Guest Column

His Traitor’s Heart: Rian Malan and his fictional Coligny

2017-05-12 12:33
The Coligny Magistrate's Court (Felix Dlangamandla/Netwerk24)

The Coligny Magistrate's Court (Felix Dlangamandla/Netwerk24)

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Sisonke Msimang

“Let’s start at the beginning. The date is April 20 and a black youth lies dying on a lonely road in an iconic Highveld landscape. Mealies march over the horizon in all directions. There are grain silos in the distance. Sun glints off the tin roofs of a nearby shack settlement, home of the boy lying in the dust at our feet. Between us and his parents’ shack is a vast sunflower field owned by Pieter Karsten, a leading farmer and businessman in the town of Coligny. His crop is worth tens of thousands of rands, and it is slowly vanishing. Kids in the squatter settlement are hungry. It’s laughably easy for them to nip over the fence, nick a few sunflower seeds and roast them over a fire. 

Karsten has tasked two employees to prevent such pilferage. Phillip Schutte, 34, and Pieter Doorewaard, 26, are said by their supporters to be decent young men, raised in Christian homes, responsible and well-mannered. Over recent months, they’ve caught several kids helping themselves to Karsten’s crop. In every case, they loaded the offenders onto the back of a bakkie and delivered them into the hands of the police, who phoned their parents and released them with a warning. It is common cause that none of these citizen’s arrests involved violence.”  

So begins Rian Malan’s incendiary piece carried by News24 last week. I quote Malan at length because his prose is so superb. And precisely because of this, it is tempting to over-assert the importance and uniqueness of what he writes. It is far too easy to fall into the trap of believing that Malan’s talent as a writer signals his competence as a journalist. The two are, of course, distinctly different.  

In the first instance of course, Malan’s assertions and innuendos about the case simply do not stand up to scrutiny. In part this is because the piece was so badly reported. It is also because Malan is a man on a very clear ideological mission. This article is one in a long line of pieces he has authoured that showcase both his gift for prose and his increasingly paranoid, bleak and analytically tepid thesis that South Africa is paradise lost; a ruined country where the inexorable slide towards Zimbabwe – that signifier of all the horrors of African independence – may soon be unstoppable. It is disappointing that a man of his talents has reached this mediocre and boring conclusion. I have tried for years to expect more from him, but beyond the prose there has been nothing of substance to keep my hopes alive.   

It is also disappointing, but equally unsurprising, that Malan’s piece has been so well received in the mainstream press. So much of the thinking on race in our media establishment is unimaginative, conservative and structured by the collective experiences of white people.   

Malan’s piece may as well be fiction. Indeed in its tone and style it is reminiscent of JM Coetzee’s Disgrace. The irony of course is that as a novelist, Coetzee is a far more honest storyteller than Malan. He places the subject of white anxiety firmly at the centre of Disgrace, and the reader is allowed to see David Lurie as a man who abhors violence by blacks, even as he himself is a deeply violent and sexist man. In this latest offering, Malan affords us no such opportunities. He wears the cloak of a ‘reporter,’ and so what he reports are ‘facts’. He has been commended for his ‘unique take’ on Coligny. The thrum that accompanied this piece was remarkable, as was the breathtaking way in which Malan was celebrated for actually having gone to Coligny, despite the fact that hordes of journalists have trekked to Coligny to cover the story in the last few weeks.  

The difference is of course, none of them wrote a story that was so finely rendered and so beautifully drawn. In other words, few other reporters on the scene today have Malan’s swagger. Still, sometimes swag is not enough, and to be frank, I am pleased other reporters covering this story have chosen to play it straight. 

They have spared us the horror of having to reckon with the hollow premises that underlie this piece of reportage: That white people are of dwindling numbers and relevance in the new South Africa and yet they remain steadfast in their dignity and love of the land. Despite this they get no reward for their loyalty. The fat-cat black politicians on the other hand can use the whites as scapegoats; they drive over potholed roads in their four-wheel drives, crying about racism and exploiting black misery and poverty at every turn.    

This is a plotline that isn’t particularly unique or especially insightful. There are enough half-truths buried within its contorted logic to make the reader nod her head in places. 

Carried away by the prose, it is easy to miss telltale signs that Malan is flogging a dead horse. It is also easy not to notice that even at the level of craft – basic reporting – Malan is not a trustworthy guide.  

So sure is Malan of his thesis, of the strength of his assumptions, that he does not even pretend to his dear reader that he is invested in testing them. And so we are treated to a wild ride in the mind of Rian Malan, but there is little evidence he has carried out any proper journalism. It seems that going to Coligny was all the evidence he needed to make sweeping claims about the death, the murder case and the town. And so Malan’s dear reader is taken on a haphazard stroll through the streets, and told that when Malan didn’t get answers he liked, he refused to write them down. For example, there is this statement: “The few whites who were willing to be interviewed tended to cloak their true feelings in PC newspeak.”  

