Love and Murder in South Africa

Eula Biss
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My first encounter with South Africa was a book, My Traitor’s Heart, which I read when I was twenty, and it was because of this book that I traveled to South Africa twenty years later. I don’t know where I thought I was going then, but it might have been further into the book, which was a reckoning with what it means to be white. The author, Rian Malan, is a white South African who worked as a crime reporter during the death throes of apartheid, and he told the story of his country through a series of murders.

South Africa had the world’s second-highest murder rate in 1990, when My Traitor’s Heart was published. Those were the days of burning tire necklaces and cursory executions. Murder in apartheid-era South Africa wasn’t like murder in other countries, according to Malan. “Elsewhere in the world, murder was just another function of ordinary social relationships,” he observed. “In the vast majority of cases, murderers killed someone they knew—wives, bosses, fellow drunkards, rivals in business or love. In South Africa, it wasn’t like that. In South Africa, you could be walking down the street, minding your own business, when white trash boiled off the back of a passing pick-up and kicked your head in, simply because your skin was black.” Re-reading that passage on the plane to Johannesburg, I could think of at least one other country where murder was like that, the only country I really knew. But when I read My Traitor’s Heart at twenty, it wasn’t the murders I recognized—it was the psychological state of the author.

He was disturbed by his country and confused about his place in it. He had grown up in a middle-class suburb of Johannesburg, where he saw very little of the violence that enforced apartheid. But he read the news, and he wondered who he was. His people, in South African terms, were Afrikaners, an ethnic group descended from Dutch colonists. “The white tribe of Africa” is how Malan described Afrikaners, “arrogant, xenophobic, and ‘full of blood,’ as the Zulus say of tyrants.” His family, the Malans, had been in South Africa since 1688. A Malan died in a massacre of Afrikaners by King Dingane ka Senzangakhona’s Zulu warriors, and the brother of that Malan massacred Zulus. A Malan fought in the first war against the British, and a Malan died in the second war against the British, the war in which Afrikaners were held in concentration camps.

There was one Malan buried in the archives who haunted Rian Malan more than the others. This Dawid Malan was the master, until 1788, of the finest estate in the Cape Colony. He owned slaves and vast vineyards, which he abandoned to run away with his neighbor’s slave, a black woman named Sara. Taking nothing with them but two horses, Dawid and Sara disappeared from the colony and the historical record. Sara never reappeared on paper, but Dawid resurfaced several decades later, on trial for violently defending an Afrikaner’s right to beat his black servant. “The man who abandoned his birthright for the love of a black woman had become what would one day be called a white supremacist,” Malan wrote, “willing to die rather than accord black people equality before the law.”

More than a century later, in 1948, another Malan, Daniel François Malan, led the Afrikaner nationalists to power on the promise of a “final solution.” This was apartheid, a gridlock of laws that divided the population into racial groups and intervened in every aspect of life, from sex and marriage to work, housing, and education. Apartheid eliminated mixed neighborhoods, mandated segregation, and separated families. A byzantine system, the Pass Laws, controlled the movement of black South Africans within the country, and hundreds of thousands of black people were arrested each year for violations of these laws.

The young Rian Malan opposed apartheid, but not in any way that he would later consider meaningful. “We believed that apartheid was stupid and vicious,” he wrote of himself and his teenage friends, “but we also believed that growing our hair long undermined it.” He and his friends spray-painted SAY IT LOUD, I’M BLACK & I’M PROUD in six-foot letters on an embankment in their suburb, and Malan showed a photo to his family’s black maid. Her response: “Ah, suka.” Get lost. Malan had never heard the James Brown song, but he’d read about it in Time. He knew more about American culture than he knew about the culture of the people who lived in his backyard, in shacks. “The strangest thing about my African childhood,” he wrote, “is that it wasn’t really African at all.” Malan was more Western than he was African—because he was, more than anything, a product of apartheid.

At twenty, I recognized myself in the young Malan. I saw my own undeveloped politics, my own failings and my own frustrations, my own crisis of conscience. I saw the deficiencies in my education, which was, in many ways, an apartheid education. I had been fed mostly platitudes about race in America and I was hungry for real talk, so I was drawn to Malan’s impatience with empty gestures and his intolerance of pious pronouncements.

