THIS is not just another book about South Africa. It is the corrosive, self-doubting, anguished, courageously brash testimony of a young Afrikaner appalled by the injustices of apartheid, yet disturbed by the intellectual and emotional dishonesty involved in taking on the stance of liberal or radical white freedom fighter. A descendant of 17th-century Huguenot settlers and grandnephew of Daniel Malan, prime minister and founding father of postwar South African apartheid, Rian Malan at age 14 wrote a letter to the editor protesting the death in police custody of a revolutionary detainee. Before long, he had cast himself in the role of a suburban, teenaged Che Guevara, disgusted by the racism of his countrymen, but also star-struck by the glamour of '60s-style rebellion.
Dropping out of Witwatersrand University (a bastion of South African-style liberalism), Malan, still determined not to serve in South Africa's army, found temporary haven as a journalist. He was assigned to cover the police beat, and there got his first hard look at the fear and violence afflicting all parts of South African society.
Fleeing to America in 1977, Malan worked at a variety of jobs, from migrant laborer to freelance writer. But his native country and its problems continued to monopolize his thoughts. In 1985, he contracted to write a book - a kind of South African ``Roots'' - about his family: a story of white and black Malans linked by hidden ties of blood, separated by centuries of racism, and poised on the brink of violence.
On returning to South Africa to do the research, however, he found his colored (South African designation for mixed-race) kinsmen to be sober, educated people more interested in making a living and raising their families than in political confrontation. ``They are us,'' he says, ``they go to our church, speak our language, play our sports, eat our food.''
The book that Malan wrote instead begins with personal and family history, but spins off in other directions in an ambitious attempt to grasp all that is most difficult and heartbreaking about life in this deeply divided country.
In vivid, pithy, importunate, often slangy prose, he tells story after hair-raising story - a litany of violence: white against black, black against white, black against black. Over and over, we see the tragedy of innocent, well-meaning people caught in the middle who are usually the first to be victimized.
As a journalist and media-watcher, Malan is particularly exercised by the falsely benign picture of a single, united, grandly coordinate, nonviolent, anti-apartheid movement that is painted in liberal newspapers: A piece of myth-making that, he contends, led them to bury stories like the killings and tortures allegedly carried out by members of the entourage of Winnie Mandela, wife of just-released African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela.
Contemplating the stoning of two ``sympathetic'' French socialist dignitaries on a visit to a black township, he wonders, for the umpteenth time, how it is possible to fight racism when ``the people you were doing it for stoned you because your skin was white?'' His fellow white radicals, he recalls, ``looked at me as though I were insane for even asking, let alone harping on the question. ... I couldn't help myself though.''
Malan's book may be criticized for resurrecting two dangerous myths that have long been staples of apartheid apologia: One, that many Africans are still steeped in alien beliefs, like witchcraft; two, that Africans, left to their own devices, are prone to kill each other in tribal warfare.
What is it, then, that convinces the reader that ``My Traitor's Heart'' is not merely the same old racist special pleading served up with disillusioned radical chic?
Very simply, one feels that the motivating force behind this book is its author's need to tell the truth, like the powerful mixture of love and fear he feels for his black countrymen: ``I had always been two people, you see: A Just White Man appalled by the cruelties Afrikaners inflicted on Africans, and an Afrikaner appalled by the cruelties Africans inflicted on each other and might one day inflict on us. There were always these two paths open before me, these two forces tugging at my traitor's heart.''
At a time when so many books about South Africa are carefully tailored to say the ``right'' thing, a book like this hits out with the shock of the real.
Perhaps Malan has positioned himself too close to the trees to see the forest. Perhaps he is short on theory and ideological perspective. (Tale after tale of violent young men, for example, is related without any discussion of the possible significance of gender roles in fueling the flames of confrontation.) But it is impossible to mistake his passionate need to remind us of something all too easy to forget: the suffering of individuals whose lives and welfare are ``sacrificed'' to some ``vaster'' struggle.
Malan concludes with a story of a white couple who go to live among rural Africans, helping them improve their farming. The husband is killed, an innocent victim of a tribal feud. The wife stays on: Even when it is defeated, love can prevail. But can this inspiring story furnish a paradigm for a whole country of frightened people? ``I don't know,'' admitted Malan, interviewed in Los Angeles. ``Perhaps we should suspend judgment. History has a habit of making fools of people. Everyone has been talking about apocalypse for years now, but who knows? Afrikaners all say, `One day we'll be living under majority rule,' but then they add, `not in my lifetime.' Still, I can't help being optimistic.''
Malan is just as uncertain about the book he's written: ``Some days I feel OK about it, other days, I think it's monstrous.'' Inconsistency can be a sign of political expediency. In Malan's case, one comes away believing it is just the opposite: a mark of honesty - about the facts and about his feelings.