One-man revolution

2011-03-02 00:00

ALTHOUGH this book was published some months ago, it’s still available and well worth buying. It is a collection of wide-ranging pieces of varying length that appeared here and abroad in a number of respected publications. As one recent reviewer has said, to read it feels like coming home. It also gives one the experience of being allowed into the heart and mind of a brilliant and humane thinker and observer whose passion for justice and honesty is unwavering, and whose command of the language is always enviable and often beautiful.

The book opens politically with, first, an analysis of the knotted background to the Selebi-Kebble-Agliotti-Stratton-Nassif affair, and the hard and lonely role played by Paul O’Sullivan, group executive for security at the Airports Company of South Africa in its (at least partial) unravelling. Then Report from Planet Mbeki, which comments on Mark Gevisser’s biography of the former president, makes clear why he was so deeply disliked in the ANC despite his many excellent qualities — and examines the blind spots which made it impossible for him to see himself as others saw him. Logically this is followed by some sharp observations on the self-serving Ronald Suresh Roberts.

The four-part section titled Culture begins with a warmly detailed history (from 1939 when it was first composed) of the song which began as “Mbube” and which we now know via “Wimoweh” as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. Notable here also is a perceptive essay (The Prince of Darkness) on the enigmatic J.M. Coetzee.

Least readable is Disease, two convoluted pieces of polemic which may or may not be promoting Aids dissidence. But the sour taste of this is dispelled by the travel pieces that follow, especially The Last Afrikaner, the true story of Tannie Katrien, an ancient Afrikaans woman, relic of former times, scraping a bare existence with her black family on the slopes of Mount Meru in Kenya. This is deeply moving, written with great love.

The segment titled Truth describes Malan’s impressions of the TRC hearings and includes, among other things, a chilling portrait of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Here also is A Question of Spin, analysing the way in which the Boipatong Massacre changed the trajectory of South African history. Malan’s abiding affection for Johannesburg emerges in Love, of which The People’s Republic of Yeoville is especially fine, and Humour includes cheerful bits and pieces, some generalised South Africana, some personal.

Towards the end, under the heading God, he describes a visit to Angus Buchan, the Faith Like Potatoes preacher who lives near Greytown. This is one of the best pieces in the book, for like all really good writers of this travel-and-interview genre, he simply enters the scene and coolly allows Buchan to be, to speak for and so to condemn himself out of his own mouth.

“A one-man cultural revolution” is how Koos Kombuis once described Rian Malan and his work. That’s pretty accurate, I think.

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