At forty, when I traveled across South Africa carrying My Traitor’s Heart, I read the book at more of a remove. I saw how often Malan describes black Africans as unknowable and inscrutable, with customs and conflicts that could never be comprehended, and of Africa itself as unfathomable and otherworldly. He compares white South Africa to a moon base, by which he means that it was insular and artificially maintained. But outside that base, in the townships and homelands of black South Africa, everything is alien to him. His book is the artifact of a mind still half-entrenched in apartheid.

The young Malan believed that he loved the black people in his life, the gardener Piet and the maid Miriam, who raised him. “Maybe it was the love of a prince for his loyal subjects,” he later recognized, “and conditional on their remaining loyal and subservient.” In high school he broke apartheid law when he slept with a black woman, but he didn’t know her name, and his most frequent contact with his black compatriots was when he bought dope. “I yearned for black friends,” he wrote, “…and in the end I was given some.” These were his colleagues at a progressive newspaper.

Malan was working as a reporter for Johannesburg’s Star in 1976, the year of the student uprising in the neighboring township of Soweto. On June 16, twenty thousand students walked out of the schools to protest apartheid, and were met by the police, who fired tear gas and live ammunition, killing hundreds of children. The next day, helicopters and armored cars were called into Soweto, but the uprising continued, and spread. White South Africa was on edge. “Whenever my telephone rang, some white paranoiac came on the line to pass along another rumor,” Malan recalled. Someone had heard that tomorrow was kill-a-white day, for instance, or that black maids had been told to poison their employers’ tea. While the black people of Soweto were mourning their children, the white people of Johannesburg were preoccupied with fears of imagined vengeance. In the midst of this paranoia, Malan answered a call reporting a real act of vengeance, a black man shouting, “Africa! Africa!” and swinging an axe at whites on the streets of Johannesburg.

Malan’s first thought was that if he himself had been in that axman’s path, all the good he’d ever done would not have saved him. He had disdain for the white paranoiacs, but he shared with them a fear that he was not safe. Fear, as he came to understand, was “the force that held the white tribe together.” He sympathized with the axman’s cause, but still, he didn’t want to be killed. He wanted to be seen and recognized for who he was. He wanted, in other words, to be loved. He wanted this for all the reasons people want to be loved, but for another reason, too, a reason intimately tied to his race—he wanted proof that he was good, because he knew the system he was embedded within was bad.

I have to wonder now why I keep returning to this book. Beyond the spectacle of the murders—beyond the melodrama of Malan’s tortured relationship with his country, beyond the unanswerable question of what it means to be white—is a problem that continues to captivate me: the problem of love under apartheid, which is now the problem of love in the ruins of apartheid.

The emotional landscape of My Traitor’s Heart was so familiar to me at twenty, that when I boarded a plane at forty, I was still under the impression that I was going somewhere familiar. I was disabused of that notion even before I left the airport in Johannesburg. Dizzy with sleeplessness, I stood before a sign on the bathroom door and wondered what it meant. The sign was wordless, like the falling figure that indicates a wet floor, but it was communicating something else, in a universal visual language I did not understand. The sign was a reminder that I was not well traveled. Of the eleven official languages of South Africa, I spoke only one. This was an expansive country of wide velds and high deserts, mountain ranges and coastline, surrounded by three oceans, with a history that stretched back to the very beginning of humankind, and I knew next to nothing about it.

I stepped into the city feeling chastened. Flowers I couldn’t name poured over brightly painted fences topped with razor wire. That first evening, I walked the streets of Johannesburg with Glen Retief, a white South African writer. He was the only South African I knew, and I didn’t know him well—not well enough to have asked him to bring me along when he traveled back to his country from the United States. But here we were, both of us stopping and turning when we reached the edges of the neighborhoods that were familiar to him. If Glen was an imperfect guide to a country where less than 10 percent of the population was white, I was a more imperfect student. I had arrived with an independent study in mind, but I was doubting the whole endeavor already. I’d made a mistake, I confessed. It was crazy of me to have thought that by going to Africa I was somehow going deeper into my own country, into a place that would help me understand the place I came from. Glen, who had been living in the United States for most of his adult life, did not think this was crazy. What the United States and South Africa have in common, he said, is that they are both postapartheid states.

