An empathetic account of post-apartheid complexity

An intimate portrait of South Africa’s racial account
By Eve Fairbanks
399 pages. Simon & Schuster. $27.99.

It was nothing short of a miracle – that’s what South African schoolchildren learned when Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994, in the country’s first fully democratic elections. Apartheid, the brutal system of white minority rule that made South Africa a global pariah, was over. As Eve Fairbanks writes in “The Inheritors,” her new book about the decades before and after this transition, her miraculousness “was like mathematics, astonishing but indisputable.”

But Malaika, one of the central figures in this narrative, remembers that the rising language of her teachers seemed completely out of step with what she endured in her daily life. Born a few years before the end of apartheid, she continued to live in a shack in Soweto, a black township on the outskirts of Johannesburg. She and her mother, Dipuo, were still poor. They still had days when they were hungry. When Malaika was 11, her mother sent her to a school in a formerly white neighborhood; Malaika only had old shoes to wear, with holes in the bottom. “Make the top shine,” her grandmother used to tell her. “People can’t see under your shoe.”

Others may not have seen it, but Malaika could definitely smell it. And how people feel turns out to be an essential part of Fairbanks’ book, which took him a dozen years to report and write. ‘The Inheritors’ tells the story of South Africa primarily through the experiences of Malaika and Dipuo, as well as Christo, a white lawyer who as a young recruit worked as a soldier for the apartheid regime before it collapses.

Fairbanks is too good a writer to resort to crude psychologizing, but she repeatedly suggests that there is a terrible price to pay for trying to ignore how people view their own situation; the undeniable material facts of everything that happens to them are often inseparable from an emotional reality.

Fairbanks grew up in Virginia and moved to South Africa as an adult in 2009. She writes as an insider and an outsider, having spent years listening to the people she meets, not only taking what they choose to tell him, but also what they let slip because of the prejudices they take for granted.

The word “them,” for example: When she arrived, Fairbanks was surprised to hear how many white South Africans were using that word as a catch-all for blacks. She remembers a friend of hers, “a left-wing political activist”, furiously scolding her when her car was stolen by strangers, nevertheless insisting that “they” did it. He looked confused when Fairbanks pushed him on his presumption: “It never occurred to him that was a weird thing to say.”

What she saw was a country so distorted by apartheid that after its end, some white people found it unbearable that black people treated them with leniency instead of the vengeful retaliation they were conditioned to expect. “Things turned out better than almost any white person could have imagined,” Fairbanks writes. Even Christo, who was first charged with terrorism for accidentally killing a homeless black man while on a mission, saw that his past “could be washed away.” You might think he would be grateful for such mercy, but he insisted it was “subtle degradation.” Fairbanks describes how Christo wanted to believe he was hated: “How dare you hold up a mirror of grace that shows me the reflection of a man worse than you?

This “mirror of grace” was not something that Malaika, for her part, was particularly interested in providing. In college, she began writing scathing Facebook essays that were met with rapture by the white elites she criticized the most. She felt confused, then irritated. She bristled at how some white people liked to ostentatiously display their generosity – “celebrating their own willingness to take a punch”.

Fairbanks tells these stories in the larger context of a changing country – land reform, the AIDS crisis, brazen corruption and economic turmoil. Malaika and Dipuo felt disillusioned with Mandela and the African National Congress, whose post-apartheid economic policies were geared towards appeasing fickle international markets instead of implementing the redistribution that Dipuo, a former activist, had hoped for. She remembers being struck by Mandela’s “condescending and condescending turn” towards a kind of politics of respectability. He repeatedly lectured black South Africans on how it was their responsibility to reassure white people.

What Fairbanks notices towards the end of the book is a collective hardening, as a younger generation of white supremacists have unashamedly taken on the mantle of victimization, portraying Afrikaners as an “ethnic minority in danger.” Fairbanks says this kind of provocation is a concerted attempt to goad black South Africans, “igniting” their anger. Afrikaner trolling may have already had an effect; Malaika tells Fairbanks about a friend who has become radicalized to the point where “she doesn’t believe white people have the capacity to be human.” Malaika, always highly critical of white South Africans, admits her friend’s fury “scared even me”.

Besides being an elegant writer, Fairbanks is always empathetic; she exudes tangled emotions with such skill and sensitivity that I was mystified by a few awkward analogies – such as when she recalls arguments with ex-boyfriends because they reminded her of the psychodynamics she observed in life. post-apartheid South Africa. More resonant are the echoes it finds in the current American situation, where multiple calculations occur at the same time, but in relative slow motion. “South Africans have never had the luxury of strolling down the psychological precipice of great change,” she writes. “In the blink of an eye, when counting a vote, they were in.”

Sharon D. Cole