The first few pages of My Traitor’s Heart gallop through the history of the Malans in South Africa. It all begins with the arrival of Jacques Malan in the Cape in 1688.  Since then, we are told, a Malan has been present at all the great turning points in Afrikaner history.  The author then delves into an obscure scandal of the 1780s, when one Dawid Malan brought shame and opprobrium on his family name when he defied all convention and ran off with a neighbouring farmer’s black slave, Sara.  Within a few years, however, Dawid reemerged as “a race-hating white savage.”  The author sees the transformation of Dawid as symptomatic of the broader transformation of the Afrikaner people, into a xenophobic, isolated and arrogant race.  But he acknowledges that as much as he wishes to reject his tribe, condemn Afrikaners and set himself apart, his identity as a white man in Africa ultimately precludes straightforward affiliation with the cause of justice and liberation. 

Book one tells the story of the author’s youth, growing up in the wealthy Northern suburbs of Johannesburg. He identifies with the underdog, loves black people, flirts with communism, socialism, and radicalism, and does what he can to prove his liberal credentials and revolutionary cool among his exclusively white friends and neighbours. The only black people he knows are domestic workers and gardeners.  This changes when he becomes a journalist at The Star newspaper. He meets ‘real black men’ for the first time, with whom he engages on an equal footing, as colleagues and friends.  These new relationships, and his daily reality as a crime reporter, demonstrate to him that as much as he wishes to reach out to black people and identify with their struggle he, by virtue of his white skin, will always be met with suspicion.  He can never really be on the right side of the barricades. He is confounded by paradox – loving black people and wanting to side with them, but fearing them and never really able to identify with their reality.  With his heart divided, and call up papers demanding he take his place as an infantryman for apartheid, he flees the country.

Book two, Tales of Ordinary Murder, tells of Malan’s return from exile, in 1985, and his encounters with South Africans, black and white, as he traces stories of murder – white people murdering black people, black people murdering white people, and black people murdering one another.  Each story is dramatic and personal.  Each tale illustrates the complex racial relations at play in apartheid South Africa, and the damage caused by hundreds of years of mistrust and oppression.       

Book three, A Root in Arid Ground, tells of the potential for hope, for cooperation and trust between black and white South Africans.  It is the story of Neil and Creina Alcock, a courageous couple who made their home in a rural Zulu community in Msinga.  The Alcocks have given up all the privileges enjoyed by white South Africans, and are working toward creating the real trust and cooperation.  They have achieved a measure of success, but it is extremely fragile, and subject to the vagaries of intermittent factional wars, and individual greed and betrayal. 

The book ends in 1990.  Nelson Mandela has been released, and the ANC unbanned.  Violence however is at an all-time high, black supporters of rival political factions are massacring one another across the country, the economy is collapsing, and full civil war is a real possibility.  Rian Malan reflects on the paradox of Dawid Malan, and on his own state of mind, and how one man’s heart can be utterly divided between hope and despair.