Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Lion Sleeps Tonight

And Other Stories of Africa

by Rian Malan

A long-awaited collection of essays and journalism from one of South Africa’s best-regarded and most influential commentators, which illuminates the darker and lighter sides of the country’s last twenty years.

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 336
  • Publication Date November 12, 2013
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2183-7
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $16.00

About The Book

Since its original publication twenty years ago, Rian Malan’s classic work of narrative nonfiction, My Traitor’s Heart, has earned its author comparisons to masters of literary nonfiction like Michael Herr and Ryszard Kapuściński, and he has been called “South Africa’s Hunter S. Thompson” by London Times. In that book, Malan told the story of South Africa through his search into his family’s four-hundred-year history and his own tortuous attempts to come to terms with race and with the terrible ways black and white South Africans killed each other.

The Lion Sleeps Tonight is Malan’s remarkable chronicle of South Africa’s halting, sometimes violent, steps and missteps, taken as blacks and whites try to build a new country. The collection comprises twenty-one pieces; the title story investigates the provenance of the world famous song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” which Malan traces back to a Zulu singer named Solomon Linda who recorded a song called “Mbube” in the 1930s, which went on to be covered by Pete Seeger, REM, and Phish, and was incorporated into the musical The Lion King. In other essays, Malan follows the trial of Winnie Mandela; he writes about the last Afrikaner, an old Boer woman who, as a child, trekked north into Tanzania and settled on the slopes of Mount Meru; he plunges into the explosive controversy over President Mbeki’s AIDS policies of the 1990s; and finally he brings the book full circle with the story of fabulous Alcock brothers (sons of Neil and Creina whose heartbreaking story was told in My Traitor’s Heart), two young white South Africans raised among the Zulu and fluent in their language and customs. The stories, combined with Malan’s sardonic interstitial commentary, offer a brilliantly observed portrait of contemporary South Africa.


“Exhibiting the same fiercely lyrical voice that made My Traitor’s Heart so compelling, the book is a beautiful, wry, often angry account of where South Africa has been and where it is going. . . . The dominant voice in a Malan story is his own wonder at the beauty, chaos and paradoxes of his continent. . . . Malan is one of the finest nonfiction writers alive, and American readers should treasure this chance to get to know him again.” —Douglas Rogers, The Wall Street Journal

“[The Lion Sleeps Tonight] reflects the chaos, hope, and amazing stories since the end of apartheid. . . . brilliant writing on everything from the origins of the Lion King theme song to Mbeki’s legacy—and how he blew it on AIDs. . . . 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. . . . It’s a dizzying ride, one on which Malan serves as an expert, if somewhat curmudgeonly, guide. . . . a devilishly talented writer and storyteller.” —Katie Baker, The Daily Beast

“Cynical, lively and, above all, opinionated. . . . [The Lion Sleeps Tonight] provides a fascinating glimpse of post-apartheid South Africa.” —Anthony Sattin, The Sunday Times (UK)

“[A] startling collection of essays. . . . South Africa should treasure Malan, but it won’t. One suspects that he wouldn’t have it any other way.” —Ed Caesar, The Sunday Times (UK)

“[Malan] is not interested in generalizations, or political theories, or rosy speculation, or myths, or race theory, but in simple justice. . . . Malan is South Africa’s Christopher Hitchens, similarly touched with genius.” —Justin Cartwright, The Daily Telegraph (UK)

“Malan’s sardonic narration offers a succinct picture of South Africa today.” —Irish Examiner

“A book ripe with horrors. But also—and you can feel the astonishment in his words when he says as much—strange new moments of hope. . . . Animated by anger and a savage irony, yet always controlled, clear and readable.” —Teddy Jamieson, Sunday Herald (UK)

“[Malan is] a master storyteller, with a gift for conjuring a sense of place and an ear for engaging dialogue. . . . His best stories take you places you have never been and introduce you to characters who in lesser hands would be caricatures. . . . Malan captures the tension between hope and despair as few others have.” —Bill Keller, The New York Review of Book

“Here, as in nothing I’ve read before, is the demotic voice of black and Afrikaner South Africa. . . . Triumphant.” —Salman Rushdie on My Traitor’s Heart

“Top-shelf writing . . . the pages of his book begin to seem like a path strewn with rose petals.” —Victor Lavalle, Bookforum

“Malan is a great storyteller and sometime polemicist . . . a consistently vivid, energetic writer. It’s hard not to keep reading The Lion Sleeps Tonight once you’ve started, and even when you’re done you’re likely to page back through the book in case there’s something you missed.” —The Mail and Guardian (South Africa)

The Lion Sleeps Tonight, quite simply, is outstandingly good.” —The Daily Maverick (South Africa)

“Malan is, as I think most South Africans know, an absolutely remarkable writer—perhaps one of the best writers and commentators in the world.” —The Daily Dispatch (South Africa)

“[The Lion Sleeps Tonight], quite simply, is outstandingly good.” —Daily Maverick (South Africa)

“Malan is a great storyteller and sometime polemicist . . . a consistently vivid, energetic writer. It’s hard not to keep reading [The Lion Sleeps Tonight] once you’ve started, and even when you’re done you’re likely to page back through the book in case there’s something you missed. The energy is in the prose, in the clash of slang and biblical phraseology, in his very South African voice; it’s also in his drive to tell a story, to turn his gimlet eye on something that troubles him and to subject it to the scratching of his lively melancholia.” —Mail and Guardian (South Africa)

“Rian Malan is a master of landscape and a master of narrative, with a gift of living language that bubbles up from a full heart and an active mind.” —V. S. Naipaul

“Malan is, as I think most South Africans know, an absolutely remarkable writer—perhaps one of the best writers and commentators in the world.” —Daily Dispatch (South Africa)

“Malan could always see the story when others had long since lost the plot. Sometimes he went completely off his head as he drew out the fugitive detail, digging in dirt for a diamond, shaking up the grievously overlooked. He tried to escape the word. He went fishing for five years, trying to hide from the relentlessly pursuing plot, but to no avail. When it comes to writing, Malan is dangerously good and there is no getting away.” —Lin Sampson, Sunday Times (South Africa)


Even though they were white, their Zulu peers regarded the Alcock boys as Zulus, and when it came to the boyhood ritual of stick fighting, they were expected to stand and fight, never flinching in the face of blood and pain. They learned the Zulu warrior code, and the allied art of shooting straight. And they learned the Zulu language.

The Alcocks had the only phone for miles around. When Zulu migrant workers in distant cities needed to communicate with relatives, they would call to leave messages with the Alcocks. Sometimes they found themselves speaking to creatures whose Zulu was so immaculate that they refused to believe the person on the far end of the line was white. In South Africa, a handful of white farmers and policemen speak Zulu, but their accents betray their race. With the Alcock boys, you couldn’t tell. Such a thing was unheard of, and Mabaso found it unsettling. “Those boys are dangerous,” he said.

A Zulu could penetrate the white world more or less at will, provided he was willing to adopt an alias (John or Peter), learn a bit of English, and take a job as a houseboy. But whites couldn’t enter the Zulu world, because they were too arrogant to learn the language. This gave Zulus a strategic advantage in certain situations. You could stand a yard away from a white man and openly plot picking his pocket, so long as you spoke only Zulu. You could crack jokes about him, admire his wife’s breasts, plan his overthrow, and he’d be totally clueless.