WELCOME HOME read a sign at the entrance to the Apartheid Museum. The museum was located between the city center of Johannesburg, which had been designated a white area under apartheid, and Soweto, the township that became, under apartheid, the largest black city in South Africa. The surrounding landscape was scrubby and arid, scarred by mining. This place was home, in that human life first evolved here, with all humans sharing one common ancestor, a woman who lived hundreds of thousands of years ago in what is now South Africa.

The museum was packed with schoolchildren, each group in matching uniforms, entirely purple, from the slacks to the shirts; or entirely blue; or entirely red. They were a beautiful sight, these children, streaming around us in their bright colors with their excited chatter. They were all black and all “born free,” as they say in South Africa—born after the first democratic election that marked the end of apartheid, in 1994. Glen was moving quickly through an exhibit of anti-apartheid posters, looking for one that he might have pasted on a wall himself, but he stopped abruptly at the sight of a heavily armored vehicle topped by a machine gun and surrounded by a crowd of children. It was a sight that called to mind the Soweto Uprising, the children fired on by the police, and the armored cars that had rolled into Soweto the next day.

This armored car was a Casspir, which the police used to patrol the townships of black South Africa in the final decades of apartheid. Later, South Africa sold Casspirs to the United States, which used them in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the War on Drugs, a war on our own people. In 2014, a Casspir, or one of its cousins, showed up at the protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

This Casspir emanated a metallic scent of use as we climbed through the narrow door. The interior was dark, with small windows, one cracked. Probably by a rock, Glen said. Rocks were the weapons with which the children of the townships fought the police, in uprising after uprising. Rocks and bricks and Molotov cocktails. This vehicle would have been manned by white boys just out of high school, afraid and unprepared, doing their mandatory military service. Glen had refused that service, and left the country in his twenties. Now he lingered inside the Casspir and said quietly, “Imagine being one of those boys.” This armored car was like white South Africa, he told me—a confined space that was heavily protected, a psychological prison, but a safe one.

There were 131 nooses hanging from the ceiling of a small room just beyond the Casspir. When I saw them through the doorway, I felt dislocated, as if they had followed me there, as if lynching were in the air I carried. Each noose represented the execution of a political prisoner who had been sentenced to death by hanging. The list of names on the wall did not include those who were killed without having been tried and sentenced, so it did not include the name Bantu Stephen Biko.

Biko was a leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, which emerged in the silence following the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. Informed by a diaspora of thinkers, from W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey to Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, Biko was a philosopher of the psychic impact of apartheid. “Not only have they kicked the black,” he wrote of the Afrikaner nationalist government, “but they have also told him how to react to the kick.” Refusing to cower before the kick was the foundation of Biko’s philosophy. Black Consciousness, as he saw it, was not a means to an end. It was an end in and of itself—to live with dignity. “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor,” he wrote, “is the mind of the oppressed.” And so to be “conscientized” was to reclaim your own mind.

From Johannesburg we flew to Port Elizabeth (now Gqeberha), where Biko had been imprisoned before his death. There we began driving across the Eastern Cape province into one of South Africa’s former “homelands.” These were reservations designated for native Africans, who could obtain passes to work in white South Africa but could not live there. “Sophisticated concentration camps” is what Biko called the homelands, where 80 percent of the nation’s people were forced onto 13 percent of the land. Over three decades, 3.5 million people were relocated to the homelands, one of the largest mass removals in modern history.

Each homeland was the designated territory of a particular ethnic group, as defined by the government. We were in the former Transkei, which was Xhosa territory. The Xhosa were historically farmers and herders, and they migrated to this part of Africa before the Dutch arrived, making this something of an actual homeland. In 1976, the year before Biko was killed, the Transkei was declared an independent country and its occupants were stripped of their South African citizenship. This allowed the South African government, the only government that recognized the Transkei, to divest itself of responsibility to the people who lived there. “Separate development” is what this strategy was called—segregation on an enormous scale.

