The thing to know, before you open his book, is that there are a lot of people who don't like Rian Malan. Some of his fellow Afrikaaners, for example, who interpreted searing criticism of the apartheid regime in his first book, "My Traitor's Heart," as race betrayal. Then again, he's full of criticism for South Africa's new ruling party, the ANC, and its leaders who followed Nelson Mandela. And for the country's much-vaunted Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And for the "AIDS lobby." And for music producers ...
Exposing uncomfortable facts is the mission that holds "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" together. The book is a collection of Malan's writings in American, British and South African media, and his subjects vary widely: gangs of thugs who try to instill order in an increasingly lawless post-apartheid South Africa; pageanteers who craft a Miss World competition as the new South Africa's debutante party; writers and publishers who succeed in unlikely markets.
His longest-running investigations are also this book's most rewarding reads. Malan traces generations of intellectual property theft that deprived Solomon Linda, a Zulu musician who composed the melody whose Western title the book also borrows, and Linda's impoverished descendants of millions of dollars, even as American music producers and packagers pocketed from the "uncopyrighted song" that was, Malan says as if with a wink, "out there, like a wild horse or a tract of virgin land or an unconquered continent."
What started as a quest to show Thabo Mbeki, then South Africa's president, as an irresponsible fool for calling AIDS "a hoax" became an investigation of the global AIDS advocacy movement: If researchers (the "posse ... of seasoned disease cowboys") were right, and AIDS deaths were spiraling upwards, where, Malan wondered, were all the dead? He couldn't find them among national mortality statistics. So he did what statisticians don't: He stopped trusting the numbers and starting looking in other places. He couldn't find evidence of increasing AIDS deaths at the hospitals. He couldn't find them at the coffin makers.
After a year of "leprous obsession" that threatened his marriage, he concluded they were a technocratic error. No surprise, this news was not well received, and Malan posits why: "High numbers mean deepening crisis, and crisis generates funding." In African countries with high projected AIDS rates, "these dollars translate into patronage for politicians and good jobs for their struggling subjects," he writes. "An AIDS counselor earns 30 times more than a teacher in Uganda."
This is where Malan is at his best, following a skeptic's obvious questions. This often leads him to complicated, and unpopular, conclusions. No one wants to imagine, for example, a sick and hungry family behind "The Lion King's" most popular tune. But Malan forces a confrontation with hard facts, and succeeds in convincing that his only agenda is uncovering them. He does so without flattering himself or his readers about the bravery or nobility of the pursuit. "In South Africa, it's like a law of nature: 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 writes.
Or, as a friend puts it to him, "The truth has its own sound; we know it when we hear it."
Jina Moore is a freelance journalist who splits her time between New York City and East Africa.