'The Lion Sleeps Tonight': South Africa, feisty and fierce

The journalist Rian Malan, from an Afrikaner family, pulls no punches in a panoramic view of his land

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Rian Malan's South Africa has very little to do with actual lions, sleeping or otherwise.

Mr. Malan lives in a South Africa tangled in its history but unable to reconcile it with its future. A South Africa where elaborate beauty pageants are held in the midst of turmoil as apartheid is finally closed. A South Africa where newspapers are condemned for publishing stories with sensationalist headlines like "Cursed by Evil Bees!" even while their readership far outstrips other dailies.

This South Africa is just a bit of what Mr. Malan illuminates in his collection of articles, reviews, letters and CD liner notes originally published between 1994 and 2010. Mr. Malan recognizes the deep fracturing still present in South Africa, "There's no such thing as a true story here. The facts may be correct, but the truth they embody is always a lie to someone else." He presents his South Africa, "I called it as I saw it."


By Rian Malan.
Grove/Atlantic ($25).

Mr. Malan is a South African journalist and author of "My Traitor's Heart," an autobiographical account of growing up in a prominent Afrikaner family during apartheid. His ancestors came to Cape Town in 1688 and "by 1840, Malans were spreading like a plague, eating up landscapes, mowing down game, subjugating everyone they came across." Mr. Malan is known for his strong but controversial stances on most everything from politics to AIDS to racial relations. While "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" does represent some of his more contended ideas, it mainly serves to give an impression of contemporary South Africa that is not found in sound bites or major headlines.

The book organizes 21 articles into seven sections with titles as descriptive as "Disease" and as vague as "Light." The first four articles fall under the "Politics" heading. Though the people Mr. Malan describes make the article come alive, the "Politics" section is one of the hardest to become immersed in. Still, it plays a crucial role in establishing the context for the rest of the articles included in the collection.

Mr. Malan's success lies in his articles centered on specific people. He has a knack of acquainting the reader with his subject while allowing the subject to demonstrate some aspect of South African life. The title of this collection refers to one spectacular piece, "In the Jungle," originally published in Rolling Stone, which traces the roots of the song which became known as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." Mr. Malan follows this song from Solomon Linda, a Zulu singer, through tight-lipped lawyers and dozens of characters throughout the world, presenting a fascinating and heart-breaking look not just at the song, but at the music industry in general.

Most of Mr. Malan's articles include a human element with which he illuminates the complex subjects he approaches. These range from the South African media giant Deon du Plessis, "the sort of Boer that the English have been caricaturing for centuries," to Winnie Mandela to the Alcock brothers, the only white Zulus. Even presenting all of these captivating people, Mr. Malan never loses his voice in the articles, tying everything together and always acknowledging his own biases or reactions.

Mr. Malan is not particularly reverent about anything, asking hard questions and proposing sometimes unpopular solutions. This is particularly evident in his essays on AIDS, a self-described obsession of his. Mr. Malan argues that AIDS statistics in Africa have been exaggerated to generate income for the treatment industry, including research, NGOs and doctors.

To be clear, Mr. Malan never denies that AIDS exists or that it has devastating effects. These articles explore the ways in which statistics about AIDS in Africa are generated, the tests that people have access to and what other deadly problems in Africa a sensationalizing of the AIDS epidemic could unintentionally detract attention from.

While they are the most controversial, there are only two articles about AIDS in the collection, fitting into the diverse subjects Mr. Malan has covered. The rest of the stories, while also political, take a much more human approach to subjects, less statistical and more personal.

Mr. Malan has a gift for narrative. Whether or not everyone agrees with his conclusions, he does meticulous research, presents the facts and crafts it all into a wonderfully expressive image of South Africa. Mr. Malan successfully portrays parts of his Africa, the Africa represented by those around him, the Africa that rarely finds its ways into images seen across the Atlantic. That South Africa is dangerous, corrupt and deteriorating. It is also strong, versatile, creative and, most apparently, loved.


Mona Moraru is a writer and editor living in East Liberty (monamoraru@sbcglobal.net). She studied at the University of Ghana and worked at Today newspaper in Accra.


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