We drove three hundred miles into the former Transkei, past King William’s Town (now Qonce), where Steve Biko was born, and through Mvezo, where Nelson Mandela was born. The landscape was a graceful grassland, lightly tattered. There were corrugated metal shacks along the roadsides, and barbed wire fences that had caught bits of trash. Women traveled on paths next to the road, carrying thirty-gallon barrels on their heads. In some places, gashes of erosion had opened in the hillsides, where the land had been overgrazed. Apartheid had starved this region of resources.

The drive took most of a day, the last three hours on unpaved, unmarked roads. When we arrived at a dirt lot on the edge of the village of Nqileni, dusk was turning to dark, and we walked the rest of the way down an unlit path, led by a young boy who did not speak English. There were no roads in Nqileni, just a handful of dirt tracks. Almost nobody in the village owned a car, and most everyone traveled on foot. The sky was wide and uninterrupted by telephone poles or electrical wires. In the velvety darkness, I could hear waves breaking on the edge of the black expanse that was the Indian Ocean.

Morning revealed a place of extraordinary beauty. The village was located between the Xhora River and the Bulungula River, on rolling hills that overlooked the ocean. The mouth of the Bulungula opened onto long stretches of sand, and mist rose off the shoreline through the mangroves on the bluffs. Low tide exposed rocks crusted with mussel beds, where women carried buckets of mussels on their heads.

The hills above the shore were dotted with smooth round huts, rondavels, painted peach or turquoise or butter yellow. Many were thatched with grass, and others had roofs of corrugated metal. Solar panels were mounted on some, to my surprise. These homes did not have running water or toilets, but they had enough solar energy to charge smartphones.

A woman nicknamed Jabu served as my guide to the village, and frequently as my translator. She was a lively conversationalist who spoke English, which she had learned from tourists in the backpackers’ lodge, where women from the village cooked dinners of goat meat and pumpkin leaves for hikers making their way along the Wild Coast. “What is it like for women in your culture?” Jabu asked as we set off down the path leading from the lodge into the village. I fumbled my answer, getting lost in the minutiae of pay differentials and workplace discrimination. After listening patiently for a few moments, she asked, “Can a woman in your culture choose not to marry?” She knew the answer to this already, as well as the answer to her next question: “If a woman is married, can she have a job?”

Jabu was in her twenties and was the mother of a young child, but had no intention of marrying. Marriage would mean she could not leave the village for work or education. She would be confined to women’s work as it was defined there, and she would be expected to wear the traditional dress of a married woman. Three older women sitting in the grass by the side of the path served as her example. Like most people in the village, they spoke only isiXhosa, but they smiled at us and took their role as an exhibit with good humor. They wore scarves knotted over their hair, and long, full skirts, with cloths tied around their waists. Those cloths, Jabu noted, were hot and scratchy.

Jabu wore knit shorts with leggings and ankle boots. Glen had given her a hat emblazoned with the name of the college where he taught, which she tucked over her hair. She would have looked at home in a coffee shop in the college town where I lived, except that she had demonstrated for me the traditional use of river clay as a cosmetic, so her face was covered in white clay. Ghost-faced, in her college-spirit-wear, Jabu knelt on the floor of her mother’s rondavel and ground corn with a large rock, then laughed gently as I struggled to heft the same rock and crush a single kernel.

Women’s work in Nqileni involved a considerable amount of heavy lifting. There was the carrying of water, the collecting of firewood, the lugging of buckets of cow dung to resurface the floors, and the excavation of mud to make the bricks from which the rondavels were constructed. This was all the routine maintenance of life. There was little work in the village that wasn’t women’s work, but there weren’t very many men. When I asked Jabu where the men were, she answered simply, “The mines.” Except for the young and the old, most men left the village for work, as they had under apartheid.

 “A culture is essentially the society’s composite answer to the varied problems of life,” Biko wrote in an essay about African theology. The culture Jabu called “my culture” was postapartheid Xhosa culture, which answered problems introduced by apartheid, among other problems. It was a way of life that had been disrupted and undermined, but still maintained. I wanted to blame apartheid for burdening the women of Nqileni, but Jabu understood the source of her outrage to be something far older.

