 he started work as a journalist for The Star, a Johannesburg daily newspaper. He was appointed as crime reporter, and spent over a year reporting on trials in the magistrate’s courts, following up on missing person cases, visiting the police headquarters at John Vorster Square, and ‘studying how South Africans killed each other.’ He managed to dodge conscription for four years, but in 1977 received call up papers. Rather than join the army, he left South Africa, aware that he might be arrested as a draft dodger if he ever tried to come home. He lived in a series of European countries, continually being moved on by immigration officials, and ended up in Los Angeles. Here, he served as managing editor for Music Connection (1978), news editor for LA Weekly, staff writer for New West Magazine, senior writer for Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and senior editor for Manhattan Magazine, despite starting out as an illegal immigrant (he eventually obtained a green card).
He found himself unable to settle in America, however, and was plagued by guilt and regret for having ‘run away’ from South Africa. In 1985, when the South African government was embarking on a relaxation of some apartheid laws, while simultaneously imposing a state of emergency to deal with rising township violence and unrest, Malan returned home to write My Traitor’s Heart, which was published in 1990.
Malan continues to write articles and opinion pieces for major newspapers in South Africa, Great Britain and the USA. He also continues to play rock and roll and the blues. In 2005, he released a CD of his own songs, titled Alien Inboorling (Alien Native). The CD was listed as number 23 on Afrikaans newspaper Beeld’s list of Albums van die dekade. Malan also performs with Hot Club d'Afrique, a gypsy jazz band.
In 2009 Malan published a new book, Resident Alien, a collection of his writings as they have appeared in the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and Esquire over the past decade. The book describes Malan’s travels across South Africa and further afield in Africa, and his encounters with a diverse array of individuals, including Sol Kerzner the hotel magnate, Jackie Selebi the disgraced former chief of police, award-winning novelist JM Coetzee, and ‘the last Afrikaner in Tanzania.’ The book continues some of the themes of My Traitor’s Heart – Malan has described it as an exploration of his ‘journey of alienation’ as a result of his contrary opinions.
FW De Klerk’s role in ending Apartheid, Spectator, 3 February 2010
A cynical take on South Africa’s World Cup 2010, Guardian, 16 May 2010
Bloekombloom (blue gum tree), from the album Alien Inboorling (lamenting the eradication of alien treesin South Africa)