This is a curious thing to say. We are not provided any direct quotes from the offending whites. It seems that Malan doesn’t want to be bothered with writing down quotes that are ‘politically correct’. Perhaps the answers he was given do not fit the story he came to Coligny to write. We will never know, because we are spared the agony of reading “PC speak”. 

It seems there is a story Malan wants to tell and – real people be damned – he is going to tell it.  

Malan continues, along his merry way, ambling through Coligny using a time-tested technique of collecting hard news. He asks black people uncomfortable questions. It is not clear who these black people are. Are they sources? Are they people on the street? It is enough, perhaps for us to know they are black, for as Malan notes: “most blacks walked away when I asked awkward questions like, who organised this thing? Or, who is Tebele? Or, do you approve of school children being used in this way?”  

I am afraid I might have done the same, not knowing who Tebele was or what this strange grey man was talking about.  

Later, as Malan’s expedition from the hinterland of South Africa continues, he shows wry surprise. As reporters are “treated to the spectacle of hundreds of excited youngsters chanting, "The police are thugs and whites are killers", Malan notes the protesters were “oddly friendly, considering my white skin”. 

Perhaps Malan thinks he will be attacked despite the fact that he is not from Coligny and has had nothing to do with the murders. It’s an odd conclusion to reach – one that says more about him than about the protesters. It seems, dear reader, our guide is a man with deep anxieties, and an agenda that has little to do with reality. Malan seems to be exorcising the demons of growing up in apartheid South Africa as a progressive Afrikaner with the blood of the Malans in his veins. I thought he already wrote that book. It seems his traitor’s heart has yet to find peace.    

So what exactly is one of our nation’s most searing and restless writers looking for, one might ask, as he stalks the streets of Coligny being surprised by friendly black school children and dismissing politically-correct interviewees?    

Malan doesn’t waste his time letting us know. In the opening lines of the article (quoted above) Malan tells us the murder accused are, “decent young men…responsible and well-mannered”. We are afforded no such history of the young man who lies at their feet. We are not even provided his name. Instead, Malan refers to him as the “alleged sunflower thief”. 

Malan will of course defend his decision not to use the boy’s name as a narrative technique. It is a curious choice. It has the effect of course of distancing the reader (and of course the writer) from the boy and his family, and of placing the reader in the shoes of the white men. Why is this a neccessary device? It is only necessary if the imagined reader to whom one wants to appeal is white, and historically tied to the Christian men at whose feet the dead boy lies. And so when we finally learn of the most important facts about this case, which is that a young man named Faki Mosweu who was 16 and had a family and school mates and above all – a context – was killed.  

For Malan of course, the young boy is a prop. Faki may as well not be real. The real story in Coligny is about whites; about their angst and irrelevance, about their struggle to exist in an Africa that is changing around them. It is a great big historical jerk-off centred on the experiences not of the town’s denizens, but of the town’s white folk. And because this is what most interests him, Malan is forced to support the theory that Faki Mosweu was not actually murdered – or at least give it credence. He leans into the excuses of the farmers – it was all a terrible mistake.  

After all, as Malan has already told us, with an unmistakeable tone of authority, when black hungry children steal sunflowers in Coligny, Schutte and Doorewaard don’t beat them up. They simply take them to the police. This is routine it seems. In his words, “It is common cause that these arrests happen without violence.”  

Malan moves briskly through these lines. He is not sceptical about the idea that Coligny exists as a sort of Happy Valley, where avuncular white farmers take thieving children to the police station and their parents come and get them after a quick phone call. And so the reader is invited to share in this remarkable claim that all is well in Coligny when it comes to blacks and whites. As a citizen of a South Africa in which brutality against farm workers is reported on a regular basis, I am being asked to suspend disbelief and walk into a fantasy town with Malan.  

In this town, black children are so irrational that having stolen a few sunflowers, they decide to be petrified of the friendly escorts who are driving them to the police. They clearly have little intelligence because ‘it is common cause’ that the police will simply shrug and call their parents on their cellphones and tell them to come get their children. Instead of simply going with the flow, one of these irrationally scared young boys decides to jump off the bakkie – by Malan’s account. Oh dear. He’d rather jump off a moving vehicle than spend a moment longer in the company of the friendly murder-accused. So now there’s a body. All over nothing.  

So Faki joins the list of all those black activists who fell from windows and slipped on bars of soap so long ago. His death stands as testament to the link between our past and our present. Malan wants to believe in the incredulous idea that Faki’s death was accidental (because he fell or jumped or was pushed because he wasn’t beaten!) Somehow all this conjecture is supposed to make the dear reader of Malan’s words feel better. It’s all just a backdrop in any case to the bigger story, which is about the poor white men who remain in Coligny, captive to history and the irrational ramblings of ‘nameless’ black people and fomenters of trouble with names like ‘Tebele’. 