The village headman explained to me, with Jabu as his interpreter, that the crates he used as chairs were reserved for men, and women should sit on the floor. His home was a small rondavel like all the others, mostly empty inside, with a single kerosene burner for cooking, an eroded dirt yard, and a few wandering chickens. The headman was responsible for allocating land and settling disputes in the village. One of my traveling companions asked if people like us, white Americans, would be allowed to move to this village. We could seek permission from the tribal council, the headman responded tactfully, and then added something that made Jabu smirk. If we moved here, we would have to be prepared to open up our private bank accounts, as the members of this village shared everything.

I watched Jabu’s face as she listened, alert to every word and every implication. The spotlight of my limited understanding was trained on her, and it was from this position, as Jabu’s foreign audience, that I admired her. I didn’t know her, but I felt that I recognized her. I saw the little dance move she did to express enthusiastic agreement, and the posture of quiet deference she assumed when translating. I saw the way she expanded her vocabulary, learning and practicing the term umbilical cord over the course of several days. Eventually, she’d like to complete her secondary education, she said, but that would require leaving the village. For now, she had a child to raise, and she wanted to send him to university.

I spent my days in Nqileni walking the paths that rose and fell over the hills. I visited the local radio station where Jabu hosted several radio shows, and I traded polite greetings with one of Jabu’s cousins, who wore a red leather jacket with metal studs on the shoulders and red clay on her face. I practiced my four or five words of Xhosa intermittently, with no improvement. After dark, I returned to my rondavel by the lodge, where the dung floor and the thatched roof had filled the room with a grassy scent. I opened a window to the wind coming off the ocean and lay down to read My Traitor’s Heart with a flashlight. I read without interest then, finding the book suddenly dim and hard to follow. At the far edge of what had once been an unrecognized country, Malan’s concerns seemed to belong to another world, the world of white South Africa.

“Mike was my friend, but he didn’t trust me,” Malan writes. This was his colleague at the paper, a black man who quoted Milton and hummed Handel. They drank together after work, before returning to their segregated neighborhoods, and talked about everything but politics. “If we had talked politics, I would have had to creep and crawl and beg forgiveness for what my people were doing to his. I would have turned into a worm, and Mike into a cripple, a victim.” It seems unlikely to me now that Mike would have allowed for that—Mike was a Biko man, a Black Consciousness man. But I don’t doubt that the politics of the moment freighted their friendship.

Malan, who shared a last name with the minister of defense, had been assigned to cover crime in part because he spoke Afrikaans, the language of the police. Working for the newspaper allowed Malan to temporarily defer his military service. When the time came to serve, he left the country. “I ran because I wouldn’t carry a gun for apartheid, and because I wouldn’t carry a gun against it,” he writes. “I ran away because I hated Afrikaners and loved blacks. I ran away because I was an Afrikaner and feared blacks.” He fled in a confusion of love and fear. When he returned eight years later, he looked up his old friend Mike. Those years had been hard years in South Africa, years of violent struggle, and Mike was weary. He had been drinking himself to death, he told Malan as they headed to Soweto for a jol, a bender.

At the shebeen where they drank, Mike told anyone who asked that he would vouch for this white man, that he would “go the whole hog for him.” This moved Malan, who was always searching Mike for signs of affection. But the night got darker as Mike got drunker. Someone asked if “this whitey was ripe for the picking,” and Mike chuckled. Malan asked his drinking companions if this, his whiteness, really needed to come between them. One of them told him that every white man was an enemy, and then affably made an exception for Malan. But Mike was not in the mood to release Malan from his whiteness, and he would not tell him the lie he wanted to hear—that it didn’t mean anything.

I felt done with Malan then, after a day of watching people make the most of the starved land that apartheid had left behind. I was tired of Malan’s need to be exonerated, and his fixation on being understood as good. I felt far from his desperate desire to be loved by his fellow country people. But that was when I was still in Africa, reading by flashlight. Now, years later, back home under electric lights, I don’t feel so far away from Malan’s desires. I know what it is to be a tourist in your own country, and I know that’s much worse than being a tourist anywhere else.

