11.28.12

‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’: Rian Malan’s South Africa Reviewed

From one of South Africa’s leading journalists, a collection of reporting reflects the chaos, hope, and amazing stories since the end of apartheid. Katie Baker on Rian Malan’s brilliant writing on everything from the origins of the ‘Lion King’ theme song to Mbeki’s legacy—and how he blew it on AIDs.

Our story begins in darkest (as they say) Africa, where a young Boer languished in the whites-only suburbs of the 1960’s, listening to rebellious longhair rock bands and dreaming—like a true Voortrekker--of an escape from his “hell of boredom and conformity.” He grew up, got a gig at an alternative weekly in L.A., fell in love with long-form New Journalism, and bummed about America for eight years. But the idyll was not to last, and when he returned to his South African veldt in the late ‘80s, he encountered a country on the brink of monumental, messy, historic change. Shacking up in the hopping Jo’burg satellite of Yeoville, he sallied forth to do ideological battle over rounds of beers with all manner of leftist hacks and real revolutionaries. He watched his homeland hold its first free elections, issued prophecies—some prescient, others wildly off the mark—about his country’s future trajectory, and wrote a wealth of great pieces for places like Rolling Stone and Esquire, making a few friends and a lot of enemies in the process.

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‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’, by Rian Malan 368 pages. Grove Press. $25. ()

The Lion Sleeps Tonight is the result of those many years of essayistic crying in the wilderness, the hero of our tale and one of South Africa’s most prominent journalists. Whereas his first book, the best-selling My Traitor’s Heart, tackled the country’s apartheid past—including the history of his own family, a prominent Afrikaner clan—Malan’s new collection spans the years between 1994 and 2008, when South Africa oscillated between the extremes of “terror and ecstasy,” sometimes in the same week, as it lurched into its brave new world. Malan’s essays capture the transition in all its dysfunction and glory—from the African National Congress’ corruption scandals to the nation’s joy over winning the 1995 rugby cup; from rumblings of communist revolution to the skyscrapers of booming capitalism; from vigilante killings and mob violence to Nobel Peace Prizes and chi-chi literary festivals in Franschhoek.

It’s a dizzying ride, one on which Malan serves as an expert, if somewhat curmudgeonly, guide. Indeed, the author seems to belong to the grand tradition of disillusioned idealists, one minute daring to hope that the dream of a peaceful and prosperous South Africa might be coming to pass; despairing the next when some segment of the population or its leadership backslides into greed or violence. His default stance is dry cynicism and woeful predictions of doom, peppered with the occasional rant about “gormless liberals” and ANC apologists (John Carlin of Invictus fame among them). He’s tickled by pugilists who give the finger to fuzzy left-wing platitudes, and his most admired subject seems to be Deon du Plessis, the former publisher of South Africa’s best-selling Sun tabloid, a grand old Boer who liked booze and dirty jokes and whose business motto was “find the enemy, crush him, and hear the lamentations of the women.” Malan also tends to like anyone who refuses “to crook the knee and praise the naked emperor’s glorious raiments,” whether those unclothed sovereigns are Communist Party hardliners who dominated the ANC during its years in exile, or the AIDS establishment based in Geneva (more on that later).

Due, perhaps, to his willingness to be “needlessly provocative” and his fondness for being right (even when he’s forced to admit he’s wrong)—not to mention his enthusiasm for taking on the bigwigs in power—Malan and his essays have won many detractors over the years. His critics have, as Malan recounts, slung accusations at him ranging from racism and incompetence to “a secret alliance with the diabolical President [Thabo] Mbeki, spying for the Zulu nationalists, drinking too much, taking drugs, and smelling bad.”

Still, love him or hate him, the man’s a devilishly talented writer and storyteller. And Malan’s various crusades do make for jolly good reading. Around every turn, he’s casting gloomy asides about how civil war and race violence are surely nigh in South Africa, just to register his shock, and secret delight, at appearing the fool when the ’94 election goes off without a descent into ethnic butchery.

