Maverick Life


‘The Inheritors’ — An Intimate Portrait of South Africa’s Racial Reckoning

‘The Inheritors’ — An Intimate Portrait of South Africa’s Racial Reckoning
‘The Inheritors’ by Eve Fairbanks book cover. Image: Supplied

Eve Fairbanks’ ‘The Inheritors’ weaves together the stories of three ordinary South Africans over five decades in a sweeping look at what really happens when a country resolves to end white supremacy. It is published by Simon & Schuster.

Over the years I’ve come to understand that, for Americans at least, South Africa is familiar enough to draw them in. But it’s also unfamiliar enough to keep them guessing. I should know, because I’m one of them.

The tension between the familiar and unfamiliar was at the forefront of my mind while reading Eve Fairbanks’ wonderful and thought-provoking new book, The Inheritors: An Intimate Portrait of South Africa’s Racial Reckoning.

The narrative, which is stitched together from extensive interviews Fairbanks conducted with three South Africans in particular, delves into how South Africans have fared as well as experienced the past 28 years.

The portrait that emerges of Malaika, Dipuo and Christo, the main subjects of Fairbanks’ book, is personal and vulnerable, and oftentimes surprising.

Malaika, who lives in Soweto, was a university student, writer and involved with Black Land First when she met Fairbanks. Dipuo, Malaika’s mother, was a former member of the resistance movement against apartheid and NGO professional, living in Soweto. Christo, a white Afrikaner who was deployed with the notorious 37 Battalion to the border with Angola, is a former huisvader at the University of the Free State and currently a lawyer.

These individuals offer readers detailed portraits of how people make sense of the history they inherit, a value which transcends South Africa’s borders.

Fairbanks, an American journalist who’s lived in South Africa for more than 10 years, draws from her interviews to trace continuities between the end of apartheid and the first decades of democracy, through the all-American lens of a racial reckoning.

Reflecting on the false notion that “America — at least in some broad, moral way — had already gotten past the point South Africa arrived at in the 90s when it began to try to construct a multiracial society undefined by ancient prejudices and historical wounds”, Fairbanks believes that Americans “may have tried to skip over so much of the struggle and incredible psychological alteration that coming to terms with a difficult history entails.”

In the process of “denying the way the past still works on the present, [Americans] may have made its influence more threatening”.

Therefore, Fairbanks’ goal is to illuminate “what lies ahead” for Americans by looking at South African daily life since the end of apartheid, along with the complexities of disentangling a country’s turbulent past from its aspirational present and future.

Whether she’s successful or not depends on — like so many things in South Africa — who’s reading it.

Part of what makes this book so compelling is who its audience is. On the one hand, Fairbanks addresses Americans, describing the book as a “fantasy” and “real” example to draw from in order to grasp the implications of wrestling with national history.

Using South Africa as an example for Americans came naturally to Fairbanks. Early on in the book, she remarks how the “built environment” of Cape Town was “jarringly familiar. It reminded me of home — all of home… as if the various geographic strata of American society… had gotten compressed into a far smaller area.”

Later, Fairbanks describes how Cape Town feels “so familiar I briefly wondered if it served US expatriates”.

This wider framing is one of the weaker parts of the narrative, though, because it sells Fairbanks’ remarkable achievement short. Moreover, it implies South Africa is some kind of “fantasy” warning — a worst-case scenario. How much can Americans be expected to learn from South Africa when it’s clear Americans aren’t so confident in how well they know their own country?

Plus, the unfamiliarity of South Africa — its history, social dynamics, contradictions — to Americans underpins this framing, which reveals lapses in historical understanding that indicate just how strong this unfamiliarity can be. For example, Fairbanks notes how “recent South African history very loosely collapses two hundred and fifty years of American history into about thirty”.

But “recent” South African history accounts for a small fraction of what encompasses its extensive history. For instance, a number of the legacies post-apartheid South Africa is contending with, like land dispossession, predate the implementation of apartheid, such as the 1913 Native Lands Act. Inequality was first planted with the proliferation of slavery in the Cape.

Classifying South African history like this replicates the mistake so often made by outsiders looking in on South Africa: seeing its history as separate epochs, instead of a continuity of projects aimed at institutionalising white supremacy. Apartheid may have been an extreme conclusion to this history, but it didn’t arise out of the ether.

This framing is connected to historical gaps in the narrative. When Fairbanks refers to the “Great Trek” of burghers that left the Cape Colony for instance, she describes how they declared “themselves torchbearers of liberty”, without mentioning that the freedom they were protecting was the freedom to keep slaves.