Jabu marked the conclusion of her tour of women’s work by painting the faces of her tourists in the manner that female initiates in the village are painted during the ceremony that marks their transition to adulthood. There was some sly humor to this, as if we Americans had remained children in our insular lives and were awaiting passage into true adulthood even as we entered middle age. But it was an embarrassing spectacle, too, this sacred ritual repurposed as a tourist attraction.

I wanted no part in a fake initiation, but I wanted to be close to Jabu. I wanted to feel the warmth of her breath on my face as she painted my eyelids. In the darkness behind my eyes, that warmth flooded a vast subterranean cavern of teenage loneliness, a loneliness punctuated by an occasional sleepover, a brief encounter with a girl who might give me a tour of her life, dress me in her clothes, and apply makeup to my face, her touch a flicker of intimacy.

Jabu had no reason to trust me, and I knew that, or I would not have hesitated to ask her the question I asked before I left Nqileni. I had avoided this question for as long as I could, until my last day in the village, when we were walking down the path toward the lodge.

“You can write about me,” Jabu answered quickly, unconcerned. Then she added, “But I think you should write about Steve Biko.” She gave his name the proper isiXhosa pronunciation, “Bee-kaw,” so I wasn’t sure I understood. “He was killed by the police?” I asked. “Yes,” she said. “You should write a poem about Biko. About what they did to him, what they did to people during apartheid.”

What the security police did to Biko was detain him for interrogation and then inflict a head injury that caused him to die of brain damage. What the government had already done, years earlier, was declare Biko a banned person. He was confined to the township where he grew up, could not speak in public, could not publish his writing, and could not be quoted in the press.

In the year before his death, Biko was called as a witness in the trial of nine young black men who were accused of treason, not for their actions as much as for their ideas. Black Consciousness itself was on trial. Biko was asked to explain the slogan “Black is beautiful,” and several pages of trial transcript were dedicated to an interrogation of the word black, during which the judge asked, “But now why do you refer to you people as blacks? Why not brown people?”

Biko used the term black expansively, not just for indigenous Africans. Black was an inversion of non-white, the collective term used by the government for an ever-increasing array of racial categories, including Colored, Bantu, Indian, and Malay. These categories were, Biko recognized, a divisive strategy. Black was a gesture of solidarity, whereas non-white was a term of exclusion. To be called non-white was to be defined in the negative, Biko argued, defined by what you weren’t. To choose black was to define yourself in the positive.

Under apartheid logic, being pro-black could only mean being anti-white. This is what Donald Woods, a white newspaper editor, feared when he first met Biko. Woods was opposed to apartheid, but he was also opposed to Black Consciousness. He misunderstood it as a claim to cultural superiority. Black pride, he thought, was as racist as Afrikaner nationalism. And he resented being reduced to his race. “I don’t have to bloody well apologize for being born white or for racial policies I don’t support!” Woods told Biko during their first meeting. At this, Biko grinned and settled back into his chair.

Biko wasn’t asking for any apologies, and he wasn’t interested in reproducing apartheid with black tyrants in place of white tyrants. He wanted more than “a mere change of face” in the government—he wanted an entirely new system of governance. Biko had nothing against white liberals as individuals, he explained, but he didn’t believe that black liberation could be achieved under white leadership. White liberals were too comfortable, and their goals were too limited. He wouldn’t compromise on his most basic rights, and whatever hurt feelings this caused couldn’t be his concern.

By the end of that first meeting, Woods had agreed to hire a black reporter to write a column on Black Consciousness. As Biko walked Woods to his car, he pretended to shield his eyes from the blinding glow of the Mercedes, one of the spoils of apartheid. They became friends, and Biko never stopped ribbing Woods about the Mercedes, which, Woods protested, was the “smallest, cheapest” Mercedes available.

Early in their friendship, Woods tried to impress Biko by offering to bring him to a restaurant where black people could not ordinarily dine with white people. Biko was not impressed, they did not go to the restaurant, and that, Woods noted, was his last act of “token integration,” though it was not his last blunder. Both men had political ambitions and loved nothing more than long conversations about political strategy, so this was not an unlikely friendship. But it was opposed by every force in the country, including the police force.