Here he is in February 1994, covering the Miss World pageant for Esquire at a glitzy casino packed with ersatz African ruins and jet-setting celebrities. “This country,” he intones. “It’s pathetically fucked-up for the most part, but tonight I survey the jiving racial all-sorts, and an outrageous idea takes root in my brain: maybe we really can do it; synthesize rich and poor, black and white, Europe and Africa, and create something so blindingly lovely that the rest of you fall back in awe and dismay … maybe we are living in the midst of a miracle. Or maybe it’s just a surfeit of champagne.” A decade on, the Rainbow Nation still stands, and now Malan’s moved to Cape Town, where the seaside zephyrs have softened the inveterate cynic enough for him to pen a mea culpa of sorts. “The gift of 1994 was so huge that I choked on it and couldn’t say thank you,” he writes. “But I am not too proud to say it now.”

Which is not to say he’s completely jettisoned the doomsaying. In 2006, when Mbeki’s government is drowning under embezzlement scandals and future president Jacob Zuma’s rape and corruption trials are whipping his Zulu followers into a frenzy, Malan revives the Four Horsemen talk. “I knew in my bones that it would come to this,” he tells us, “but somewhere along the line I got tired of stinking up my surroundings with predictions of doom.” A year later, as Zimbabwe free-falls into economic crisis, Malan predicts imminent chaos for South Africa as well, concluding, “You’d have to be blind to misread the writing on the wall here.”  

A bit overstated, yes, but Malan is right to pronounce Robert Mugabe a “malevolent little shit” and a “psychopath” at a time when the dictator was still receiving standing ovations in African capitals. It’s just one instance in which Malan—like his political heroes—is willing to court unpopularity in pursuit of a larger truth. In one of the essays, he tackles the question of a cover-up in the 1992 Boipatong massacre, an incident that served to further besmirch then-president F.W. de Klerk’s administration and that strengthened Mandela’s negotiating hand. At the time, ANC party spinmeisters accused white police of fomenting the murders by arming a Zulu mob and escorting them into Boipatong—a version of events that most South Africans accepted, even though later trials found no evidence to support the claim, and even revealed that ANC lawyers had tampered with witnesses. In another piece—among the collection’s most gripping—Malan tells the twisted tale of Paul O’Sullivan, an Irish go-getter and part-time cop whose stolen briefcase at the Johannesburg airport sets off a chain reaction that ends up exposing a corruption scheme snaking into the highest ranks of government.

It’s not particularly shocking these days to say that the ANC and its revolutionary leaders were not saints, but politicians who harbored both noble dreams and (sometimes criminal) human failings. Yet at the time Malan wrote his early essays, such charges were incendiary in South Africa. That didn’t stop Malan from making them, and his pieces end up capturing the complex nuances of the era’s towering historical figures. Nelson Mandela was both the father of the new nation, the great Madiba, a man of extraordinary “political courage and generosity of spirit”—and also a master manipulator, adept at secretly derailing peace talks when it served his purposes and intent upon crushing his Zulu enemies. His ex-wife Winnie was a “beautiful and charming” woman, with infectious laughter and dazzling star power. She was also a suspect put on trial for inciting the torture and killings of ANC youth accused of being spies. Mbeki was a “great man” who waged a “brave and lonely struggle to outwit Communist hard-liners and drag the ANC into the modern era,” yet also a leader who listened to quacks telling him that HIV/AIDS was a fictitious plague.

Which brings us to the most unfortunate essays in the book, two lumps of coal in a collection otherwise loaded with gems. Malan has taken much flak for these, and rightfully so. Long story short, in 2000, Rolling Stone commissioned him to do a piece about Mbeki’s AIDS insanity. Malan figured out that the official estimates of HIV/AIDS cases in Africa, coming on high from the U.N. and the World Health Organization, seemed to have been greatly exaggerated—due in large part to the sensitivity of ELISA and Western blot tests to antibodies for malaria and tuberculosis, in addition to those produced in the presence of HIV. Time has vindicated Malan’s reporting in this aspect, with UNAIDS eventually acknowledging that its estimate procedure was flawed. Rolling Stone published the article after much back-and-forth, but Malan was incensed that his editors rendered it “so full of equivocations and digressions as to be barely readable,” and took it upon himself to follow up with a piece entitled “Among the AIDS Fanatics.” While Malan insists he never claimed that HIV/AIDS wasn’t a huge problem in Africa, and that he differed from his critics only on the scale of the continent’s looming “megadeath,” his letter to Rolling Stone does seem to hint at a deeper suspicion about how real and deadly the virus actually was. After visiting a coffin factory and not seeing any evidence of an uptick in deaths, Malan wonders, “Jesus, maybe this is all a hallucination.”