Elsewhere, in an attempt to link South African and American segregation, Fairbanks recounts a conversation she had with the eminent Afrikaner historian Hermann Giliomee, about how the National Party drew inspiration from southern segregationists. After “sending emissaries to the American South” to see “Alabama’s segregated buses and colleges, ‘they thought to themselves, Eureka! Now here is the answer”, which led to the formalisation of the Bantustans, or homelands.

While there’s certainly alignment between the creativity of white supremacists in the 20th century, to include Giliomee’s observation uncritically overlooks the development of South Africa’s own history of white supremacy. One could argue that the origins of the homeland system extend back to the implementation of the Native Lands Act, which reserved a mere 13% of the country for non-whites, putting in place the scaffolding with which the National Party could build the homeland system some five decades later. 

Gaps in historical context like this are found throughout the book and likely wouldn’t be noticed by American readers. Still, they contribute to the elevation of the period of apartheid rather than accounting for the full extent of South Africa’s history and its imposition on the present.

However, the book is much more interesting and compelling than its intended appeal to American readers. In fact, it’s what Fairbanks writes about South Africa and South Africans — as an outsider — that informs what makes this book a valuable contribution to making sense of South Africa nearly 30 years after the end of apartheid.

South Africans are quick to — rightly — remind Americans they can’t simply apply American concepts or notions to South African situations, as if the whole world were a blank canvas for recontextualising American ways of thinking.

Despite apprehensions South African readers might have, there’s something to be gained when outsiders engage with an unfamiliar subject. Outsiders like Fairbanks can glean new insights from topics South Africans may not feel comfortable talking about with one another, perhaps because they’re not constrained (is that even the right word?) by a sense of national identity, or upbringing.

Indeed, as Fairbanks observes, “every person in a society undergoing a change like South Africa’s feels, and struggles against, utterly unanticipated effects — materially and at the level of the soul. Even the people who wanted it or who could benefit from it struggle.”

One insight I found intriguing was the pressure South Africans broadly feel having been crystalised as a “miracle” by the rest of the world.

Fairbanks recounts in a conversation with Michael Buys, a land-reform official who helps facilitate restitution claims, how South Africans sense the “pressure from the outside world” to demonstrate that the transition was, in fact, “a miracle”. Buys wonders if “the world was looking to South Africa to accomplish what it had failed to show elsewhere: that humanity had exorcised primitive demons like racism and tribalism”.

Buys, additionally, “sensed foreigners wanted to be shown they had done something really significant for the earth’s poor and marginalised”. Such comments may cause South African readers to smirk, and American — or Western — readers to bristle. Nevertheless, they highlight a divide between global interest in a specific story about South African reconciliation, and how South Africans feel about that story.

On a second level, the book complicates South Africa’s already complex social fabric by diving deep into the quotidian aspects of people’s lives. In these moments, Fairbanks’ writing shines, especially when she unpacks the contradictions of white South African progressives.

It’s clear that Fairbanks earned the trust of Malaika, Dipuo and Christo — they discuss their failures and triumphs, and reflect on whether their successes were really successful or if their failures were worse than they care to admit. The passages when Dipuo reflects on her lack of a childhood and whether her behaviour during the Struggle against apartheid was admirable, are moving.

The same is true when Malaika reflects on her upbringing as a member of the so-called “born free” generation. Her accounts of navigating race relations and social pressures and expectations, among others, should leave readers more sympathetic to the challenges facing young South Africans.

For instance, over the course of The Inheritors South Africa’s rich Struggle history hasn’t meant all that much to Malaika and Dipuo, at least not in material terms. Nor has it meant much to Elliot, a black South African who struggles and, ultimately, fails to take over a farm.

For Christo, this history is more present but not in an existential way that readers might expect. Some of the most interesting parts of the book are when Fairbanks engages with the contradictions and hypocrisies of white South Africans.

What their conversations with Fairbanks reveal doesn’t offer any straightforward conclusions about the state of democratic South Africa. This open-endedness — Fairbanks’ commendable reluctance to synthesise the takeaways of her interviews into platitudes or package them into trite comparisons to the United States — will surprise readers, especially South African ones.

During a period when a sizeable chunk of South African non-fiction is devoted to highly current events with digestible conclusions, it was refreshing to read a book by an author that truly steps back, reluctant to provide a neatly tied bow.

Even though South Africa is made up of familiar and unfamiliar elements for American readers, Fairbanks’ book will help smooth over this divide. Hopefully, it leads to more Americans gaining an interest in South Africa and its future.

But I look most forward to reading South African reactions to the book. Sometimes, taking in this type of book can be easy to dismiss because of its author. That would be a mistake — this book demands to be read and discussed. DM/ML

David Reiersgord works in international higher education, specifically on curriculum development and academic management for US study abroad learners in South Africa. He lectures part-time and is interested in literature, history and politics.

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