To evade the security police, Woods and Biko sometimes used puns on isiXhosa words as a code when they arranged their meetings. Woods had grown up in the Transkei, where he’d learned to speak isiXhosa from his playmates. Those Xhosa children didn’t have schools, so they couldn’t read, and it had never occurred to Woods that his black playmates were his intellectual equals—not until he met Biko. Opposed to apartheid as he was, apartheid had nonetheless left a mark on his mind.

After Biko’s death, Woods was declared a banned person for his association with Biko. He could not write for the newspaper or appear in public, he was surveilled and harassed, his family was threatened, and he eventually fled South Africa to publish his book Biko, which includes long passages of Biko’s own words, smuggled out of a country that refused to print them. The book, like My Traitor’s Heart, is an indictment of white liberalism, written by a white liberal.

Biko himself, writing under the name Frank Talk, had a few things to say about white liberals. They believed fervently in the “myth of integration” and were eager to promote integration alone as the solution to a problem that would, in the end, long outlast apartheid. This problem was the concentration of wealth and property in the hands of a white minority. The psychic shadow cast by the concept of racial superiority would also outlast apartheid. White liberals were preoccupied with maintaining their moral superiority, Biko wrote, and wasted too much energy proving their liberalness to one another and performing it for black people. “If they are true liberals,” he insisted, “they must realize that they themselves are oppressed.”

Biko was killed the year I was born, 1977, but none of what he writes about white liberals seems of the past to me, or of another place. Nor does the manner of his death: beaten by the police. Here in the suburbs of Chicago, the integration of the public schools is still commonly regarded as the solution to a much bigger problem. We are housed within this problem, in properties whose value has been artificially inflated or deflated by redlining and zoning laws. Not long ago, this historically progressive town had separate hospitals for white people and black people, and separate YMCAs. The aftermath of apartheid is still unfolding here, and the past is still playing out. One needs only to read the local papers, or listen in on conversations within the PTA, to witness amateur actors delivering poorly performed versions of Biko’s first conversation with Donald Woods. I myself have rehearsed that conversation several times, sometimes playing Woods, and sometimes playing Biko.

Like Woods, I feel hurt when I’m not seen for who I am, and like Biko, I’m aware of more pressing concerns. The United States incarcerates more of its own people than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. I know this, but I don’t feel it every day, in part because I’m protected from it. What I feel every day are the stresses in my relationships with friends and colleagues and neighbors. The assumptions, the misunderstandings, the discomfort that is spoken and unspoken. The reality that we are not equals before the law.

Unspooling alongside every interaction is a filmstrip of who we are, a supercut of unsteady footage. In one video, shot in a New Jersey mall, a fistfight begins between two teenagers when a light-skinned boy pushes a black boy. Police break up the fight and sit the light-skinned boy down on a couch while both officers kneel on the back of the black boy and handcuff him. The light-skinned boy, who will later clarify that he is not white and call the arrest of the other boy “plain old racist,” watches from the couch. This viral video was texted to me by the father of one of my son’s friends. An explanation followed, but I knew what he wanted me to see.

Friends Disappear is the title of a book about this town where we live. The author, Mary Barr, begins with a photo of her childhood friends sitting on the front steps of a house. They have all just graduated from eighth grade at the middle school where my son is now in eighth grade. The date of the photo is 1974, when the school district had been desegregated for five years. Six of the teenagers are black and seven are white. They are sitting shoulder to shoulder, two with their arms linked, one on another’s lap. They are close. But the white kids and the black kids won’t remain friends in high school. They will hardly see one another. By the time Barr tracks down every person in the photo, thirty years later, two of the black boys will be dead—one killed in a confrontation with the police, another in a crash during a police chase.

All but one of the teenagers in the photo “flirted with delinquency,” according to Barr. They smoked pot, they drank, they skipped classes, they got bad grades. Two of the white kids dropped out and finished their degrees at night school, but all the white kids went on to prosperous futures. Only one of their black friends made it to the middle class.

There is a persistently naive belief, common among white liberals, that fostering friendships between children of different racial backgrounds will heal the division cleaved into this country by American apartheid. Friendship, in other words, is seen as the solution to a problem that threatens lasting friendship. 