Turns out, of course, it wasn’t. How did Malan get it so wrong? In part, because he didn’t totally understand the intricate science—including such factors as viral- incubation periods--which he admits in the Rolling Stone letter and in a postscript. He’s also a skeptic, prone to seeing conspiracies anywhere and everywhere—a noble quality when it comes to political scandals, but one that led him to demonize scientists and philanthropists who may have erred on the side of overestimating the HIV/AIDS crisis, but who were also working frantically, and somewhat blindly, to arrest the spread of a virulent and ever-shifting disease. At the end of the day, Malan’s AIDS essays show how well-meaning journalists sometimes mess up the first draft of history. Hindsight is 20-20, after all.

Speaking of hindsight, Malan is at his most masterful when he has a few years—or decades—of it in the rearview mirror to work with. Then, he can weave his tales with ease, reconstructing the lives of regular folk swept up in the winds of change blowing over Africa during the past century. He tells us the story of the Otis Waygood Blues Band, a group of Jewish kids who met at a '60’s youth camp in Bulawayo, and who briefly enjoyed teen idol status in South Africa. Their manager was one Clive Calder, who went on to become a reclusive mogul and one of the music industry’s richest men, head of an empire that managed Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys when it sold for billions to BMG in 2001. In similarly rollicking fashion, Malan regales us with yarns about the Alcocks—two Afrikaner kids who grew up among the wild, warlike Zulu—and of John Montle Magolego, whose Colors of the Leopard vigilantes fascinated and terrified South Africa in the ‘90s.

The collection’s masterpiece, though, is the essay that inspired its name. “In the Jungle” serves up the epic of Solomon Linda, a Zulu crooner whose Evening Birds a cappella group slayed Jo’burg nightlife in the mid-1930s. When a European producer brings Linda and his boys in for a recording session, they set down “Mbube,” a three-chord tune with lyrics of ‘Lion! Ha! You’re a Lion!’ Towards the end of the third take, Linda improvises a catchy little melody—just a snippet, but enough to be distinct—that we all now know by the words, “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight …”

Fast forward a decade to Greenwich Village, where Pete Seeger hears the tune on an old 78 and turns it into “Wimoweh.” This catches on with the American public, and by the summer of ’61, four Brooklyn boys styling themselves as The Tokens use it to audition for big-name producers known as “Huge and Luge.” The kids get a record deal, and the bosses receive some mistaken intel that the song is a folk ditty, up for grabs copyright-wise. The honchos call in a whiz-kid named George Weiss, who penned tunes for the likes of Elvis. Weiss puts Linda’s improvised melody front and center, The Tokens give their falsettos a work-out, and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is released. Next thing you know, the song starts shooting up the charts and the rest, as they say, is history.

Or at least it was, until Malan started nosing about, asking what happened to royalties and whether Linda’s descendants had ever received a cut of the cash. The answer, it seemed, was not really, with the exception of a check sent years ago by Seeger, who had instructed the original owner of the copyright to forward all royalties to Linda. A little more money came trickling in as the result of a lawsuit between various parties in the early ‘90s, but Linda’s daughters still lived in embarrassing poverty, even as Disney co-opted “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” for its mega-musical The Lion King. Malan went ahead and published his piece—with its account of unreturned phone calls and vague denials by the money men—in Rolling Stone and persuaded Linda’s daughters and the South African government to sue Disney over unauthorized use. Disney balked, Weiss and Co. had to pay up, and Linda’s daughters got the rights to a share of all future proceeds. I’d say that someone should make a Hollywood movie out of this amazing tale, but I suspect Malan perhaps rubbed a few powers the wrong way during the course of his reporting. Still Malan’s bravery is clear. When it would have been easier to hush up and stop the story halfway, he stood up for the little guy ‘til the bitter end—and he won.