In the Coligny Malan has fantasised into existence, there is no violence between blacks and whites. Violent episodes in which whites were the perpetrators ‘tapered off’ in 1997, when Eugène Terre’Blanche was jailed. Malan writes, “In the apartheid era, Afrikaners were stern masters of this landscape, administering discipline to their labourers as they saw fit, sometimes with fist and sjambok. Such incidents began to taper off after Eugène Terre’Blanche was imprisoned for savagely assaulting a cheeky petrol attendant in neighbouring Ventersdorp, and these days, they are vanishingly rare.” 

Vanishingly rare.  

Never mind this quote from a Human Rights Watch study on farms in Mpumalanga and Limpopo, which concludes, “Farm workers are still too often the victims of violence by employers and other farm staff, which the workers may be unwilling to report for fear of losing their jobs.” There is no reason to think North West is any different.  

Still, as Malan – a white man with preternatural powers of observation – notes, “black people remember, and harbour deep resentment. They say Afrikaners still treat them rudely, and some tell you they’re still afraid of ‘the Boers’. It was but a small step from there to conclude that the death in the sunflower field just had to be a racist murder”.  

Having established that the whites are good honest folk, and that blacks harbour deep resentment, Malan goes in for the kill. All this murder business is conjecture. It’s a ‘conclusion’ resentful blacks have made. Out of the bowels of a distant history, ignoring present day rosy inter-racial relations, black people in Coligny jumped to the odd conclusion that ‘the death in the sunflower field just had to be a racist murder.’  

Just like that, with the power of his mighty pen, Malan presents his thesis. It goes something like this: ‘It is the resentful blacks who have a problem. They never forgave us. They are angry about long-ago things; they are angry about history.  We can’t change history and so we will forever have to suffer the humiliation of being punished, accused even when we are innocent and play by the rules.  They are coming to get us for the sins of our fathers.’ 

These are long-standing themes not just for Malan, but for many white South Africans. They are interesting and important preoccupations. Yet they loom far too large in this story. They are, in fact, the story. And so Malan himself is as callous as the black politicians he blamed for stoking anti-white flames. So intent is he on indicting the new black rulers that he has made the life and death of a young boy a footnote in his reporting. Almost as appallingly, he has made the suffering of black people – the daily suffering that is structured by the same violent practices and the same racist thinking that have always governed Coligny – an equally minor footnote in this romp into fantasy.  

At his best Malan knows how to shine a spotlight on the existential crises plaguing his compatriots – black and white. It seems however, that Malan’s best days are behind him. His latest offering offers nothing new. It takes the white farmer’s version of a story and rehashes it. It points to failures in the police with which we are all achingly familiar. It suggests there is a craven political class that has no problem exploiting grief and pain for its own ends. This we also know.  

Malan’s old, trite ideas are dressed in the fine robes of lovely prose and so this will give them a weight they do not deserve. The truth is, despite the attention Malan has received, the most important reported piece of writing on Coligny was published last week, written by Shenaaz Jamal. It included the following lines:  

“Tsele and several other black residents told us that the local OK supermarket had separate queues for black and white customers, a claim the store's manager denied. Resident Tebogo Matshila said he had been chased out of the "white" supermarket queue and placed in a "black" one. When I bought bottled water and chocolate at the OK and wanted to pay, two white cashiers suddenly closed their tills and directed me to the kiosk, operated by a black woman. A few minutes later, one of the white cashiers re-opened their till to assist a white woman. I wondered whether it was just a coincidence or racism.” 

These words of doubt should haunt all South Africans. They bear repeating:

“I wondered whether it was just a coincidence or racism.”  

It is 2017 and the backlash is in full swing and these words stand as a sad and lonely testament to that fact. Such is the power of those who pretend racism is not real, and who insist that whites are the real victims; such is the power of the fantasies people like Malan would have us believe, that even in the face of overwhelming evidence, in a town called Coligny, a young black journalist has to wonder whether or not her experiences of racism are real.  

A black boy is dead. Coligny is racist. These are facts. The contours of how he was killed will emerge. He may have been pushed. He may have jumped. He may have been beaten. Does this change the fundamentals? Does it change the fact that he was in the company of two men who ought to have taken care of him? Does it change the fact that those two men saw their primary role as protectors of their property and not the safekeeping of black children? 

Rian Malan’s fantasies about the impending disappearance of whites in South Africa have no place in this sad, sad story. That a man capable of sensitivity and sound reasoning at some stage in his life doesn’t seem to understand that his obsession with white people and their fate is playing itself out at the expense of the humanity of his black compatriots, should be a cause of great sadness for all of us. When the heart of someone as gifted as Malan continues to betray an allegiance to the past, we should all be worried about the future. 

- Sisonke Msimang is a writer and political analyst. 

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    coligny  |  race
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