I once sat in a restorative-justice circle at my local elementary school, where a white parent new to the district told the circle that he wanted his children to have black friends. Asked if he had any black friends, he admitted in dismay, “No, not here.” Within that circle, this was understood as a personal failure, rather than a consequence of the long aftermath of apartheid.

Love and friendship are undermined by the same policies that undermine education and homeownership. Redlining devalued black property and left American cities gutted—so, too, with interracial relationships. We have railroads running between us, highways, sanitary canals. This is part of the everyday agony of living in a postapartheid state. Is this agony the worst of it? Not by far. But it is agony, nonetheless.

“The American landscape was once graced with resplendent public swimming pools, some big enough to hold thousands of swimmers at a time,” Heather McGhee writes in her book The Sum of Us. In the 1950s, under pressure to integrate those pools, some towns transformed them into members-only private swim clubs. Others drained their pools and let them sit empty. In St. Louis, the first integrated swim at the largest public pool in the country ended with a white mob attacking the black swimmers. In Montgomery, Alabama, the grand Oak Park pool was filled with dirt and paved over. I now think of the gaps in my life, in my relationships—the silences, the losses, the failures, the distances—as swimming pools filled with dirt.

Shortly before I left for South Africa, a friend told me that her wife, a banker, worked with a white man from South Africa who had once said, “It’s hard to be a white man in South Africa.” That phrase became a joke between my friend and her wife, something one of them would say if she happened to catch the other looking out of touch or self-involved: upset that the lawn service had failed to eradicate the dandelions, for instance. I found this joke funny even as I believed something of the earnest sentiment. Not that it is hard to be a white man in South Africa, but that it is hard to reclaim your own mind from apartheid.

“It was harder than ever to be white and conscious,” Malan writes of the final years before the end of apartheid—meaning that many of the white people in his circle didn’t know what to do with their consciousness. Understanding their position in what Biko called “the system” made them want to escape that position, but they saw no way out. A “people without a positive history is like a vehicle without an engine,” as Biko put it, referring to an apartheid education that taught African history as a series of deficiencies and defeats. Malan, who recognized the history of his people in Africa as a history of hatred given and received, found himself without an engine. He hated Afrikaners for being bigots, and he hated liberal whites for being ineffectual. He had no tribe.

White people are, as a group, hard to love. We can also be difficult as individuals. When we look at one another, we don’t always like what we see. There’s a white South African woman in my town who runs a website that informs white residents about issues of relevance to black residents. I haven’t met her, but I’ve seen her interviewed in a film, and even before she said anything, I was distancing myself from her in my mind. She had lived here for almost twenty years, she said, and she’d once thought she lived in a diverse community. But at some point she noticed that all her friends were white, and that she knew nothing about the black community or its history. As a child growing up under apartheid, she said, she felt guilty, and uncomfortable, and helpless. There, at the word helpless, the distance closed. I, too, felt helpless, and I hated to admit it.

“I have told you several murder stories, but the true subject of this narrative has been the divided state of my own heart,” Malan confesses in his final chapter, the chapter he rewrote for the paperback published a year after the first edition. Mandela had been released from prison by then, and Malan was still revising a book that had already gone to print. Both endings read as an unsolved problem. The closest Malan comes to putting this problem into words is “I was searching for a way to live in this strange country.”

I spent my last hours in South Africa walking the wide, pleasant paths of Green Point Park in Cape Town. The previous day, we had driven past miles and miles of tightly packed metal shacks flanked by rows of concrete outhouses near the edge of the highway, through the bleakest landscape I had ever seen, to a school in Makhaza township where children danced for us. At the end of the performance, Glen got up and danced the jive while I quietly wept, hiding my tears. Those tears were the product of the education I’d come for. And so, educated, I walked through the park in a rage. To hell with this country, I was thinking. A white woman came along the path with a child on a tricycle, trailing glittering red steamers from the handles, spangled by sunlight. I looked through the woman’s smile into her skull, and thought, How do you live with yourself? The answer to this question came to me instantaneously. She lives with herself, my mind told me, in exactly the same way you do.

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